MMA: Conor McGregor eyes up another opponent - but who is next?

Yahoo Sport UK
Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor

We are fast approaching the one-year anniversary of Conor McGregor’s last mixed martial arts contest. It’s hard to blame UFC’s biggest name for taking his extremely well-paid vacation from his primary occupation to rake it in with Floyd Mayweather, but it does beg the question: what’s next for the Irishman inside the Octagon?

His last contest was one that made instant history in a number of ways. In UFC’s big debut at fight sports mecca Madison Square Garden, McGregor became the fight competitor to hold championships in two different weight classes when, as featherweight champion, he dethroned lightweight titlist Eddie Alvarez.

After rocketing through the ranks and into UFC history books in less than four years, the MMA community collectively looked forward to Conor’s next move. The money-spinning shuffle into boxing was not what anyone saw coming – even when the duo began their social media bickering.

Now, the Floyd fight is in the rear view mirror. Dana White eagerly awaits the return of his number one cash cow, but there are several options for McGregor’s first fight back.

The first possibility to discuss surrounds the one UFC title he does still hold, the lightweight belt. McGregor vacated the featherweight title weeks after adding Alvarez’s strap to his collection (read: he was allowed to jump before being pushed out for inactivity).

White has been quite lenient about Conor remaining champ while pursuing the boxing side work, mostly because Dana knows exactly what he is worth to his company. But he’ll expect that lightweight title on the line soon if his patience is to remain intact.

As it happens, UFC 216 this Saturday features Tony Ferguson battling Kevin Lee for the interim version of the title and, theoretically, the next shot at McGregor to determine the undisputed champion.

“We’ll see what happens in the fight (between Lee and Ferguson),” McGregor told Fighters Only Magazine.

“I hope they make the walk. I’ve seen it so many times where they slip on the bleedin’ soap getting out of the bath.

“I’ve done the money fight. I’ve done the pinnacle of a money fight – I fought for the money belt. In my head now, I’m very interested in seeing this fight this weekend and seeing how the lightweight title picture pans out and then going in and correcting that whole situation. That’s where my thoughts are.”

It’s worth noting, however, that McGregor could easily turn his nose up at fighting the winner and vacate that belt, too, rendering either Ferguson or Lee the champion by default. Victory won’t be enough this weekend at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Both Tony and Kevin will be trying to convince Dana and Conor that such a fight would sell, so expect plenty of trash talk from the winner and, hopefully, a open fight from two men very much in audition mode.

If Conor opts against the standard route of a defending champion, having sampled the very rewarding life of being a superstar calling his own shots and fighting for whichever made-up diamond-encrusted belts he pleases, the first logical thought is a rubber fight against Nate Diaz.

Conor’s initial attempt to become UFC’s first ever simultaneous two-weight champion was sidetracked by the injury to then-titlist Rafael dos Anjos. When Diaz was the only name fighter willing and able to step in at such short notice, McGregor ended up going up a second division, to welterweight, suffering his first UFC defeat in the process.

He would avenge that loss in August to a record-breaking 1.65 million pay-per-view buys. After finally getting back to his original goal at MSG three months later and then taking on Mayweather, a decider between the two is surely a matter of when, not if, considering its box office power.

“If it was my choice, and I must stress that this is only my choice and that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, it would be Nate Diaz in March,” McGregor’s head coach John Kavanagh said, after revealing that the reported date of December 30 for Conor’s MMA return wasn’t happening.

“I have in my head that it would be a Paddy’s Day card in New York, Nate Diaz 3. I think that would be absolutely amazing. That’s what I would wish for.

“That’s what I’ll be leaning towards with my 0.1 percent influence when I meet with Conor and Audie (Attar) tomorrow. I want Diaz 3, Paddy’s Day in New York.”

Indeed, taking advantage of the annual Irish holiday falling on a Saturday in UFC’s second-biggest market (that happens to be an Irish hotbed) makes a lot of sense. And Nate Diaz, Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee are, for now, the three men in the best position to land such a big main event.

After Saturday, three will surely become two. It may even boil down to just one, if Ferguson and Lee do little to convince Conor and Dana that they could rival the buyrates of the first two McGregor-Diaz wars.

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