In my eyes, there are three fighters who could well stand in front of Conor McGregor once he makes his return to the UFC octagon either later this year or in the early months of 2020.
And it’s a tired topic, don’t get me wrong. But in the wake of UFC 242 and UFC Vancouver’s back-to-back main-events, it’s a subject that deserves to be explored further.
Firstly, it goes without saying that Khabib Nurmagomedov should not factor into this conversation. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be surprised if the UFC jumped on the opportunity to run back their record-breaking UFC 229 contest, but where I can make a compelling argument for any of the three names listed above, I, like most others, struggle to justify giving Conor a title-shot.
He might have just lost out in brutal fashion, but I still think that it a matchup between Cowboy and McGregor would work based on Cerrone’s level of activity, his undiminished popularity, and both of their standings within the division at present.
If the fight was booked tomorrow, I doubt anyone would have any issue with seeing the legendary veteran getting a marquee name like this.
Had McGregor not set the world alight and transcended the sport, as a fighter who hasn’t won a bout since 2016, matching him up against a mid-tier lightweight would be a decision that would likely come with very little in the way of controversy.
A loss to a top-4 talent like Gaethje doesn’t mean that Cowboy is out of this race and when you consider that he’s probably already mulling over his next move, setting up that fight makes as much sense now as it did when there was some genuine buzz attached to it a few months back.
At this point, the UFC need to look at matchups for Conor that are both winnable and present some potential financially.
I’ve made my thoughts clear on MMA’s attitude towards tune-up fights in the past and while I’m in any way calling Cowboy an easy fight, I think there should be room for better risk assessment when it comes to the management of the company’s more lucrative assets.
Not to mention that from a stylistic perspective, it’s perfect for both guys.
McGregor was the type of man who was willing to jump into a fight with perhaps the worst matchup for him in the division after two years on the sidelines. It’s a risk that backfired and I think now is the time for both him and the company to learn from that.
Cowboy has all of the tools required to make it a very difficult – and perhaps even disastrous night – for the Irishman, but I think that as far as ticking all of the necessary boxes is concerned, he fits the bill as well as anyone.
Justin Gaethje, on the other hand, would certainly stand as a bigger risk but also one that would provide a greater test of where exactly Conor fits into this division right now.
The Highlight really did seem to run into a wall upon losing his unbeaten record at the hands of Eddie Alvarez before getting TKO’d by Dustin Poirier shortly after.
The manner in which he has been able to adapt his game in the time since has been tremendously impressive – refining the weapons in his arsenal that work best for him – all while taking lessons from the shortcomings in his approach.
I’ve been so impressed with Gaethje and at this point, in this type of form, I would consider him the third-best fighter in the division – even with his prior loss to Dustin Poirier.
I think he can trouble both Khabib and Tony Ferguson in ways that nobody else in the top-15 can and while a matchup with McGregor would be a lot of fun, if all goes south in trying to book Nurmagomedov/Ferguson for the fifth time, I would be happier and more intrigued to see him step up and claim his title-shot.
Out of the three names here, he would likely have the fieriest dynamic with Conor – given that he has already started to attack him on a personal level for the frequent controversies that have followed him outside of competition.
If Gaethje/McGregor were to be booked, of course, I would be excited – don’t get me wrong. However, if the UFC are looking to rebuild their biggest star’s reputation – something that needs to be a priority – setting him up for yet another grudge match would not be the right move.
Conor has understandably rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way and it really hasn’t been helped by his inactivity. He can do as many interviews on ESPN as he wants, claiming that he has changed his ways but until people see it before their eyes, it’s a tough sell.
I believe that the UFC need to angle towards a build-up that shines a light on the more likeable side of McGregor, the side that has shown him in the past speaking of the respect that the martial arts have taught him.
Looking back on some of the more memorable soundbites this man has produced, you never really got the impression that there was any true venom there.
Whether it was his one-sided assault on José Aldo, his mockery of the somewhat short-statured Chad Mendes, or his intense competitive rivalry with Nate Diaz, showmanship aside, it was all respect once the final punch was thrown.
When Gaethje is making comments about Conor as a father and as a man, it’s not a stretch to think that their rivalry would look something more akin to the dark and at times disturbing relationship that he shared with Khabib Nurmagomedov.
I’m not saying that pairing him up with Cerrone is a surefire way to sway people’s opinions, but the promotion need to understand that the conditions Conor returns into could have a huge bearing on their ability to make money from him in the long-run.
So what about Dustin Poirier?
I think The Diamond stands as a solid middle option. He’s a tougher matchup than Cowboy but perhaps a less-risky one than Gaethje.
We’ve seen this fight before at featherweight and the narrative is already set. Poirier is, of course, a different animal at 155lbs and in light of his recent loss to the champion Khabib, is in the perfect position to welcome Conor back to the cage.
To be honest, I think that this is the route that the UFC are going to take.
If I were sitting in the office chair of Dana White right now, I would do everything in my power to make the fight with Donald Cerrone but if that were to fail, Poirier would be a good second pick.
I just think that the UFC need to look at this from a business perspective and for once, put their foot down and exercise their right to refuse to allow McGregor to rematch his greatest rival for the belt.
He has been able to make power plays in the past where sense should have prevailed. He did it in pressuring the UFC to allow him to rematch Nate Diaz and he was able to walk into a very, very dangerous 155lb title fight after a lengthy period spent absent.
The time has come for Dana and co. to stack the chips in Conor’s favour and give him the platform to remind the world exactly how great he was.
The man’s stock is still at a massive high but you can see that the public have turned on him to a certain extent and when he’s not winning fights, it’s hard for him to embody the persona that got him to the dance.
Either way, the story of Conor McGregor is far from over, no matter how it might seem, and I am very interested to see how this next chapter plays out.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena