A big decision lies ahead for ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor…
Following his rampage through the Cage Warriors promotion, becoming a simultaneous two-weight champion on the way, the man from Dublin received the call from the UFC in early 2013.
Leaving his two world titles behind, McGregor exploded onto the UFC landscape with a first-round decimation of Marcus Brimage at UFC on Fuel TV 9 in April of 2013.
From there The Notorious one swept through the featherweight ranks with a frightening sense of inevitability before a showdown with division kingpin Jose Aldo finally took place at UFC 194 in December of 2015.
Expected to be the toughest test of the Irishman’s career, the fight instead lasted a mere 13 seconds, barely ten if you count until the moment McGregor’s left paw relieved Aldo of his consciousness.
In just two and half years, McGregor had cleaned house and the featherweight division was his to rule.
By the time he had become champion, McGregor had transcended the sport and was a household name. He had also rewritten the rules of engagement in his sport.
Able to dictate the course of his own career, his eyes were on a prize beyond the 145 lb realm. McGregor wanted to emulate his Cage Warriors feat and become a simultaneous two-weight champion of the UFC.
Handed the chance by UFC president Dana White, UFC 196 in March of 2016 was pencilled in for a clash with lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. Alas, injury robbed McGregor of his opponent.
Rather than wait, McGregor defied all convention and decided to take on Nate Diaz at welterweight, a full 25 lb above his championship weight. UFC 196 retained its main event, just not the one originally envisioned.
A subsequent loss to Diaz, followed by a rematch at UFC 202 in August of 2016 meant that those in the featherweight ranks had no champion to challenge.
An interim title belt was offered, which former champion Jose Aldo collected following his defeat of long-time foe Frankie Edgar at UFC 200.
Calls for McGregor to ‘defend or vacate’ began but the champion had other ideas. The 155 lb belt was still in his sights and at UFC 205 in November of 2016, the featherweight boss took on new champion Eddie Alvarez.
Eight minutes into the contest and McGregor fulfilled his ambitions, becoming the promotion’s first fighter to hold two belts at the same time.
It did not last long, however, as only days after making history, the featherweight belt was gone. Whether relinquished or stripped, depending on what version of the story you believe, McGregor was the featherweight champion no more.
Having been the champion for just shy of 12 months, the Irishman had busied himself with new adventures at lightweight and welterweight, never managing to defend the strap he won with such relative ease.
With the lightweight belt still over his shoulder, McGregor was presented with a multitude of options inside the octagon. The unbeaten grappling nightmare Khabib Nurmagomedov appeared the most likely to face the champion.
Also waiting impatiently in the wings was Tony Ferguson, who had been enjoying his own rampage through the division. Facing either would make for exciting headline events in 2017. However, having secured the belt, McGregor was once again thinking outside the box, or octagon if you will.
Renowned for striking accuracy and ability to flatten opponents seemingly at will, McGregor floated the idea of taking on none other than Floyd Mayweather inside the squared circle in a straight up boxing contest.
Following a merry dance that lasted some four months, the unlikeliest of contests was confirmed and McGregor abandoned the octagon for the ring.
All the while, Ferguson and Nurmagomedov became increasingly impatient for their shot at McGregor and his golden crown.
Another interim title was created and a fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov was scheduled for UFC 209 in March. With the Russian withdrawing at the last minute following health issues during the weight cut, Ferguson was left to ponder when he would get another shot.
His chance came this past weekend at UFC 216 when he took on Kevin Lee. A typically spontaneous performance from the 33-year-old saw him defeat Lee via submission in the third round and saw him claim the interim-strap.
Following his tenth round defeat to Mayweather in August, McGregor faces the prospect of not making it back into the octagon before the end of the year, despite his desire to do so. This would mean he will have been away from the sport for over a year, all the while as lightweight champion.
His continued absence has seen Ferguson reiterate the ‘defend or vacate‘ assertion yet again, this time as interim-champion and with far more conviction.
On social media platforms, people wonder if McGregor has any intention of ever defending a title. He has, after all, now won three titles that he never wore back into the octagon.
If you count the interim featherweight belt he secured against Chad Mendes at UFC 189, then he has actually defended a belt. However, to many, the interim strap does not count and it is only the full, undisputed belt that matters.
Following Ferguson’s victory over Lee at UFC 216, the lightweight vista has become crystal clear. There is a champion and there is an interim-champion. To any logical mind, the next bout is for both these fighters to face each other in the octagon, for the undisputed title.
Anything else simply does not make sense. Though the question of a potential trilogy fight with Nate Diaz is still in the mix for McGregor, calls for a title bout have grown to a roar on social media among fans, with one fan even penning an open letter of disappointment to his hero, should he look beyond Ferguson for his UFC return.
If McGregor decides to face Diaz in a big money fight and not take on Ferguson, as his status as champion should mandate, he will tarnish his legacy.
Despite all he has done to redefine his sport, he will likely be defined by his next move, particularly in the eyes of fans.
Conor McGregor has redrawn the boundaries of MMA. He has introduced the sport to a global population and been a catalyst for bringing more money than ever before to the sport and its fighters.
Anything other than a knock with Ferguson as his next fight will see the shadow of a question mark stretching its way over his glittering career.
He has done what he set out to do in becoming a UFC champion and earning enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life but, before he walks off into the sunset, his legacy demands a title defence and Tony Ferguson most certainly deserves it.