By Alistair Hendrie
It’s been 15 months since Conor McGregor dropped a submission defeat to the UFC lightweight ruler, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and yet, finally, the McGregor sweepstakes have opened once more. The Irishman returned on Saturday at UFC 246, shellacking Donald Cerrone in 40 seconds with a head kick, having already broken the American’s nose with a shoulder strike.
As with any McGregor bout, it felt like time stood still as the eyes of the world locked on to the Octagon. The moment Cowboy crumpled to the canvas, speculation exploded over who McGregor will face next. Candidates as weird and wonderful as Manny Pacquaio have already been mentioned, so let’s take a look at the runners and riders aiming for a McGregor payday.
1 – Nate Diaz
McGregor might still compete again in March at UFC 248. After all, the show will be held at his second home of Las Vegas, plus the card needs a reshuffle after fight cancellations. Nate Diaz could revive the event by meeting the man he’s already gone 1-1 with. After watching his Dublin-born rival earn his first knockout at 170lbs, Diaz tweeted: “Weak as f**k.” McGregor shot back at the post-fuck press conference: “Let’s go Nathan… number three, it’s always here!” Given the magnitude of a trilogy, plus the short-notice nature of their first meeting, and Diaz-McGregor 3 could be set for March.
2 – Jorge Masvidal
In 2019, the UFC unearthed a new jewel in its crown, Jorge Masvidal. Fresh from stunning Ben Askren into another orbit in five seconds and defeating Diaz for the BMF title, Masvidal may defend that strap against McGregor. The charismatic American Top Team staple jabbed at McGregor at the weekend, donning the same Versace robe McGregor wore before his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.
3 – Khabib Nurmagomedov
Khabib Nurmagomedov is McGregor’s Ali to his Frazier, his Leonard to his Duran, or even his Liddell to his Ortiz. The preamble to their 2018 lightweight title bout, which the Russian won in round three with a rear naked choke, featured acrimony, hate, allegations of racism and, when it was all said and done, a full-scale brawl involving both camps. Put simply, these two despise each other. A rematch could happen in Europe or the States, and the fact that Nurmagomedov defends against Tony Feguson in April is the only reason why the 155lbs champion is not number one in this list.
4 – Tony Ferguson
Ferguson has been booked to face Nurmagomedov four times, yet injuries and health problems to both have scuppered that grudge match. Ultimately it will go down at UFC 249 and if Ferguson adds the world title to the interim crown he held in 2017, he will more than likely manoeuvre himself into a date with “Mystic Mac.” Long, spindly and powerful at 155lbs, “El Cucuy” has what many feel is the style to beat the former two-division UFC titlist.
5 – Floyd Mayweather
On Saturday night the king of boxing, Floyd Mayweather, sent out a mocked-up poster on Instagram publicising a second boxing extravaganza between he and McGregor. The five-weight ruler defeated his nemesis in the 10th round in 2017, and although it was Conor’s first visit to a professional boxing
ring, the pair swept across the world on a press tour and waltzed to the bank afterwards, scooping around $350m between them. A rerun would be audacious, but the finances on offer might make it happen.
6 – Kamaru Usman
This weekend marked “The Notorious”’s second victory at 170lbs, so could a crack at welterweight boss Kamaru Usman be closer than we think? At UFC 246, “The Nigerian Nightmare” said he’d welcome the challenge, while the 32-year-old would have a multitude of advantages such as cardio for days and wrestling smarts.
7 – Justin Gaethje
If there’s anyone who can feel overlooked thanks to the return of McGregor, it’s Justin Gaethje, who lays claim to three knockouts in his last three visits to the cage. The former World Series of Fighting champion, 31, wants to pick a fight with his more renowned foe and McGregor responded in fight week, stating that Gaethje is on his radar.
8 – Dustin Poirier
Look down the lightweight rankings and it’s hard to ignore Dustin Piorier, the teak-tough Louisianan with scalps over Max Holloway, Anthony Pettis, Eddie Alvarez and many more. Piorier may have wilted to McGregor’s awesome power in 2014, but the American has since improved his Fight IQ, perception of range and clinical instincts. Don’t count out “The Diamond” just yet.
9 – Kevin Lee
If the pride of SBG Ireland wants a quick turnaround, he could do a lot worse than tackling Kevin Lee. Deceptively burly and rapid in the transitions, Lee, 27, is always improving and his head kick knockout of Gregor Gillespie at UFC 244 spoke volumes. With a longer reach and more muscle than McGregor, Lee may get his fingers green with McGregor money as 2020 progresses.
10 – Manny Pacquaio
Speaking to Ariel Helwani, McGregor let slip that he’s aiming to arrange a boxing circus with the eight-weight world champion and proud Filipino, Manny Pacquaio. Let’s be honest, he’s the most bizarre and unexpected contender on this countdown, especially when you consider that Pacman is 41. Stranger things have happened, though.
Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more