If the Conor McGregor hype train was rolling prior to his UFC 178 bout with Dustin Poirier, it's on a rocket ship following McGregor's easy win over the American Top Team featherweight. The win helped propel McGregor as both a legitimate title contender as well as major promotional attraction for the UFC.
The question, then, is what to do with him next? Who does he face and when? What will the stakes be?
"I don't know," said John Kavanagh, McGregor's head coach at Straight Blast Gym in Dublin, Ireland, on Monday's The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani. "He's kinda playing around with some different ideas. He's saying maybe doing a 155 [pounds] fight before Christmas. I don't really know. I guess this is up to, for him, and Uncle Frank [Frank Fertitta] or Big L [Lorenzo Fertitta]. And, of course, [UFC matchmaker Sean] Shelby and Joe Silva and all of those guys to kinda work out what the next step is."
The coach recognizes there's a bit of an issue at the top of the division. Champion Jose Aldo and challenger Chad Mendes are already booked to fight. So are Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson. Ditto for Ricardo Lamas and Dennis Bermudez. That doesn't mean, however, that Kavanagh thinks McGregor isn't ready to go straight to the top.
"I guess the featherweight top, the top tier guys are all so close now and there's big contests already on the way. It can go one of many ways. It is the entertainment industry and I don't think it's any mystery to say who is getting the most numbers. It would seem obvious it should be Conor that's next in line regardless of circumstances.
"But who knows?," he continued. "I guess we'll kinda have to wait and see. Mends and Aldo is on pretty soon, so I'm looking forward to seeing that and how the other top featherweight fight play out."
Kavanagh is aware his opinion about McGregor's placement in the division may not sound appealing to a number of fighters and fans in the MMA community. However sound his drubbing of Poirier was, McGregor still has doubts. To Kavanagh, though, the road McGregor took to get to the UFC was more arduous and prepared him more suitably. More importantly, Kavanagh believes McGregor is possessive of skills that no one else in the division really has.
"I've said this before. I honestly believe it's a little bit of a different path the Europeans take to get into the UFC. After his first fight in the UFC he was ready for the belt. [Max] Holloway did well, kind of surviving the three rounds even though [McGregor] basically had one leg. Has anyone else been out of the first round besides Holloway? No.
"Dustin is an excellent martial artist, but there is a difference when Conor lands," he explained. "I always see it. I'm in that corner. I see them walking towards him and the first shot lands and the eyes get a little bit wider because he really does hit like a pro boxing middleweight, never mind a MMA middleweight. Pro boxers know how to hit with different mechanics than your typical MMA guy that just swings his arm. You see that realization and suddenly they're backing off and they start to crumble."
Is there anyone capable of standing up to McGregor's fearsome punching power and style? Yes, Kavanagh says: Aldo, the champion, which is who he believes his pupil should be fighting.
"Aldo, he has a high-level striking background, maybe he's the guy that can take some of those shots and be willing to stand there. I'm not sure because I don't think he's been hit this way either. I believe Conor's been ready for that spot since day one and yeah, we're ready to go if Mendes, for whatever reason, had to pull out. He would jump right in there in a heartbeat's notice."
Kavanagh is keenly aware McGregor doesn't face critics merely for what he says, but for what he has or hasn't done. Specifically, there are some who suggest McGregor has admittedly looked competitive since joining the UFC, but has continuously fought opposition who weren't capable as grinding wrestlers. They believe, fairly or not, that while McGregor has faced improving fighters each time out, none had a wrestling background or tried to wrestle him in their fights in any threatening way.
For the SBG Ireland coach, he takes the criticism in stride. He believes even if the criticism is true, the only missing piece of the puzzle is for McGregor to showcase skills he has, but hasn't been forced to make use of. And even if he does that, Kavanagh believes critics will always find some way to undermine McGregor's talent or accomplishments.
"If you look at someone like Jon Jones, he seems to have fought every style. Not only does he beat them, he tends to drift into their style and beats them and yet, you're going to have those same guys, those critics, that are going to be saying, 'Yeah, but he hasn't fought so and so'. So, that's fine, that's their role. That's their job is to always question and it's good because it kinda keeps the interest going in the next fight. It'd be terrible if one day Conor beat 'The Man' and then everybody went, 'Ok, that's it. We don't really want to see him anymore. He's beaten all different styles.'
"There's always going to be a question," Kavanagh acknowledges. "He could go in and fight a two-time Olympics gold medalist wrestler and outwrestle him and beat him and then I guarantee Monday, 'Yeah, but what if he fights a judo guy?' Then he'll fight a judo guy and they'll say, 'Yeah, what if he fights a Shaolin monk?' There's always going to be some style of fighting that you haven't yet met and there's always going to be a new fighter on the way up that you haven't yet beat."
So, what's next for McGregor? No one really knows yet, but Kavanagh is enjoying the ride. The larger public which they have access to has been great. That's as true for the supporters as it is the doubts. As Kavanagh sees it, all of it is part of the game. In fact, the critics and the doubts, he believes, may be the most important group of them all.
"That's great," Kavanagh said of the continued doubt and skepticism of McGregor. "That keeps the entertainment industry going and it keeps me in a job and it keeps me doing interviews with you on a Monday. Long may it continue."