Conor McGregor won the UFC lightweight championship belt in New York and absconded across the Atlantic with it a few days later. It hasn’t been publicly seen again since that magical moment when he declared himself “Champ Champ.” All of 2017 came and went and there was not a single (legitimate) UFC lightweight title fight to be had. That’s a lot of dust on one of the UFC’s most competitive divisions, but finally, we have confirmation that things are about to kick into high gear.
Within the last week, UFC president Dana White seemed to suggest that McGregor would be stripped, and then within hours, McGregor announced that he would be fighting again, although he did not offer any specifics on a date.
McGregor’s return can’t come fast enough for a promotion that has produced a series of uneven cards over the last year. While his presence alone isn’t enough to cure all of the UFC’s ailments, it’s a hell of a starting point.
“The Notorious” is a big enough star that he brings added interest to any event within his orbit, and so now the speculation regarding his return adds additional excitement to the UFC 223 Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov title fight. Both of those men have interestingly chosen to ignore McGregor over the last month, but below the surface, there has to be anticipation regarding the opportunity to steal the McGregor spotlight and earn a McGregor payday. For fighters within McGregor’s sightline, he is the gold at the end of the rainbow.
In his note to the world, McGregor said that he had offered to fight Frankie Edgar, the current No. 2 featherweight, on short notice next month, only to be rebuffed by the UFC, which preferred more time to grease the gears on its marketing machine. For those of us who remember what McGregor looked like on the scale at 145 pounds — why does Christian Bale in The Machinist come to mind? — that came as a bit of a surprise.
But then Edgar’s manager Ali Abdelaziz interjected that no, McGregor was not interested in subjecting himself to a few days of hell making weight, that he wanted the UFC to create a 165-pound belt to put at stake, reminding us that McGregor will make his home wherever he damn well pleases.
It may be hard to remember at this point, but in his last four UFC fights, McGregor fought in three different weight classes: featherweight, then welterweight twice, then lightweight. That’s a 25-pound swing. We should fully expect him to take the same type of approach in his return. He’ll go either where the money is, or wherever he feels like going. It seems obvious that at some point, he will complete his rivalry with Nate Diaz in a trilogy bout, and that seems fun, but any other step is pure speculation.
But that’s OK; speculation is fun! It is practically the main lifeblood of the sport. Who will he face next? How will he look? How can he win? These are all the most meaningful questions we ask, and suddenly, they are all in play again.
There is little doubt that McGregor will be able to walk (or talk) his way into any fight he wants. If he wants to take on Max Holloway for the featherweight belt, that sounds like a swashbuckler. Holloway has come so far since their first meeting almost five years ago that it bears almost no relevance any more. Holloway’s sub-Tweeting game has also come a long way. If McGregor wants the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson winner, giddy up! McGregor-Diaz III? Yes, please. They are all great options that will draw massive crowds and vast interest.
For us, it’s a boon, but for McGregor, here comes the hard part. He is one of few mixed martial artists to achieve true, lasting wealth; the kind that can take a family through multiple generations. Going from poor and hungry to obscenely rich can infect motivation when the work is physical and grueling. McGregor used to want so much, and now he has it all. Now everyone else wants what he has. They are working as he once did. That doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t rise to the challenge; just that he has to rise higher than he ever did.
So what road will he travel in the next 12-18 months? The Diaz rematch remains evergreen, so expect him to skip past that one for now and attempt to reclaim the lightweight belt. Nurmagomedov has picked up a lot of buzz in the last few months. Just a couple weeks ago, the most famous athlete in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, fan-boyed out in meeting him. That’s a kind of exposure that few UFC athletes get (other than McGregor). Should he beat Ferguson (and he’s favored to, according to BestFightOdds), Nurmagomedov’s perfect record will be at stake as well, and wouldn’t that be an attractive piece for McGregor to try to place on his mantle? Ferguson does not have quite the same name power, but a win over Nurmagomedov in April can only bolster his case.
Win or lose, the Diaz fight would probably come next, and there seems to be no limit to the hype those two can create with their mouths and their shared history. Will Frankie Edgar get a shot? Will McGregor chase Tyron Woodley?
Let the speculation begin, let the campaigning follow, let the trash talk flow. After a bumpy and sometimes bizarre 2017, the king is on the way back, and the heirs lie coiled in wait. For McGregor, nearly anything is possible, and for us, nearly all of it is fun.