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UFC 246 Aftermath: Conor McGregor is back, but for how long?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Saturday night, Conor McGregor made his triumphant return to the octagon, knocking out Donald Cerrone in just 40 seconds. The win was McGregor’s first inside the cage in over three years and with it, “Notorious” is again a major concern inside the UFC. But for how long?

McGregor captured the imagination of millions of fans by dreaming big and doing bigger. In an age where fighters modeled their personal brand after Georges “I respect all my opponents” St-Pierre, McGregor brought a wrecking ball to that deference, calling his shots and pushing to achieve what had never been done before.

On Saturday, McGregor did what dozens of men have done before. But he did it with aplomb, stopping Cerrone inside of 60 seconds. He also faced a man who’s fought more opponents than any other in UFC history, with nothing much on the line. It’s hard to imagine his next bout will be so tame.

UFC 246’s main event was straight out of the boxing playbook – a big star matched against a fading big-name veteran with a stylistically friendly matchup, set up to get the star an impressive win. In many ways, even the buildup felt like that. McGregor lacked his usual manic charisma, and Cerrone just seemed happy to be there. Some of this could be attributed to McGregor’s disastrous stretch of PR in 2019, and the need to rehabilitate his image. But in hindsight, you can also see a man who had no illusions about the fight he was set to take part in. This was more PR necessity than competitive contest, and with that now out of the way, McGregor can return to his own myth-making.

Unfortunately, there aren’t that many options available. To be sure, there are no shortage of opponents ready for a Red Panty Night, but there is a decided lack of opponents who make sense for the McGregor, the big game hunter. Dana White is adamant a rematch with Khabib Nurmagomedov should be next, but that’s predicated on Khabib beating Tony Ferguson, and it might not happen until the fall. Jorge Masvidal, who was sitting cageside at UFC 246 with his “BMF” title, is a marquee event. But it also feels like it’s trying to capture the magic of the Nate Diaz bouts with an ersatz title instead of the organic rivalry that arose between Diaz and McGregor. A welterweight title shot against Kamaru Usman would only serve to see McGregor once again bludgeoned by a superior grappler. And then there’s Justin Gaethje, the “right” opponent from a meritocratic sense, but the wrong opponent in nearly every other respect.

There is one opponent that makes sense though, and it’s one that the MMA world would despise: Floyd Mayweather Jr.

While Dana White is desperately trying to set up a rematch for a fight that left no one confused about the better fighter, instead he should be pushing for a rematch that sold more PPVs and was, at least on the surface, a more competitive contest. Don’t get me wrong, Floyd summarily defeated Conor in their boxing match – that was never in doubt – but from an optics standpoint, McGregor appeared far more impressive in that bout than he did against Khabib. Plus, Floyd is two years older now, two years slower, and potentially more vulnerable than he was in their first fight, while Conor is coming off one of his fastest KOs. The story writes itself, which is probably why Mayweather immediately threw out the idea following Conor’s win.

And for the UFC, a boxing rematch with Mayweather does nothing to jeopardize McGregor’s path to the lightweight title. Any MMA fight that makes sense for McGregor right now also comes with a serious risk of losing – and collapsing Dana White’s grand designs. But should McGregor box Mayweather again, it’s a different sport, with different rules. Mayweather is older and may well lose a step, and Conor might win multiple rounds. He’ll still lose, but maybe he makes it to a decision this time, and then the UFC can plug him right back in against Khabib.

And if Conor somehow does the unthinkable and beats Floyd? Then he’s bigger than ever. The UFC can sell him any way they want. They can run the Khabib rematch, and if McGregor loses again, they can pivot him right back into huge boxing bouts. Every top level boxer will want a piece of the guy who handed Floyd his only 0, and Dana will finally have some real leverage to get Zuffa boxing off the ground. It’s a win for everyone involved.

For Conor McGregor, a rematch with Floyd Mayweather presents both the biggest payday and the highest upside. It’s the exact kind of fight McGregor used to pursue so relentlessly when he was making his way to the top of the sport, and now that he’s got his feet underneath him, it’s the type of bout he should start pursuing again. So don’t get too used to having McGregor back. He may be gone as quickly as he took out Cerrone.

UFC 246 Quotes

“The records that man has, give him some sort of belt. Seriously. You give belts out - this, that and the other, they’re even creating them this day and age - what a phenomenal legacy Donald has and it’s an honor to share the octagon with that man. Seriously, I mean that. I’ve shared the octagon with some great UFC fighters and Donald is up there with the best of them all. . . I can only hope and dream to achieve the records he has.” - Conor McGregor on Donald Cerrone.

“Of course [I would fight him], let’s see what happens. I’d like to scoop up — that’s not a great belt is it? But I’ll still take it. Add it to the list. But it wasn’t a good night for Jorge if you ask me. All the best to him. God loves a trier.” - Conor McGregor discussing potentially facing Jorge Masvidal.

“Weak as f*ck.” - Nate Diaz following the UFC 246 main event.

“After tonight and with how Khabib won the fight the first time and how famous Khabib has become since that first fight, we’re looking at Hagler- Hearns. Ali-Foreman. Ali-Frazier. This is a massive fight with global appeal. It’s the fight that you make. It’s the fight that makes sense. It’s the fight for the 155-pound title.” - Dana White on what’s next for Conor.

Stock report

Stock up

Conor McGregor: The outcome may have been expected, but in this game, you get points for doing what you’re supposed to do. McGregor got his first win in the UFC in three years, and with it, has reasserted himself as the top guy in the promotion.

Aleksei Oleinik: At 42 years old, “The Boa Constrictor” is still out here tapping legitimate UFC heavyweights, and this time he did it with an armbar instead of his usual series of chokes. You don’t see many heavyweight armbars in the UFC.

Carlos Diego Ferreira: Since his knockout loss to Dustin Poirier in 2015, Ferreira has put together an impressive run against increasingly difficult competition. But Saturday was his coming out party. Anthony Pettis is by far the biggest win of Ferreira’s career and sets him up for a major lightweight clash later in 2020.

Roxanne Modafferi: Modafferi was the biggest underdog on the card last night, and instead, “The Happy Warrior” turned bookmakers on their heads, dominating the hotshot upstart Maycee Barber to hand the prospect her first pro loss. Since coming up short in the inaugural UFC flyweight title fight, Modafferi has gone 3-2, but both losses came against women who missed weight. Given the impressive nature of this win, she could soon have another crack at UFC gold.

Stock down

Donald Cerrone: It’s a shame to say, but on the biggest stage of his career, “Cowboy” turned in his worst performance ever. Cerrone is a notoriously slow starter, and on Saturday, he never even got out of park. That’s now three TKO losses in a row, which likely signals the end of any title aspirations for Cerrone.

Holly Holm: It’s tough to get a win in a co-main event and come out looking the worse for it, but the former bantamweight champion did just that on Saturday. Holm rebounded from her demolition at the hands of Amanda Nunes to grind out a win in a truly dreadful performance against Raquel Pennington. It’s been almost three years since Holm impressed in the cage, and at 38, questions now circle around how much she has left in the tank.

Anthony Pettis: Pettis’ career has been in a freefall since losing his lightweight title in 2015. “Showtime” is 4-7 since then, and though his KO win over Stephen Thompson last year was incredible, it came in a fight that he was struggling mightily in. The loss to Ferreira on Saturday makes three in Pettis’ last four, and there are serious questions about where he goes from here.

Official matters

Coming out of UFC 246 the big officiating question will center around the dreadful co-main event. Dana White already lambasted Jason Herzog for allowing Holm to effectuate a “wall-and-stall” game plan for much of the fight and with good reason. Over the course of 15 minutes, Holm and Pennington landed a combined 68 significant strikes, and only a collective 11 significant strikes in the first round. A referee’s primary job inside the cage is fighter safety, but they also can serve as a catalyst to keep the action moving. Herzog certainly did not do that.

Fights to make

Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. II: For all the reasons discussed above.

Donald Cerrone vs. Anthony Pettis II: We all know Cerrone will end up fighting again in a month or two as a last-minute replacement. But otherwise, this rematch makes sense, given the poor runs both men are on as of late. They can even do it at welterweight and save the weight-cutting.

Holly Holm vs. Germaine de Randamie II: If Holm wants to work her way back to a title shot, she’ll need at least two more top wins in the division. Her first fight with GDR took place for the inaugural featherweight title. Might as well run it back at the proper weight class this time.

Aleksei Oleinik vs. Fabricio Werdum: Werdum wanted it, let’s give it to him.

Roxanne Modaferri vs. Jessica Eye: Modaferri deserves a chance to earn another title shot. With Katlyn Chookagian set for a title shot, this is the shortest path to that.

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