Lightweight: The Conor McGregor Sweepstakes
It should be simple. Conor McGregor has held the UFC lightweight championship since he knocked out Eddie Alvarez last November at UFC 205. He took some time off to pursue the big money boxing match against Floyd Mayweather in August and is looking to make his return to MMA at the end of the year or early 2018. In the meantime the UFC decided to put together an interim title fight at 155 pounds between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee, partly to keep the division moving forward but mostly because they needed a title fight to headline the Pay-Per-View and Demetrious Johnson vs. Ray Borg hadn’t yet been moved from UFC 215. The UFC’s struggle to keep up with the amount of shows they’re obligated to put on is a tale for another time but meanwhile Ferguson submitted Lee on Saturday night to win the interim belt. So now the division has two belts and two guys who should be ready to fight in the next few months. Dana White proclaimed that McGregor/Ferguson was the obvious fight to make and its going to happen at the post fight press conference. So why do I only give it a 30% chance of being the next lightweight championship bout?
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Probably because its seemed like a third fight against Nate Diaz, this time for a belt, has been inevitable since the immediate aftermath of their second fight at UFC 202. Its only become more and more obvious with everything thats happened since. McGregor/Diaz 2 broke the UFC PPV record. It also happens to be one of the best fights in the history of the promotion and a third fight would be a rubber match since Diaz temporarily derailed the ‘Notorious’ train with a rear naked choke at UFC 196. Conor came back to win a close decision to redeem himself and has only gone on to become a bigger star than he already was. He’s a big fan of money and coming off the triple figure million dollar payday against Mayweather I’m guessing hes going to want to put on the biggest fight possible and that would be Diaz. At the same time Diaz hasn’t done himself or the UFC any favors since cashing out by far the biggest payday of his career. He’s refused to even consider taking a fight against anyone other than McGregor and wants $20-30 million to even do that. It may work out for him in the end but to me he had an opportunity to raise his stock even more and become a draw on his own without being connected to Conor if he had taken an interim title fight/number one contender match against Tony Ferguson. Despite that I still have Diaz as the favorite in this sweepstakes.
Back to Ferguson, he really is the clear number one guy when you look at the fight game from the sport perspective. Unfortunately its also an entertainment industry but ‘El Cucuy’ isn’t lacking in that department either. Hes an entertaining fighter with a funky style and creativity both striking on the feet and on the ground looking for submissions. On his now 10 fight winning streak he has six submissions, a knockout, and three decisions. Only one of the decisions was close and there are some notable names on that list including Josh Thomson, Edson Barboza, Rafael dos Anjos, and now Kevin Lee. Against Lee it was competitive early but he put trust in his chin and cardio which paid off once Lee was exhausted by the time the third round started. ‘The Motown Phenom’ mustered up all the energy he could to take Ferguson down but then had to escape an armbar before ending up in a triangle choke and eventually tapping out. Lee is still young at 25 and has a personality that should continue to build capital as long as he can get back on track. Ferguson used the opportunity in the post fight interview to call out Conor McGregor calling him a “piece of $#!&” and declaring he needs to either “defend the belt or vacate”. It would be a great fight. Tony leaves himself very hittable with his head straight up which could be a big problem against Conor but he has a great chin and if he gets him to the ground he would be at a massive advantage. Lets hope it happens, either now or at some point in the future.
Believe it or not there are other options as well. I’d put them much lower on the list but McGregor is basically in a position where he can hand pick his opponent. He holds all the cards and hes talked about a fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov in Russia which would do big business. Its an intriguing stylistic match-up with Conor’s striking and Khabib’s overwhelming wrestling. It would be a fight where if he stayed standing McGregor would win easily but if Nurmagomedov managed to get it to the ground Conor would be in all kinds of trouble. The biggest obstacle here is that Khabib hasn’t been reliable especially of late. Hes been riddled with injuries, only fighting twice in the past three and a half years. Most recently he was scheduled to fight Tony Ferguson in March but had to pull out at the last minute due to a bad weight cut. His last fight was almost a year ago when he beat Michael Johnson with vicious ground and pound at UFC 205. He’s 24-0 and 8-0 in the UFC but the only notable names on his hit list are Johnson and Rafael dos Anjos in 2014 before he went on to win the lightweight championship. I think the most likely scenario for Khabib is to either fight Tony Ferguson on the same card as McGregor/Diaz 3 or against Edson Barboza on the same card as McGregor/Ferguson. I’d like to see him make weight and win another fight before being given a shot at the real lightweight belt.
The other options are a bit more wild and not as likely to happen, at least at this point in time. Conor loves conquering new challenges and defying expetations so I could see him challenging Tyron Woodley for the welterweight belt. I’m sure he would love to be the first person to be champion in three different weight classes and he already has some beef with Woodley since his interactions with him leading up to UFC 205. There are currently no clear number one contenders at 170 pounds so the timing could be right. Theres also the spectre of a super fight with a returning GSP. The old king of the UFC versus the new king of the UFC writes itself. Of course St. Pierre is currently scheduled to fight Michael Bisping next month for the middleweight championship so Conor would have to wait to see how everything goes with that. And lastly there is the featherweight championship which will be on the line in early December at UFC 218 between Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar. I don’t believe McGregor will ever fight at 145 pounds again but Holloway or Edgar could easily move up to lightweight if the opportunity arises. Edgar was the lightweight champ and Holloway has talked about eventually outgrowing featherweight. Conor has already fought Max in his second UFC fight, winning by decision despite blowing out his knee. Since then ‘Blessed’ has ripped off 11 straight wins against a whos who of the division, most recently Jose Aldo. Both fighters have come a long way since their first fight and its a rematch that needs to happen at some point. I would actually favor Holloway in that fight.
Conor McGregor Sweepstakes Odds
Nate Diaz – 50%
Tony Ferguson – 30%
Khabib Nurmagomedov – 10%
Tyron Woodley – 5%
Georges St. Pierre – 3%
Max Holloway – 2%
Lightweight has almost always been the UFC’s deepest division and it remains so today. Outside of the guys already mentioned above (McGregor, Diaz, Ferguson, Nurmagomedov, Lee) you have guys like Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje, Edson Barboza, Dustin Poirier, Anthony Pettis, Beneil Dariush, Al Iaquinta, and the list goes on and on. Its a pool of sharks that feed on each other which is what makes winning streaks like Khabib’s and especially Ferguson’s all the more impressive. You’ll never be without a legitimate contender at 155 pounds which is why its a shame the title picture was held up for almost a year. But its also exciting that we’re well on our way to a bunch of great fights to help clear things up in the next year or so.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Demetrious Johnson’s record breaking championship win from Saturday night as well. I’ll dive deeper into the division at some point in the future but he pretty much cleaned it out for the time being. His win against Ray Borg was his 11th straight title defense which officially beats Anderson Silva’s previous record of 10. And man did he do it in style. After dominating Borg for four and a half rounds in every aspect he pulled off one of the best submissions in UFC history to get the finish. ‘Mighty Mouse’ had Borg clinched against the cage and lifted him up to slam him to the canvas but somehow jumped into a flying armbar in the middle of it. Borg put up a fight but it was too tight of an arm lock and he was forced to tap. Johnson is easily the best pound for pound fighter in the sport, especially after the Jon Jones positive PED test, and he might just be the best of all time. I’d love to see him really test that and move up to 135 pounds for a super fight against the champion in that weight class. Cody Garbrandt takes on TJ Dillashaw next month so lets see how that plays out and the aftermath in its wake.