So Conor McGregor is the first two-weight champion in UFC history. It's a big deal. McGregor and his time claimed that Eddie Alvarez would be an easier path to the lightweight title than former champ Rafael Dos Anjos, who was expected to beat Alvarez in July, and I suspect they were right. It became all too easy to forget just how dominant McGregor can look after the pell-mell of the Nate Diaz fights, but UFC 205 was a helpful reminder. McGregor did not just beat the lightweight champ; he utterly destroyed him. Five knockdowns leading to a merciful stoppage by referee John McCarthy, and that was that.
McGregor announced shortly after the fight that he plans to take some time off with his belts--and his gestating son--but that only makes the question of where he goes from here more compelling. There are so many fights available to McGregor, and just about any fighter on the planet would jump at the chance to take him on. The prospect of beating him offers a tantalizing and otherwise unmatched level of prestige, but the money is even more tempting. Even Eddie Alvarez, whom McGregor mocked for failing to renegotiate his UFC contract before the fight, made it out alive with some serious funds thanks to his championship pay-per-view points alone.
Perhaps Conor summed it up best. When told that welterweight champion Tyron Woodley was open to the idea of fighting him, he flashed a knowing smile. "I'm sure he would," he chuckled.
But we'll talk about Tyron Woodley in a bit. Below, I have compiled a list of the men likely to fight McGregor next. They represent a litany of styles, a trio of weight classes, and a real opportunity to see McGregor in yet another earth-shaking, money-making, slobber-knocking extravaganza.
We'll kick things off with . . .
24-0, 8 KO, 8 SUB
Ranked #2 at lightweight
Why? Of all the men listed here, Khabib Nurmagomedov has made the best case for a fight with McGregor. It wasn't just that he beat Michael Johnson into a fine powder before mercifully forcing that powder to tap out in the third round. It wasn't just that he did so while demanding that Johnson acknowledge reality and submit to his superior will--a display comprised of equal parts mercy and well-earned arrogance. And it isn't just that he's the only top lightweight in the UFC with a sparkling undefeated record.
Really, it all comes down to salesmanship. Nurmagomedov, of all the men listed here, impressed himself on the minds of the millions of fans who watched him fight as part of the UFC 205 undercard. He dominated his opponent, and then dominated the mic. He insulted the Irish fans along with their golden boy. "Your guy," he told the Irish fans in a Russian accent that intimidated as much as it charmed, "Beginning of the year, he tapped like chicken. End of the year he fight for the title. Crazy . . . Irish, only six million. Russian, one hundred fifty million. I wanna fight with your chicken," he concluded, "Because this is number one easy fight in lightweight division."
Khabib Nurmagomedov is vulnerable on the feet, but no one has ever been able to stop his potent combination of chain wrestling, top control, and ground and pound. Photo by Adam Hunger, USA Today Sports.
In a word, it was great. And to top it all off, reports appeared after the event claiming that Nurmagomedov spent his minute breaks between rounds shouting at UFC president Dana White, even telling him "I want to fight your son." Meaning McGregor. Oh, that's good. If the UFC loves one thing, it's fighters who know how to build hype. As of November 14th, 732,000 people have watched Nurmagomedov's post-fight call-out on Youtube. Those aren't McGregor numbers, but for a Dagestani who spent much of the last three years nursing an injury on the sidelines, it's pretty damn good.
Lightweight. There is no way that Khabib could make the featherweight limit, and McGregor seems happy to avoid the cut as well. Furthermore, McGregor looked extremely comfortable fighting Alvarez at lightweight, and seems to think it the perfect weight for his frame. He is probably right.
Could he beat Conor?
Absolutely, but the fight is extremely compelling. Nurmagomedov turned things around in characteristic fashion, but his bout with Johnson did not begin well. Johnson, a rangy kickboxer with slick footwork and solid takedown defense, pieced Nurmy up with a dozen clean left hands in the opening minutes of the first round--the moments in which McGregor is at his most dangerous. And there are few fighters I would rather be hit by less than Conor McGregor. But just as McGregor's striking is a uniquely difficult hurdle for Nurmagomedov, Nurmagomedov's wrestling and grappling are a uniquely difficult hurdle for McGregor. His issues with wrestlers have been overblown, but that does not mean no issues exist. And if McGregor thought it was bad having Chad Mendes on top of him, wait till he experiences the terrifying predicament of Khabib's top game, a mind-bogglingly violent combination of control, damage, and constant pressure.
The fight would test both men's suspect stamina, as well. Khabib pushes a pace that he struggles to maintain for three rounds. Likewise for McGregor. Ultimately, the contest would come down to who could control the phase of combat, and who could make the other man gas first. This is one of the most intriguing matchups possible in the UFC right now, and my personal pick for McGregor's next fight.
22-3, 9 KO, 8 SUB
Ranked #1 at lightweight
Khabib Nurmagomedov may have made the most compelling verbal argument for a bout with McGregor, but Tony Ferguson has been quietly making a violent physical argument for the last several years. Much of Nurmagomedov's status as top contender is owed to his victory over former champion Rafael Dos Anjos, but Ferguson soundly bested Dos Anjos in his last fight, too. And the rest of his wins are at least as impressive as the best Khabib's spotless resume has to offer, with the added benefit that Ferguson, unlike the Dagestani, has been very active. Nurmagomedov has fought three times in the last three years, Ferguson eight. Nine wins in a row, and four and a half years since his last defeat. Tony Ferguson has a very strong case.
The final point in El Cucuy's corner is his mainstream appeal. It hurts him that he stayed quiet following his latest win while Nurmagomedov took it upon himself to make some much-needed noise. Still, hype is only part of a fight, and Ferguson has been in just one objectively boring fight in the last five years. He is insanely creative, absurdly aggressive, and violent to the core. Before McGregor entered the equation, Ferguson boasted the highest finish percentage of any top 10 lightweight.
Tony Ferguson's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink style is as odd as it is effective. Photo by Etzel Espinosa, USA Today Sports.
Again, lightweight. Ferguson is a top contender in the division, and not even weighing in with his jeans on can convince me that this long-armed, 5'11" stack of gristle and bone could make the featherweight limit. Welterweight might be an option, but why? Ferguson belongs at lightweight; McGregor belongs at lightweight. Let them fight at 155.
Could he beat Conor?
Yes but, as with Khabib, there are caveats. Ferguson's strengths against McGregor would be his durability, his stamina, his aggression, and his creativity. He is a wildly unpredictable fighter, seeming to pull tricks out of his arsenal at random, and that can be a tough nut for even an expert counter puncher to crack. He has the chin to back it up, too. He did look extremely hittable in his fight with short-notice replacement Lando Vannata, but then again, it kind of looked like Ferguson unwisely expected to steamroll the unheralded prospect. In his last fight, the aforementioned bout with Rafael Dos Anjos, Ferguson was more elusive by far, even as he came forward behind a hail of awkward strikes.
Ferguson has one hell of a ground game, too. McGregor's lone UFC loss was a submission, and Tony Ferguson is mighty good at those, especially when it comes to his patented D'Arce, with which he has finished three of his last nine opponents. The D'Arce, by the way? Perfect weapon for countering any desperation takedowns.
Then there is the pace. Part of McGregor's struggle with Nate Diaz seemed to be volume. McGregor was far from easy to hit--at first--but Diaz's output prompted a rate of counter punching that Conor couldn't possibly maintain. As noted by my Heavy Hands co-host Patrick Wyman, McGregor is the kind of fighter who will attack at every opportunity. If you constantly give him reason to counter, he will. And while that means absorbing some of his best punches, it also means draining McGregor's suspect gas tank. If there is a lanky, tall, iron-chinned boxer in this division who can make that work (besides Nate Diaz, of course) it's Tony Ferguson.
But if Ferguson really is as hittable as he has looked in the past--and McGregor is more accurate (and powerful) than most, he will suffer the same fate as 18 others before him: a long fall and a short, involuntary nap.
26-2, 14 KO, 2 SUB
Ranked #1 at featherweight, former champion
Isn't it obvious? Jose Aldo was the UFC featherweight champion when he and McGregor clashed at UFC 194. Before Conor, he was the only man in UFC history to have worn that belt, and his chokehold on the division extended even further back to 2009, when he took the WEC belt by force. In the lead-up to their first fight, Aldo and McGregor exchanged jabs and juvenile pranks (well, McGregor did most of the pranking), and the tension mounted. Despite the fact that Aldo had never captured the hearts of casual fans before, his fight with McGregor promised to be a thrilling, deeply satisfying affair.
Whoops. 13 seconds into the first round, Conor McGregor was the new champion. Knockout. Though Conor deserves credit for the artistic knockout punch, it was a stroke of terrible luck for Aldo, who had never been knocked out before, and who had survived similar blows many times in the past. That kind of thing just doesn't happen very often, much less to one of the greatest of all-time.
That alone was enough for me to want a rematch. The first fight was just so unsatisfying, like biting into a ribeye and realizing too late that it's been sculpted out of cotton candy. Yeah, cotton candy is good, but I ordered a steak, damnit. Fortunately for Jose, he fully proved that he still belongs at the top of the division in his next fight, a technical masterpiece of a win over former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar. If McGregor ever does go back down to featherweight, Jose Aldo deserves first crack at the belt that used to be his.
Jose Aldo is undeniably one of the best to ever do it. Photo by Joshua Dahl, USA Today Sports.
Featherweight is the most obvious choice. That was the weight at which McGregor and Aldo first met, and both men hold titles in the division, Aldo the interim and McGregor the championship proper. By rule of tradition, the interim champion is the de facto number one contender.
There remains the possibility, however, that Aldo moves up and meets McGregor at lightweight. He has talked about making the jump for a long time now. Aldo isn't a freakishly large featherweight--especially not by the kidney-crushing standards set by McGregor--but the weight cut has never been easy on him. If McGregor refuses to come back down and defend his first UFC title (and I remain conflicted about whether or not his body will even allow him after three straight fights at 155 and beyond), then Aldo may well be inclined to chase him.
Could he beat Conor?
It seems like we're setting a pattern here, but the answer has to be a resounding "Yes, but . . ."
Aldo is technically brilliant. No one can deny this. He has masterful footwork, as economical as it is impressive. The kind of movement that only looks flashy because it's just so perfectly textbook. On top of that, he is normally very hard to hit cleanly, and his vicious counters make the proposition even more challenging. His original specialty, the femur-cracking low kick, stands to be a potent weapon against McGregor's long stance. And let's not even talk about Aldo's jiu-jitsu, rarely seen but unquestionably fine.
The problem for Aldo, as with so many of McGregor's prospective opponents, is the Irishman's power and reach. Aldo's chin is sturdy enough, but McGregor's power is such that you wouldn't be surprised if you saw him drop a middleweight. Luke Rockhold, maybe? I kid. Then there is the reach. Aldo typically likes to fight from the outside, but McGregor is two inches taller with an extra four inches of reach. Last time, Aldo got caught trying recklessly to close the gap. Given the dimensions of his nemesis, the same could very well happen again.
16-3, 6 KO, 2 SUB
Ranked #3 at featherweight
For casual fans, or even just new fans, this one will surely raise the most eyebrows. Who the hell is Max Holloway? Well for one, he's currently riding the longest winning streak in the featherweight division, at nine victories and counting. Speaking of which, he also holds the records for most featherweight wins in UFC history by a pretty huge margin. 12 of those--more than Aldo (8), more than Edgar (6)--and yes--more than McGregor (7). The crazy part? Holloway is only 24, four years younger than McGregor. And that win streak? Yeah, it only started in 2014. The man has fought and won once every four months or so for the last two years. Conor McGregor likes to brag about how active he is, but even he's not that crazy.
Holloway and McGregor did fight once before, but the young Hawaiian has come a long way since. His takedown defense is no longer the liability it was against McGregor, who resorted to shooting after blowing up his knee in the second round. Holloway is 24 now, but he was an unripe 22 then, and his resume was that of a journeyman in the making. 16-3 is a far cry from 7-3, however, and Holloway has bested such talented men as Ricardo Lamas, Jeremy Stephens, Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, and Andre Fili. Oh, and he was robbed of a win against Dennis Bermudez, too.
Max Holloway is developing a swagger to match his considerable skills. Photo by Jake Roth, USA Today Sports.
Conor McGregor is the featherweight champion, but Holloway has fought and beaten four of the current top 10 at featherweight. McGregor only has wins over two--Holloway included. And if all goes well in December, Holloway will have a 10th straight win over former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis under his belt as well. It's a quiet case, but a damnstrong one all the same.
Featherweight. Holloway is actually taller than McGregor, who makes for a pretty tall lightweight, but he's rail thin. His body doesn't look ready to move to lightweight yet, and he has no reason to given the tenor of his recent performances.
Could he beat Conor?
I'll bet you can't guess what my answer's gonna be. If you guessed some variation of "Yes, maybe," then congratulations! But I did bet on Eddie Alvarez, so I can't pay up at this precise moment. I'll get you back next time.
Seriously, though, Max Holloway is a dangerous man. His build and style are such that he could very reasonably kickbox with McGregor at long range. Like Tony Ferguson, Holloway has the kind of submission game that comes in really handy in sudden, unexpected scrambles, and his striking is every bit as creative as Ugly Tony's--only probably more traditionally technical. He seems to have a great chin too: Holloway is one of only two men to have lost to McGregor in the UFC without being knocked out. He shares that distinction with Nate Diaz, a lightweight famed for his toughness--and Holloway didn't get knocked down three times, neither.
It would be primarily a striking battle, and that is the most tempting thing about this matchup. Both Holloway and McGregor are superb technicians, and yet neither is afraid of a wild gunfight when the need arises. Unlike many of McGregor's other challengers, Holloway would not base his strategy on ultimately taking McGregor down. A young fighter with guts and skill in equal measure who would allow McGregor to do what he does best? How can you not like that?
16-3, 6 KO, 5 SUB
The appeal of this one is obvious. Tyron Woodley is the UFC welterweight champion. McGregor can't go down to bantamweight, so the only choice in his quest for a third belt is to go up. At least for the time being, that means clashing with The Chosen One, a wrestler with a limited but outrageously dangerous striking game, whose every move is backed by (cliche incoming) a kind of explosive athleticism unmatched in the welterweight division. More than any other on this list, this fight would require McGregor to pit his brains against his opponent's brawn. It is an obviously compelling proposition.
Moreover, it's a proposition McGregor to which McGregor seems open. The second belt he demanded just after besting Alvarez? That was actually Tyron Woodley's belt, requisitioned by UFC brass to meet the golden boy's demands. Supposedly Woodley agreed to the short-term loan, but he didn't seem happy about it at the post-fight press conference. And as for McGregor, he had a few loaded words when one journalist informed him whose belt it was he had on the presser table. "Maybe," he said, "That's a sign of things to come."
Tyron Woodley is a power-punching, top-controlling welterweight--an unprecedented test for Conor McGregor. Photo by Adam Hunger, USA Today Sports.
Whoa. Touch my arm. Goosebumps.
It would have to be welterweight. Tyron Woodley is a Greek statue of a man, with a perfect build for the division over which he reigns. The best McGregor could hope for would be a punishing catchweight and, honestly, he doesn't seem the type to ask for that. If McGregor really does want to fight Woodley for his third belt, he'll do it at 170.
Could he beat Conor?
It would be madness to discount the chances of a massive, muscular welterweight against a man who, when he really wants to, can make 145. Woodley is a wrestler, and though his takedown game hasn't always been impressive against other welterweights, the strength and size advantage would be a huge help against The Notorious. What's more, he has weapons-grade plutonium in his right hand--the kind of power that Conor McGregor has never felt in his life. If anyone can knock McGregor out, it's Tyron Woodley.
On the flip-side, Woodley may be one of the best style matchups for McGregor in the welterweight top 10. When he does strike, which is most of the time, Woodley is damnably prone to backing himself up into the fence, a habit which plays right into McGregor's pressure fighting strengths. And his offensive arsenal is painfully limited--like everyone else, McGregor would need a bit of time to adjust to Woodley's speed, but it wouldn't take him long to figure out that Woodley is just a heavy right hand with a lot of fast-twitch muscle behind it. McGregor could potentially piece Woodley up the way Rory MacDonald did back in 2014, or he could get shown the door to oblivion a la Robbie Lawler.
20-11, 4 KO, 13 SUB
Ranked #4 at lightweight
This is possibly the easiest choice listed here, and yet I don't think the UFC will make it. Nate Diaz remains the only man to ever beat McGregor in the UFC. And even though he lost the rematch, no one has made McGregor look worse. Only Nate Diaz has the right combination of craft, toughness, and fuck-you attitude to make McGregor work so hard that he can't help but exhaust himself, and it took a serious concentration of will and some careful gameplanning for Conor to best him.
That Diaz beat McGregor once is promotion enough. That both of their fights were absolute barnburners only helps. But on top of all of that, Nate Diaz is promotional gold. He is the only man to truly hold his own with McGregor in the battle of words, and that is half of the Irishman's game. Unlike his compatriots, Diaz makes no effort to match wits with McGregor. Instead, he has always chosen to call out the Irishman's quirks and eccentricities, and kindly asked him to f*ck off when that doesn't work. It gets silly when fans start playing "is he in his head?" but with Diaz, the answer has always been yes. No one puts a kink in Conor's chain like Nate.
Nate Diaz is the only man to ever defeat Conor McGregor in the Octagon. Photo by Joshua Dahl, USA Today Sports.
Lightweight this time. The last two fights were contested at welterweight. The first time was because Nate filled in on short notice for an injured Rafael Dos Anjos. McGregor claimed that the second time was about fairness, but one has to assume that he wanted to prove to himself and everyone watching that he could overcome the same exact circumstances that had bested him in fight one. After getting his revenge, however, McGregor insisted that the final fight would only happen at lightweight, and you know Nate Diaz would be down for that. He is a lightweight, after all, not a welterweight, and his confidence at any weight cannot be questioned.
Could he beat Conor?
Yes, obviously. Nate did it once before, and he came very close to repeating the deed. It does seem that McGregor has figured out the key to beating him, but even so Diaz is a tough stylistic matchup for The Notorious. He can take the punches and dish out so many in return that McGregor's hair-trigger counter punching becomes a liability. He can lock in submissions from any position, and he is big enough to wear McGregor out by making him carry his weight. Most importantly, he has the reach. Of Conor's nine UFC opponents, only Nate Diaz has shown him what it's like to be stuck on the end of a jab, or to be desperately backing up without ever escaping the pocket.
McGregor's footwork, leg kicks, and new-and-improved jab should only be better in a third fight, but rumor has it Nate was battling a pretty serious injury himself, which might explain the fact that his usually legendary stamina wasn't there when he needed it. Nate Diaz has beaten Conor McGregor, and he can do it again--whether he will remains to be seen.
So, who's next?
What's the written equivalent of a shrug? Because I really don't know. McGregor is going to take some time off to sort out his family matters, and when he does return he will have at least one belt to tend to, with a choppy sea of challengers raring for a go at both. He has the option of going up in weight to get yet another belt, or the option of settling things with Diaz once and for all.
No matter what McGregor chooses, we know it will be fun. That is the beauty of Conor McGregor. Yeah, I know, he hasn't defended his belts, ever. He's holding up a lot of eager challengers by holding two championships with no title defense in the near future. But let it never be said that McGregor is afraid of a challenge. Whatever he chooses, you can be sure it won't be an easy tune-up fight, or an opponent who doesn't deserve the chance. McGregor will end up fighting a deserving contender, no matter what.
And actually, looking back at those names, he doesn't really have a choice, does he?
For more in-depth analysis of all things combat, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. New episode coming Wednesday.