After a quick and easy victory over Donald Cerrone, the MMA world awaits a definitive answer as to who the Irish superstar will face next
UFC 246 went pretty much as expected. Conor rolled through a stylistically easy matchup and looked good doing it, Holly Holm and Raquel Pennington stunk up the joint with another dud of a fight just like in their first meeting, Aleksei Oleinik took home another submission victory (in delightfully entertaining fashion), pressure overwhelmed former champion Anthony Pettis once again en route to a one-sided submission loss to Diego Ferreira, and rising star Sodiq Yussef continued his climb toward the top of the bantamweight division with a win over Andre Fili in a banger of a scrap.
There were a few surprises to be had at least - a knee injury ground 21-year-old prospect Maycee Barber's momentum to a stop against the 6-to-1 underdog and fan-favourite Roxanne Modafferi, and Drew Dober completely derailed Nasrat Haqparast's hype train in just 70-seconds with a vicious knockout (although hardcore fans like myself were betting on the underdog, nobody expected it to be over that quickly).
In the main event, Conor McGregor returned to action after being sidelined in 2019 due to legal issues and his own stupidity. A much more reserved and humble Conor showed up to work this time, but smartly, the UFC opted to give their star a favourable matchup in his return to ensure he got back to his winning ways in the cage.
Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone is a warrior and an amazing fighter, but his extensive body of work is well-documented and his flaws have only become more noticeable with time. Pressure has always been an issue with Cerrone unless his opponents are sloppy with their approach to it, and he's always started off painfully slow - even in fights he wins, he often gets cracked in the opening minutes before settling into a fight.
While his kicks are devastating when he gets going and his combinations can be a sight to behold, at the highest level his opposition has regularly exploited his habits to great effect, leading many to believe he chokes in big fights. In reality, he has the skills to beat the majority of lightweights in the world as he regularly does, but when facing true contenders they have been able to exploit Cowboy's weaknesses time and time again. Though he has added new wrinkles to his game over the years, he really hasn't evolved enough to get past his high-level gatekeeper status.
For McGregor, Cowboy was the perfect opponent for his return - a tough name known to hardcore and casual fans alike who he respects and the lack of trash talk would thus endear him once more to many of the fans he may have spurred over recent years, who is also ranked highly but stylistically an easy matchup.
In stark contrast to Cerrone, McGregor is a notoriously fast starter that likes to overwhelm his opponents with pressure early and packs a mean left straight - southpaws also happen to be something that Cowboy has struggled with in the past. Conor has shown a tendency to fade when his fights go past the first or second round, which was what Cowboy fans were hoping Cerrone would be able to capitalize on should he survive early - at 36 years of age and having been stopped in his last two outings, that was a tough ask of the aging vet however.
Conor opened up even faster than normal to fully take advantage of Cowboy's stiff starts, charging right for his opponent and missing a straight left that Cowboy ducked under and used to instinctively shoot for a takedown. A flying knee (only the thigh landed) was enough to stifle the takedown attempt and from the clinch, McGregor shunted Cowboy's face with a series of surprisingly hard shoulder strikes that broke Cowboy's nose - the same nose that led to a doctor's stoppage loss for Cowboy just over 6 months ago.
Donald retreated and looked to cover up as McGregor cracked him with a high kick, his foot landing on Cowboy's chin. Cerrone was dazed and bewildered and Conor swarmed to take home a TKO victory in just 40 seconds, taking not a single blow in return. It was an impressive performance from the returning Irishman, and a devastating one for Cowboy.
The fight didn't show us anything we didn't already know - Cerrone starts incredibly slow, McGregor is explosive and devastating early, and the declining vet simply didn't have what it takes to withstand McGregor's early power. The fight was reminescent of Cowboy's 66-second loss in a lightweight title bid against Rafael Dos Anjos years ago, or his brutal losses to Jorge Masvidal and Darren Till at welterweight.
For Conor it got him back into the game and back into the win column for the first time in over three years - now the attention of the sports world turns to who Conor will be facing next.
Dana White has continuously stated that Conor will be facing Khabib Nurmagomedov in a rematch of their historic first meeting in 2018, seemingly forgetting that Khabib will be facing the true top lightweight contender, Tony Ferguson, in April.
Nurmagomedov has also stated that Conor would need to get multiple wins in order for him to grant Conor a rematch, implying quite explicitly that he would refuse to sign should the UFC offer him Conor. While money always talks, Khabib has already talked of retiring in short order and if reports of his wealth are to be believed, he may very well not care how much cash the UFC throws at him, especially given his more modest lifestyle.
For the UFC, the Khabib rematch actually isn't the biggest fight to make in terms of PPV revenue. While Conor has made tons of excuses and repeatedly uttered delusions about what happened in the first meeting, many fans are unconvinced that a second meeting would be any different from the first (and Conor certainly hasn't shown anything that would indicate otherwise with just a single fight since the Khabib loss). It would still garner massive PPV buys and would do better overseas, but the real biggest fight to make right now and strike while the iron is hot is McGregor versus Jorge Masvidal at 170.
Masvidal is riding high on a ridiculously successful 2019 that catapulted him into stardom. A match between the two would do incredible numbers, and only propel the winner into becoming an even bigger draw. If Conor lost (which would be likely, he isn't a true welterweight) they could easily downplay it due to it not being in his natural weight class (the same thing many used as excuses for the Diaz loss, despite Diaz also being a natural lightweight) and simply have him return down at 155. If Conor won, he'd have easily earned a shot at either the welterweight title (which would not be wise given Usman's wrestling and size) or the lightweight title - imagine how big a Khabib-Conor rematch would be if Conor got past Masvidal first?
It would pit two aggressive knockout artists against one another and would surely deliver insanity inside the Octagon however long it lasted.
Dana White has thus far been adamant it's Khabib next for Conor, but given Khabib's scheduled fight in April against Ferguson, and his typical two-fights-a-year schedule, it wouldn't make sense to have Conor sit on the shelf until the fall when he clearly wants to get back into the cage and build up his momentum.
At his best, Conor was fighting quite regularly and has clearly expressed a desire to get back to that kind of schedule in 2020. After coming out unscathed against Cerrone, a 90-day turnaround would be typical of McGregor and exactly three months from now is when Khabib and Tony are set to face off.
While the UFC likes to spread out major stars to get more buys on more cards, there's great benefit to stacking a card in order to get a bigger return on a single card that doesn't require as much advertising dollars as splitting them up does.
And that's where the UFC could really capitalize on their chaotic lightweight division - by creating a mini lightweight tournament.
With Khabib and Tony scheduled to face off on April 18, the next (proper) contender at lightweight is Justin Gaethje, who also happens to be coming off a first round KO of Cowboy Cerrone (along with first round blitzings of James Vick and Edson Barboza).
Conor has already stated he wants to remain ready to fill-in should Ferguson or Nurmagomedov suffer an injury prior to their lightweight title bout (their matchup has already seen four cancellations in the past after all). Why not book Conor for a fight on the same card then?
For the fans, it's a stylistic delight. While Gaethje is hittable, he is incredibly durable and is a pressure fighter through and through. Fans love Gaethje thanks to his ridiculously entertaining style and willingness to trade with anyone - even though he's an NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, Gaethje downright refuses to wrestle in his fights and instead vows to stand until someone goes to sleep.
For Conor, Gaethje does get hit and should Conor catch him there's a good chance he puts Gaethje to sleep - for Gaethje, Conor's stance is the perfect target for his trademark leg kicks and his pace and pressure is tailor made to give McGregor fits should Justin survive the early rounds. It's a fight that fans would love to see and one that, should he win, would earn Conor a title shot.
Adding it to the Khabib-Tony card might be tough - Conor has been unwilling to serve as a co-main event in the past, but given a stipulation he gets the same share of PPV revenue and they advertise his fight just as much as well as the promise of picking his next matchup (and of course he'd be able to step in should one of the main-eventers get injured), he may very well go for it.
The card would easily do massive pay-per-view buys and may even rival UFC 229 despite the lower numbers recently following ESPN+ PPV exclusivity in the US. Not only that, but it would set up massive fights for the fall - in the event that Khabib and Conor win, Khabib-Conor II is bigger than it ever would have been otherwise and breaks records in the fall. If Tony and Gaethje win, their matchup would be a treat for hardcore fans while Khabib and Conor would then be set for their rematch, and it would still sell very well.
If they couldn't come to terms on getting the four fighters on the same card, the UFC could just as easily put McGregor-Gaethje on the May PPV card with the winner promised a shot at the title. While the UFC and Dana White seem to be convinced title fights always sell more, the fact of the matter is that Conor McGregor is going to sell regardless of whether a title is on the line - his fights with Nate Diaz for instance were both bigger than his title fights (spare the grudge match with Khabib).
The UFC's move to boxing-style matchmaking may be good for their bottom line in the short term, but it's also alienating longtime fans of the sport, many of which are refusing to purchase recent pay-per-views out of principle, and it's part of the reason why the numbers buys on ESPN+ have been so dismal.
Putting aside favouritism for a moment and returning to a more merit-based title shot system would serve the UFC well in keeping their fans happy for the long haul, although I wouldn't hold out much hope for that.