It’s been a full week since Conor McGregor threw the left hand heard ’round the world of mixed martial arts. The impact of that shot is still reverberating.
On Saturday night, the Irishman presumably was home in Dublin with the featherweight championship belt he had earned last weekend by putting an abrupt halt to the decade-long unbeaten run of José Aldo. Yet McGregor was an all-pervading presence at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., the end-of-the-year stop for the UFC road show.
The story of the night should have been Rafael dos Anjos’s shockingly emphatic stoppage of challenger Donald Cerrone in his first defense of the lightweight championship belt. But because McGregor, immediately after becoming 145-pound champ, had expressed interest in having a go at the 155-pound strap as well, all anyone seemed to want to talk about was “The Notorious” and his lightweight future.
And it wasn’t just McGregor vs. Dos Anjos talk, either. On the undercard, the enigma known as Nate Diaz returned to the octagon after a year-long absence, and after picking apart Michael Johnson in a reinvigorating performance, he didn’t stake a claim to lightweight contender status. He set his crosshairs on McGregor.
As the loquacious Irishman had said at last weekend’s postfight press conference, “The options are there now. The options are building.”
Those options are all McGregor’s. They’re not within the control of Dos Anjos, the lightweight champ, or of Diaz, perhaps the most intriguing 155-pound matchup from a promotional hype perspective. The options are not in the clutches of top featherweight contender Frankie Edgar, either. They might not even be within the grasp of the UFC, which generally runs the show in MMA … but not necessarily when it comes to McGregor. After producing monster gates for the fight promotion in his last two outings, he would seem to be in a strong position to chart his own path moving forward.
McGregor understands this and embraces it, even basks in it. Shortly after seemingly every Orlando winner other than heavyweight Alistair Overeem had mentioned his name late Saturday night, the Irishman took to Twitter with a whimsically pointed message, posting the word “#selfie” along with a smug old photo of Ted DiBiase, known to old-time professional wrestling fans as “The Million Dollar Man.” In case that was too subtle, McGregor later tweeted, “Line them up on their knees with their hands out. I want them to beg me.”
Who could blame any UFC stars who did just that? After all, they’re not simply fighters but prizefighters, and stepping into the octagon with Conor McGregor brings a financial reward that dwarfs that of any other fight.
That’s why Dos Anjos, when asked about his future after finishing Cerrone in a mere 66 seconds, mentioned only one fighter by name. He started out with a warning, saying, “Conor McGregor has been saying that he wants to come to my division. I think it will not be a smart decision for him.” But after questions about the Irishman kept coming at him, Dos Anjos became more welcoming: “I’ll fight you in Brazil, I’ll go to Ireland and face you there, wherever you want.”
Pretty accommodating, champ. Why would the king of a heavier weight class, one who’d just won his fifth straight fight, the 10th win in his last 11 bouts, bow down to a brand new featherweight titlist? Dos Anjos dominated Anthony Pettis to win the lightweight belt, knocked out ex-champ Benson Henderson, and quickly ended Cerrone’s eight-fight win streak. What’s so special about McGregor? Well, say hello to the green paper with American presidents on it.
Money flips hierarchies onto their ears. That’s what allows Diaz, who came into the weekend having lost three of four fights (one of which was to Dos Anjos), to be a viable opponent for McGregor. To this point, promoting the fights of the rising Irishman has been a one-man show; Aldo said little in the leadup to last weekend, and no previous McGregor opponent had done much heavy lifting, either. So adding Diaz to the mix would make the road to fight night a work of art. Following Saturday night’s win, Diaz’s interview inside the cage was a string of profanities, bleeped in its entirety by Fox. Later, at the press conference, Diaz lamented that he hadn’t remembered to call out Dos Anjos, saying, “I left that out, talking about Conor motherf---ing Gregor.”
McGregor can find stiffer challenges inside the cage, but from a promotional standpoint, a hype campaign with Diaz would be an intoxicating matchup.
From a purely competitive perspective, though, McGregor vs. Edgar is the fight to make. The Irishman is a brand new champion, and even though he did reach the top of the mountain on the strength of wins over three of the contenders in the SI.com Top 10, he has work to do in the featherweight division.
It’s admirable that McGregor has set a lofty goal for himself: to wear both the featherweight and lightweight belts at the same time. But what’s the rush? The 155-pound division isn’t going anywhere. And if he can’t wait to test himself against a lightweight, he can start by facing a former champion in that division, Frankie Edgar.
What’s more, McGregor can fulfill a dream by pressing the UFC to stage his first title defense in Croke Park, the stadium in his Irish hometown. There are logistical challenges—Dublin’s weather, pay-per-view timing, a neighborhood curfew—but they can be worked out. And while it’s true that Dos Anjos offered to travel to Ireland to face McGregor, a champion-vs.-champion superfight ought not happen on one champ’s turf.
If McGregor can get past Edgar, he will have cleaned out his division sufficiently to move on to the next challenge. If by then Dos Anjos still wears lightweight gold—and there’s no reason to doubt he will, given his stout recent performances—then it will be time for the two champions to meet. Not in Dublin and not in Rio de Janeiro, but in Las Vegas. Where money is everything.
That’s a logical progression. Of course, we all know the fight game does not travel along a commonsense track. The fighters and the company that promotes them follow the cash flow. So fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride.