If the deep-rooted intention of UFC pairing Conor McGregor against aging legend Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone on Saturday was to revive the pay-per-view brand of the sport’s biggest star, consider UFC 246 as a monster success.
Despite being labeled as live underdog coming in, the 36-year-old Cerrone (36-14, 1 NC) lasted just 40 seconds against McGregor (22-4), turning their welterweight main event at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas into nothing more than a high-profile “get well” fight for the Irish sensation. Cerrone’s lack of resistance certainly prevented McGregor, 31, from answering a number of questions critics had for him following a wild three-year stretch in which he fought just once (a one-sided loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018) and spent more time in the police blotter than training camp.
From a marketing standpoint, however, his violently quick win provided UFC with a perfect commercial for casual fans to take the intoxicating bait that McGregor is not only back, but better than ever. Because of that, aided by how brilliantly McGregor handled himself from a public relations standpoint during fight week by exhibiting class and humility, UFC has never had a larger array of big-money options — across two divisions and sports — for his next fight.
McGregor will certainly have a large say in what’s next given his status as the biggest draw this sport has ever known. His leverage, however, isn’t quite what it once was now that UFC changed its pay-per-view model by signing an exclusive deal with ESPN+, which reportedly offers minimum guarantees.
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Let’s take a closer, detailed look now at McGregor’s best options for 2020, including the pros and cons regarding whether these potential opponents might be next.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0), lightweight champion
Pros: A rematch of their 2018 bout at UFC 229 would certainly be UFC’s preference, especially considering their first fight reportedly produced an MMA record 2.4 million PPV buys. UFC president Dana White compared the fight late Saturday to his sport’s version of a Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier-type event given the heated rivalry between them and the potential for unrivaled crossover interest. White, who predicted a rematch could produce three million buys, has been absolute that it must come next and even went the controversial route of allowing McGregor to skip the queue at lightweight and make his welterweight bout with Cerrone a de facto No. 1 contender showdown. In White’s defense, when you have a fight this big with so much at stake to the respective legacies of each fighter — not to mention the possibility of a trilogy bout should McGregor win — you make when it’s there and don’t think twice.
Cons: Nurmagomedov would first need to get past Tony Ferguson on April 18 in a fight that’s easily the toughest of his career, on paper. Even a victory would likely leave “The Eagle” in need of time off to heal. Nurmagomedov, a devout Muslim, would also need to observe Ramadan which would push the rematch back to late summer, which could threaten McGregor’s hope of three fights this calendar year. Still, the idea of opening the Raiders new NFL stadium in Las Vegas with an outdoor event in front of 60,000-plus fans might be hard to pass up. If any fight is worth waiting for, it’s this one.
Prediction: 2.8 million PPV buys
Jorge Masvidal (35-13), BMF champion
Pros: If promoted correctly with Masvidal used as the trigger to reignite the combative side of McGregor’s personality that was muted for the Cerrone promotion, there’s no telling how big a fight between these two personalities could be. Masvidal, at 35, became an unlikely crossover star in 2019 and brings an element of streetlight violence to a fight against McGregor that’s unique to any of his potential opponents. Adding the trinket of Masvidal’s “Baddest Motherf—er” belt to the stakes would only sweeten the pot for McGregor. This fight remains the perfect backup option should UFC decide to wait for the results of Nurmagomedov-Ferguson before deciding on McGregor’s next step. The argument for doing it next is that Masvidal’s brand will likely never be hotter than it is right now, particularly considering most experts don’t favor his chances against welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.
Cons: Without a “real” championship at stake, there isn’t nearly as much historical importance at stake in this fight to see it trump the Nurmagomedov rematch should both be available. Although the ease in which McGregor handled Cerrone as a full-fledged welterweight has softened his fear, White has been outspoken in believing Masvidal is just too big and dangerous an opponent. If protecting McGregor’s longterm marketing potential is UFC’s priority, the possibility of a knockout loss in this one may be too much of a risk to take at a time when McGregor’s brand has been so expertly re-inflated.
Prediction: 2 million PPV buys
Don’t count it out
Nate Diaz (20-12), welterweight
Pros: McGregor seemed to welcome the possibility of this fight back into existence during Saturday’s post-fight press conference when he responded to a question about Diaz by saying, “Let’s go Nathan! Let’s go, brother!” A trilogy bout between them would certainly do massive business thanks to Diaz’s return in 2019 from a three-year layoff (not to mention that both 2016 McGregor-Diaz fights are in the top three for most PPV buys in UFC history). Even though both fights were brutal in nature, Diaz’s recent loss to Masvidal does make him a somewhat safer option for McGregor should Nurmagomedov not be ready and UFC be against a BMF fight. McGregor is also more physically comfortable at 170 pounds fresh off the Cerrone fight than he was in 2016 as the defending featherweight champion.
Cons: Choosing Diaz would certainly be looked at as McGregor ducking Masvidal, which is an image that has never been on brand for the fighting Irishman. A trilogy bout with Diaz is also the kind of lottery ticket that has no expiration date for UFC and can be saved for a rainy day even if both fighters have entered a significant decline. That’s not even calling into play how hard it has been for UFC to deal with the mercurial Diaz ever since he got a taste of lucrative PPV money.
Prediction: 1.7 million PPV buys
Justin Gaethje (21-2), lightweight
Pros: For as much danger as Gaethje bring to each fight, he presents the perfect style matchup for McGregor’s strengths as an explosive counter-puncher. Gaethje has become the bridesmaid within the lightweight title conversation due to McGregor’s re-emergence, and has entered White’s doghouse for recently turning down fights that weren’t title shots. Gaethje is red-hot thanks to a trio of knockouts against James Vick, Edson Barboza and Cerrone. He’s also an underrated trash talker, which could make the build to this PPV a fun one.
Cons: It’s simply not a title fight of any kind, which brings in to play the danger of risking the kind of loss that has the potential to cost or downgrade future paydays. McGregor would need to actively avoid Masvidal while deciding the idea of staying busy within his own division against a top contender is more important than potentially waiting for the winner of Nurmagomedov-Ferguson. Had McGregor struggled a bit with Cerrone, the need to scale back the speed of his matchmaking might have opened the door for Gaethje. McGregor, however, was too impressive not to maximize his earning potential in his next fight.
Prediction: 1.2 million PPV buys
Not as likely
Tony Ferguson (25-3), lightweight
Pros: Due to his high-volume and unorthodox striking style, there’s certainly an argument to be made that Ferguson would be the most exciting option available to McGregor. Plus, the prospect of McGregor getting a chance to regain the 155-pound title he never defended could also be a huge enticement.
Cons: Ferguson would not only have to get past Nurmagomedov first at UFC 249, but it’s fair to question whether McGregor would be as willing to sit out until summer and wait for this fight as he would for his bitter rival from Dagestan, Russia. The biggest wild card in this fight being next would likely only come in Nurmagomedov pulling out in April due to injury and McGregor sliding in for an interim title opportunity.
Prediction: 1.5 million PPV buys
Don’t count on it
Kamaru Usman (16-1), welterweight champion
Pros: Obsessed with making history, one can never put it past McGregor to be ambitious enough to risk it all for a shot at becoming the first three-division champion in UFC history. Thanks to him sharing the same manager in Ali Abdelaziz as Nurmagomedov, Usman has become an almost instant rival for McGregor by association. Usman also claims his Twitter account was hacked during Saturday’s fight when he called out McGregor in a colorful and distasteful way. McGregor went on to publicly accuse Abdelaziz of being behind it.
Cons: Although the appeal of a third title is hard to ignore, Usman represents the biggest risk for McGregor and isn’t nearly as marketable as his other options. The jury remains out whether McGregor can compete against elite fighters at 170 pounds. Usman is also all kinds of wrong for him thanks to his savage wrestling skills.
Prediction: 1.4 million PPV buys
Floyd Mayweather (50-0, 27 KOs), boxer
Pros: Their first fight in 2017, which doubled as McGregor’s pro boxing debut, came up just short of breaking the record for PPV buys in all of combat sports at an astounding 4.4 million. The fact that Mayweather will be 43 in February would likely seduce customers into believing McGregor would be even more competitive a second time. It also helps from the standpoint of what’s at stake historically in this circus fight that Mayweather would be once again risking the legacy of his prized unbeaten record. Given White’s interest in launching his Zuffa Boxing promotion, using this fight as the poster for such an endeavor would be too lucrative to pass up. Both fighters have also been very vocal in their interest of running it back.
Cons: Should it happen, it’s much more likely to take place at the end of the year after UFC gets one more exclusive payday out of McGregor. Mayweather will need adequate time to prepare physically. and McGregor also isn’t likely to switch up his training to boxing so soon in his UFC comeback without first fighting for a title. While a May-Mac rematch would likely do fairly large business under any scenario, the potential of how big it could be if McGregor was fresh off a breakthrough victory over an elite UFC foe would naturally be increased. Even with Mayweather’s advancing age, there needs to be legitimate mainstream belief that McGregor could win for it to even approach the success of their first fight.
Prediction: 3.5 million PPV buys
Manny Pacquiao (62-7-2, 39 KOs), boxer
Pros: The fact that the public has never seen this fight mixed with Pacquiao’s exciting style and global stardom could make this an intriguing event, one in which McGregor said he would love to have serve as the christening of the new Raiders stadium in Las Vegas.
Cons: The size difference here would make which weight class they settled upon an interesting decision (McGregor cut down to 153 pounds for the Mayweather fight). Pacquiao’s inability to sell the fight on the microphone compared to Mayweather could also hurt the chances. The biggest issue, however, is that the 41-year-old “PacMan” is still far too dangerous (see his victory over unbeaten Keith Thurman last summer) compared to the more defensive Mayweather for this to end up being sold as a competitive fight.
Prediction: 2.4 million PPV buys