UFC: Examining Opponents for Conor McGregor’s Return

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor, Moscow press conference Credit: Elena Katretskaya

Conor McGregor’s return on January 18 is expected to kick off the year in MMA in a huge way in 2020.  But which opponent stands out, and why, for his comeback at UFC 246?

Conor McGregor has announced his plans to return to MMA competition for the first time since October 2018 and has laid out a wishlist of fights he would like in the calendar year should he be successful.  His campaign first depends on having a successful return to action in January, which is not an easy task considering the murderer’s row of contenders at both lightweight and welterweight.  Let’s take a look at the biggest names involved and how they would factor into a fight with McGregor.

Donald Cerrone

“Cowboy” was previously connected to a fight with McGregor earlier this summer before talks fell apart and “The Notorious” suffered a hand injury.  Cerrone checks off all the boxes in terms of being an exciting opponent with a big name to help carry a pay-per-view against the Irishman.  When discussing a fight between the two, there is little doubt that Cerrone would oblige McGregor with a battle on the feet where both men do their best work.  Furthermore, he has history with McGregor stemming from their 2016 press conference where the two traded barbs in one of McGregor’s most viral public appearances.

Though he undoubtedly wishes otherwise, Cerrone is also the frontrunner for a different reason. At 36 years old and on a two fight losing-streak, the perception is that Cerrone would be less formidable going into the fight than in years prior.  While McGregor remains the biggest star on the UFC roster, the fact remains that he has not recorded a professional victory in over three years.  For all his bravado, winning remains an integral part of getting fans to buy a pay-per-view in the historic numbers his events are known for.  When McGregor is doing well it is also good business for the UFC and the promotion recognizes that.  A McGregor victory ignites conversations about fights with the likes of Jorge Masvidal, Tony Ferguson, and a rematch of the biggest fight in UFC history against Khabib Nurmagomedov.  For that reason, pairing him with a possibly vulnerable opponent in Cerrone makes the most sense.

Justin Gaethje

While the lightweight division waits for Khabib Nurmagomedov to finally collide with Tony Ferguson, top contender Justin Gaethje is looking to secure a big fight of his own.  While waiting for a title shot in the second half of 2020 is a possibility, the chance to face McGregor in a pay-per-view blockbuster is undeniably worth risking his place in the championship picture.  “The Highlight” himself tossed his hat in the ring, calling out McGregor to accept a fight with himself rather than Cerrone whom Gaethje recently vanquished in September.

Compared to Cerrone, Gaethje figures to be a bad match-up for McGregor in his return.  The former WSOF champion is exciting, durable, and a former Division 1 All-American wrestler.  By his own admission, he has turned the corner as a fighter in terms of his personal style and being more technical rather than take the risks he did for most of his career.  The proof has been seen in the past year where he has recorded three consecutive first round knockouts.  The Gaethje of old was already expected to push McGregor to the limit.  The Gaethje of 2019 who will pick his spots and use his wrestling to neutralize “The Notorious” is an opponent the UFC may simply feel is too great a risk for a fighter they are hoping to have active in 2020.  Gaethje is expected to have several more big fights even if he were to lose the contest.  The same can’t be said of McGregor who has lucrative business ventures outside of fighting and whose win-less drought would be nearing nearly four years.

Jorge Masvidal

A front-runner for Fighter of the Year, with the award for Knockout of the Year also likely in his back pocket, Jorge Masvidal is one of the biggest stars in the UFC going into 2020.  Why wouldn’t the UFC consider matching him up with McGregor for a mega-event guaranteed to sell on pay-per-view?  First, Masvidal has said he is looking to recover from hand injuries suffered during training this year and would like time off before competing next year.  Secondly, there are a slew of other big fights on the table for Masvidal in 2020 that would not involve risking the value of the UFC’s biggest star.  A fight with either Kamaru Unman or teammate Colby Covington for the undisputed welterweight title is expected to do huge business and happen in the first half of next year.

Jorge Masvidal UFC 244
Jorge Masvidal Credit: Marcus Rebelo/Cageside Press

Stylistically, the newly crowned BMF in the UFC also figures to be one of the worst match-ups for “The Notorious.”  While McGregor fought at welterweight for his wars with Nate Diaz, who has also seen success at 170 pounds himself, the fact remains that the Irishman would give up an extreme advantage in size and power for a clash with Masvidal.  While the fight is expected to provide fireworks for as long as it lasts, outlasting “Gamebred” in a shoot-out is a colossal order for the former double-champ.

If McGregor is looking to test himself against the biggest challenges in the division, there are plenty of them out there.  In the lightweight division alone there are expected to be several options in 2020, and plenty at welterweight as well if he chooses.  Regardless, his return in January is expected to deliver big numbers and kick off what is expected to be a huge year in mixed martial arts.