Before the world spiraled out of control due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Conor McGregor was preparing for a comeback tour in 2020.
The UFC star was preparing for a January 18 battle against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone at UFC 246, his first fight in the Octagon in more than a year.
During the buildup to the bout, McGregor had some interesting ideas as it related to his schedule for the start of the new decade, and had a unique term to describe it all.
“This is the beginning of my 2020 season,” McGregor said in a January 2020 interview with TheMacLife.com.
After the Cerrone fight, there were a number of options for McGregor and the UFC to consider. Justin Gaethje emerged as a candidate for the Irishman’s second fight of the year, with the winner of a scheduled bout between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson likely rounding out McGregor’s 2020 campaign.
Unfortunately for McGregor, that “season” was, in essence, cancelled once March rolled around, as a global pandemic put everyone’s plans on hold. Events were postponed or scrapped, travel was restricted, and UFC president Dana White was forced to create “Fight Island” to allow the show to go on.
The title fight between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson never happened, Gaethje beat Ferguson to win the interim lightweight title, and the division moved forward without the “Notorious” one.
Nurmagomedov then defeated Gaethje in October for the undisputed lightweight crown, and announced his retirement immediately after the fight. From there, question marks popped up with regards to the future of the division, and McGregor popped right back into the conversation.
So, with all of that in mind, what is the correct course of action for McGregor in 2021? Who should he fight, and when should the bouts happen?
If McGregor is looking for another chance at a “season” in the new year, here’s an idea of what that could look like:
Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier in January
The bout is all but confirmed by the UFC as of November 16, 2020, and it appears as if McGregor will be squaring off against Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 on January 23, 2021.
Almost a year after his last fight in the Octagon, McGregor will take on Poirier for the second time in his career, more than six years after their first fight in 2014.
McGregor and Poirier began stirring the pot for a potential rematch in the second half of 2020, with both initially planning out dates for the end of 2020. At one point, it even appeared as if the fight could’ve taken place as a charity bout, away from the UFC brand all together.
Instead, it looks like the two will do battle in an official setting at lightweight in January, with major implications for the future of the division amid Nurmagomedov’s retirement.
Similar to the Cerrone fight, this matchup is a solid “season opener” for McGregor, albeit serving as a much tougher fight. The prior bout against Poirier means almost nothing at this point, and Poirier has emerged as one of the lightweight division’s most dangerous fighters in the six years since the duo’s first tango in 2014.
For our purposes, we’ll operate under the assumption that McGregor takes the rematch, and sets his eyes on the second bout of his 2021 “season schedule.”
Conor McGregor vs. Rafael Dos Anjos in May or June
One of the most pivotal moments of Conor McGregor’s UFC career came because of a scheduled bout with Rafael dos Anjos, and the fight never even happened.
dos Anjos was supposed to defend his lightweight title against McGregor at UFC 196 in March of 2016, but was forced to pull out of the bout due to a broken foot. Instead, McGregor took on Nate Diaz on short notice, Diaz pulled off one of the biggest upsets in UFC history, and one of the biggest rivalries the company has ever seen was born.
Meanwhile, dos Anjos was left to defend his title against Eddie Alvarez four months later, and lost by TKO in the first round. Alvarez went on to lose the belt to McGregor in November of that year, and the rest is history.
After a stint at welterweight, dos Anjos returned to lightweight in November of 2020, and took out No. 7-ranked Paul Felder on short notice in a dominant decision victory. During his post-fight interview, dos Anjos called out a former foe in McGregor, reigniting their rivalry from four years prior.
“I think if Khabib is really retired, it will leave the division wide open,” dos Anjos said. “If you look to the contenders, I think only me and Conor, we are the only real champions in that division. Everybody else is all interim champions, so I think if the division is open, me and Conor is the fight to make.”
McGregor was quick to accept the challenge on Twitter, saying “I’m in for sure,” before posting some throwback photos of himself, dos Anjos and Dana White from 2016.
It may not seem like a massive fight for UFC fans looking at McGregor’s next move, given the amount of time that has passed since the initial bout was scheduled and dos Anjos’ record since, but the matchmaking does make some sense.
dos Anjos took out the No.7-ranked fighter in his return to the division, and could land a bout with a fighter like No. 5 Dan Hooker or No. 6 Charles Oliveira early in 2020.
Meanwhile, McGregor would have just taken out the No. 2-ranked Poirier in January, but will likely need to wait for something definitive from Nurmagomedov in order to have any shot of a title fight in the first half of 2020.
The UFC has refused to strip Nurmagomedov of the lightweight title, he has remained in USADA’s testing pool despite his retirement, and Nurmagomedov has consistently said in the past that McGregor wouldn’t be getting a title shot. With all of that in mind, it seems like the champion’s next fight would involve UFC legend Georges St. Pierre or a longtime dream opponent in Tony Ferguson.
Give McGregor a solid opponent that could solidify his status towards the top of the lightweight division, and allow him the chance to make a case for a title shot with another victory over a top-tier opponent.
Add in the history he and dos Anjos have together already, and it seems like a solid fight for the UFC to consider for May or June.
Conor McGregor vs. Tony Ferguson or Justin Gaethje in November
To wrap up McGregor’s “season,” it’s time to book the biggest fight possible for him at lightweight.
By this point, the UFC will have an answer as it relates to Nurmagomedov, and the champion could have already completed his push for 30-0 with a bout against St. Pierre or Ferguson. From there, the promotion may not have a lightweight champion, and may be looking for a fight to crown a new king in the division.
If McGregor can string together two big wins over top-10 lightweight opponents in 2021, he will have arguably the best case for a title shot near the end of the year. From there, it depends on what happens with the rest of the division.
The likely option is a bout with Justin Gaethje, given the fact that he was the division’s most recent interim champion and holds a decisive win over Tony Ferguson in 2020. But, if Ferguson can bounce back in a big way in 2021, a fight between him and McGregor would be just as entertaining.
A fight with Nurmagomedov doesn’t seem to be in the cards. So, Gaethje and Ferguson likely represent the two best candidates for McGregor’s third and final fight of his 2021 “season,” all potentially leading to the second lightweight title reign of the Irishman’s UFC career.