For a man who calls himself “Mystic Mac,” it always seems tough to predict what’s ahead for UFC star Conor McGregor.
Ever since McGregor’s lightweight title fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in 2018, there’s been a consistent cloud of mystery surrounding the Irishman’s future.
He didn’t fight in the Octagon for almost a year and a half after his loss against Nurmagomedov, and many wondered if he would ever fight again.
He made his way back to the cage for UFC 246 in January of 2020, finishing Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in an impressive first-round victory. Then, when it seemed like McGregor was ready for a full-time return, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed his and the UFC’s plans for the rest of the year.
In January of 2021, 370 days after his last fight against Cerrone, McGregor reemerged once more, shipping off to Fight Island to take on a former foe in Dustin Poirier, looking to knock out the Louisiana native for the second time in his career.
The stakes were high for that bout, and the UFC’s lightweight division was in limbo a few months removed from Nurmagomedov’s retirement from fighting.
If there was ever a time for McGregor to pull off one of his signature knockouts and cement his status at the top of the weight class, UFC 257 was it.
A win would’ve either led him to a rematch with Nurmagomedov, or a bout for the interim lightweight title in the spring or summer. For once, it seemed like there was at least some sort of direction for McGregor after years of uncertainty.
Then, Poirier pulled off a feat that was seemingly unthinkable. He knocked McGregor out in two rounds, handing the Irishman his second loss in the span of three fights.
That loss seemed to heighten doubts about McGregor’s future, even as the former featherweight and lightweight champion reassured fans that the loss wouldn’t be his last fight in the Octagon.
“I have to dust it off and come back, and that’s it,” McGregor told Jon Anik. “That’s what I will do.”
It became apparent rather quickly that McGregor was looking to do just that, as the UFC scheduled the trilogy fight between McGregor and Poirier for UFC 264 in July.
With a win, McGregor would skyrocket back into the title picture in the lightweight division, and would set himself up nicely for a litany of options down the line in 2021 and 2022.
Justin Gaethje, who beat Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title in 2020 before losing to Nurmagomedov in the latter’s last UFC fight, is waiting in the wings towards the top of the division.
Michael Chandler, a UFC newcomer with a slew of experience from his time in Bellator, is an intriguing option for any lightweight to consider, and he was close to winning the lightweight belt in the first round of UFC 262’s main event in May.
Or, the UFC could have McGregor jump the line to bring some stardom to the newly-crowned lightweight champion Charles Oliveira’s next fight, rewarding the Irishman with a title shot for a win over the top-ranked lightweight contender.
With a loss, however, the fallout could be much worse for McGregor and the UFC.
A second defeat at the hands of Poirier in the span of six months would be McGregor’s third loss in the span of four fights, and it would be devastating for his lightweight aspirations.
On the UFC’s end, a loss would hinder McGregor’s marketability as a true threat in the division, and would impact his ability to garner main event-level fights at lightweight.
Without that main event spotlight, it would be easy to see McGregor take his ball (in this case, millions of dollars) and go home, or take his talents back to the boxing ring.
If McGregor would be willing to stick around at lightweight for a less-appealing option behind him in the rankings, there is a potential opponent that perfectly fits into the “Notorious” one’s career journey: Rafael dos Anjos.
dos Anjos, a missed connection from McGregor’s past which ultimately led to his rivalry with Nate Diaz, is the seventh-ranked lightweight heading into UFC 264.
After returning to the lightweight division following a stretch of losses at welterweight, dos Anjos picked up an impressive win over Paul Felder in November of 2020. In the process, the former lightweight champion placed himself in the conversation as a name to watch out for in the division he used to reign supreme in.
If McGregor is in need of a dancing partner for the latter half of 2021, dos Anjos seems like an easy opponent to pair him up with.
But, if McGregor’s focus after a second loss against Poirier is solely on the financial side of things, there’s an easy, big-money main event that basically books itself for the end of 2021: a rematch with Nate Diaz.
Trilogies likely won’t be the happiest talking point for McGregor if he loses against Poirier at UFC 264. But, a potential trilogy bout with Diaz is a fight that fans have been clamoring for since the duo collided for a second time at UFC 202 in 2016.
In the reverse of McGregor’s current situation with Poirier, the Irishman saw himself on the losing end of his first bout with Diaz in early 2016 before avenging his loss in the second half of the year.
If McGregor wants to make waves with a major main event as fans file back into arenas across the country, a clash with Diaz is, without a doubt, the best option.
Throw out the weight classes, book the two for a five-round slugfest, and give McGregor the chance to either get back into the win column with a familiar face, or ride off into the sunset after concluding one of the UFC’s all-time rivalries.
Win or lose, the fallout from McGregor’s bout against Poirier at UFC 264 is guaranteed to be huge.
It could mark the beginning of McGregor’s return to the top of the UFC, or it could serve as the continuation of a fall from grace that ultimately leads to him riding off into the sunset.
It’s a whirlwind of a situation for anyone to try to decipher. But, just like McGregor’s rise from his days in Ireland to worldwide fame, sometimes the most entertaining paths are the ones you couldn’t possibly predict.