The relationship between the UFC and its biggest star, Conor McGregor, has never been more opaque than it is right now.
The lightweight champion hasn't fought in the Octagon since November 2016, when he won the 155-pound title from Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205. In the wake of his mega boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in August 2017, McGregor has frequently been seen and heard on social media—including the recent claim he tried to "save" UFC 222—but hasn't made any clear statements about what's next for him.
UFC President Dana White has been only slightly more forthcoming. The fight company has announced a bout between interim lightweight champ Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov for UFC 223 in April but has been unwilling to confirm it will strip McGregor of his title in the process.
The latest reports offer little in the way of clarity.
Wrestling Observer Newsletter's Dave Meltzer wrote Thursday that negotiations are "going well" between the two parties and that the UFC may be planning to have McGregor do "two fights in 2018" (h/t Bloody Elbow's Aaron Tabuena).
Meanwhile, TMZ Sports caught up with White and tried to ask him some pointed questions about the UFC's plans for McGregor, but White only chuckled and repeated the same non-answers he gave during the introductory press conference for Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov.
All of which raises a fleet of interesting questions and possibilities. Here to try to suss out which UFC-McGregor storylines to buy and which to sell are Bleacher Report lead MMA writer Chad Dundas and featured columnist Matthew Ryder.
BUY or SELL? Things are "going well" between the UFC and McGregor right now.
Chad: I'm buying this, though only cautiously. First of all, Meltzer is a credible guy, and I believe him when he reports there are mostly positive feelings around negotiations.
The UFC and McGregor both drive hard bargains, but—aside from a couple minor dust-ups—they have always been able to come together to make business happen. They pulled off the impossible in Mayweather vs. McGregor, for Pete's sake. Considering all the egos involved in that, anything else should feel like child's play moving forward.
McGregor must also know his only long-term future is as an MMA fighter and in the UFC. Boxing will quickly turn into a dead end for him. If he's serious about fighting again without engaging in a lengthy legal battle, I'm betting he will return to the UFC eventually. Anything else is most likely just posturing.
Matthew: I'm selling. I think things are "going well" between the UFC and McGregor the same way they are "going well" for me and hurricanes: As in, I'm not actively being hit by a hurricane, but that doesn't mean one couldn't come along and hit me at any time—at which point things would decidedly not be going well.
All is likely pretty quiet between the two sides, but once they get down to brass tacks, there will come a time when the UFC has to do some things it's never done before to keep a fighter happy. It will have to cough up bigger-than-ever guaranteed fight purses or ownership in the company to keep McGregor happy, plus who knows what else. And you have to think that's going to be a sticking point.
And when it sticks, Conor, the biggest star the sport has known and the man more deserving of special financial treatment than anyone in history, will balk. I don't know where else he could go or what else he might do, but the past year has shown that if something other than MMA pays well enough for him to go there or do it, he will.
BUY or SELL? The UFC will strip Conor McGregor of his title before UFC 223.
Chad: Sell. I have no idea what White and the UFC think they are doing with all this double-talk about the lightweight championship. It seems as though the promotion wants to have its cake and eat it too—billing Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov as being for the "real" title while keeping McGregor ensconced as the company's most marketable, most popular champion.
Unless things totally break down between the UFC and McGregor, I kind of get the impression the organization is OK with emerging from UFC 223 with two "real" lightweight champions. From a promotional standpoint, maybe that isn't the worst idea in the world, even if it makes zero sense logically. If that's the plan, it makes it imperative McGregor fights the winner. That could be a tall task.
Matthew: I'm buying this one. I'm keen on the theory that the UFC will allow Conor to hold the title until Tony and Khabib make weight and line up across the cage from one another, at which point it will strip Conor and name the UFC 223 bout's winner the official champion.
By the time UFC 223 rolls around, the promotion is going to have a good idea whether it can lock up McGregor for a bout or two in 2018, and I believe company brass will cut bait on the "McGregor as real champion" narrative if that's what it has to do. After all, Conor isn't above showing up with a belt anyway—or outright stealing someone else's—so it would have the promotional material it would need if he did come back to fight Ferguson or Nurmagomedov.
I happen to have $20 I never want to see again right here in my pocket, so I'm buying.
BUY or SELL? The Ferguson-Nurmagomedov winner will be the "real" UFC lightweight champ.
Chad: Sell. White can try to market UFC 223 as being for the "real" title all he wants, but I have a feeling MMA fans likely won't be as bullish on the idea. Everybody loves Ferguson's flashy, devil-may-care skills and Nurmagomedov's ice-cold demeanor, but for the foreseeable future, the path to being the world's No. 1 155-pound fighter still runs through McGregor.
The Ferguson-Nurmagomedov winner won't quite have Daniel Cormier's problems. Neither has previously lost to The Notorious, while Cormier has lost twice to former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones. If I may boost a line from Ric Flair here: To be the man, you (still) have to beat the man.
Matthew: Sell. Sell, sell, sell. Sell. This is classic bogus White carnival barking. To be fair, I can't hate him for it. He's been inventing narratives and strong-arming discussions for so long it's second nature to him. He cannot, however, simply bend the fabric of reality to meet his needs.
McGregor is the champion, and nobody has beaten him for that title. I'm still open to arguing he remains the true featherweight champion as well—in the same way Jones is still the rightful 205-pound champ, but all that is for another day. For these purposes, McGregor is simply the one and true UFC lightweight champion.
Ferg and Nurmy (buddy-cop show, anyone?) are big time in their own right, but until they beat McGregor you can't consider either of them the "real champ."
BUY or SELL? McGregor's next fight will be against the UFC 223 winner.
Chad: Sell! Oh, sweet mother, sell. Look, as I said at the top, I'm pretty confident McGregor will return to the UFC, but I damn sure don't think he's going to let the organization start dictating which people he will fight or when. Fact is, Ferguson and Nurmagomedov still represent that most poisonous combination in combat sports: a tough fight for the smallest potential financial return.
Two things we know for sure about McGregor. One, money talks. Two, at least thus far, every forward step he's taken in his career has been bigger than the last. It's unclear how he might top his boxing match against Mayweather, but it won't be with a low-profile bout against T-Ferg or Nurmy.
If and when he returns to the Octagon, a third fight against Nate Diaz, a superfight against someone like Georges St-Pierre or jumping to welterweight to fight for the 170-pound title all make more financial sense.
Matthew: I'm setting myself up to feel like an idiot when "McGregor vs. Mayweather II: THIS TIME THERE ARE NO RULES!" is booked in the UFC in late summer, but what's life without a bit of risk? I'll buy.
There has become a general perception in MMA that McGregor is entirely focused on money. While that's largely true, I'm not sure it's entirely true. You have to remember McGregor built his legacy on beating the tar out of a boatload of short-notice replacements and never complained about it. In fact, his only UFC loss came to Nate Diaz on short notice.
I'm therefore not sure he's a man who was never without competitive fire, and I'm not sure he's a man without competitive fire these days. In fact, I am sure his opportunities to chase money and get rich were born of an unmatched competitive fire from 2014 to 2016. And I think that fire still burns—buoyed further by the claim he offered to fight Frankie Edgar at UFC 222.
I think it's going to burn him right into a fight with the Ferguson-Nurmagomedov winner, and I can't wait to see that.
BUY or SELL? McGregor never fights again.
Chad: Sell. White closed out his interview with TMZ Sports with his common refrain that McGregor has so much money in the bank he might never return to combat sports. I admit that, initially, I wondered whether the Mayweather bout might be McGregor's exit strategy from being a professional fighter. We know he harbors bigger goals—whether as a liquor mogul or as a fight promoter.
Still, at 29, McGregor ain't done. There's an essential part of him that craves the competition and the limelight that comes with fighting. It's hard to get that rush anywhere else. It's nearly impossible to get it anywhere that will pay him quite as handsomely. I fully believe McGregor will strap on the gloves again. Where? When? Against whom? Those are the real questions.
Matthew: Definitely selling that idea. Be it in the UFC or in a rematch against Mayweather, the Republic of Ireland's favorite son will 100 percent fight again.
I don't think he's long for this fight game, though. He exhibits an awareness of the dangers of his chosen trade and his newfound "Diddy bread" is sure to make it easier to walk away.
I'll say McGregor fights, in this order: the UFC 223 winner, Floyd Mayweather in MMA (I'm serious, and I hate myself for that), Nate Diaz and the welterweight champion, whoever that is at the time. Then he retires, richer than he could have dreamed he would ever be and with just enough to his legacy for people to remember him mostly fondly.