Who Should Conor McGregor Face in His UFC Return?

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2019

Who Should Conor McGregor Face in His UFC Return?

0 of 6

    John Locher/Associated Press

    Will the real Conor McGregor please stand up?

    The Irishman built his brand—and supplemented his finances—by blending a combative personality with a caustic fighting style that reenergized mixed martial arts following the flameout of Ronda Rousey.

    He vaporized Jose Aldo in 13 seconds atop the UFC 194 show in Las Vegas, broke pay-per-view records amid a classic two-bout series with Nate Diaz and then routed Eddie Alvarez to become, albeit briefly, the promotion's first simultaneous two-division titleholder (featherweight and lightweight).

    And all that before an extravagant boxing dalliance against Floyd Mayweather Jr. that crossed over into the mainstream, thanks in no small measure to McGregor's villainous charisma and media chops.     

    But these days, it's not quite so certain what the "notorious" label conveys.

    McGregor's post-Mayweather return to the MMA world resulted in a submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov, which has been followed by a tumultuous 10 months wherein he's, among other things, been sued, arrested and announced what turned out to be a short-lived retirement.

    A recent ESPN interview heralded the metamorphosis of combat sports' clickbait king, with McGregor suggesting to Ariel Helwani he's a changed manparticularly as far as his out-of-cage conduct is concerned—and willing to prove it with a return to the octagonal elite.

    "That's not the attitude or the behavior of a leader, of a martial artist, of a champion," he said, referring to a recently surfaced video of a bar fracas from earlier this year. "I must get my head screwed on and just get back in the game and fight for redemption, retribution and respect—the things that have made me the man I am, and that's what I will do."

    He rattled off a stream-of-consciousness list of possible dance partners for a would-be return to the cage later this year. And toward that athletic end, we compiled our picks for the half-dozen who make the most (or the least) sense from both a competitive and consumer-friendly standpoint.

    Take a look to see how our collection jibes with yours.

6. Khabib Nurmagomedov

1 of 6

    John Locher/Associated Press

    In his competitive heart of hearts, it may be the fight McGregor wants most of all.

    If his legacy-protecting brain of brains has a say, though, it ought to be the one he avoids at all costs.

    Khabib wasn't dominant from start to finish when the men got together in October in Las Vegas, but the gap between them when the action went to the mat was one-sided enough that the Irishman would be best-served by nearly any other career path. At least for the time being.

    True, the hatred between them seems real. And yes, a fully-motivated McGregor is a tough out for anyone.

    Lest anyone forget, however, the Russian is 27-0 for a reason.

    All 10 of the opponents who have managed to go the distance with Nurmagomedov have lost by unanimous decisions. And in the 17 fights that have ended early, eight have been by KO/TKO and nine, including McGregor, by submission.

    The fact that McGregor wants it again is admirable.

    "I want my world title back," he told Helwani, referencing Nurmagomedov's capture of the lightweight belt. "I want that redemption. I can come back and avenge that."

    But given the plethora of other ways to make money, it's a craving he needs to kick.

5. Justin Gaethje

2 of 6

    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    You've got to give Justin Gaethje some credit.

    Though he's a known commodity to only the hardcore MMA set, he clearly has aplomb when it comes to getting his name into a more mainstream conversation—in this case, the race to ride shotgun to McGregor if and when the UFC supernova returns to the octagonal spotlight.

    A few days after McGregor suggested the Arizona native might have been called for a summertime date had an injury not scuttled the idea, Gaethje mixed reverence and venom while chatting with TMZ Sports (via BJPenn.com) in what could serve as an audition for the decision-makers at Notorious Inc.

    Or, in the parlance of Twitter trolls, #ShotsFired.

    "[McGregor] just has to fight and we're talking about it," he said. "He brings the most attention, he's the biggest superstar in this sport, he's not even fighting and he's still the biggest superstar. So, of course, I want to f--k him up. I see him punch an old man, do I want to punch him for that? F--k yeah! I want to f--k that dude up for s--t like that. He looks like a crackhead."

    Blathering aside, Gaethje's aggressive, stand-up style would yield highlight-reel possibilities for McGregor. Nevertheless, it seems an unlikely choice unless the Irishman and his handlers decide a confidence-builder is more vital than a money-maker in his first post-Nurmagomedov appearance.

4. Frankie Edgar

3 of 6

    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Imagine, a run-up to a Conor McGregor fight with, wait for it... civility.

    Hard as it might be to fathom, that's the early indication of what it might look like should McGregor choose longtime UFC stalwart Frankie Edgar as the yin to his retirement-ending yang.

    Edgar's was on the laundry list of names McGregor rattled off in the aforementioned ESPN audience with Ariel Helwani, and the now-37-year-old quickly let it be known that he'd be happy to oblige.

    With nary an insult in sight.

    In fact, Edgar said he'd delay a planned weight-class transition to accommodate such an offer.

    "I know I'm going down to bantamweight," he tweeted this week. "But for you, any weight class will do. Anytime, any weight class, you know I'm game."

    McGregor suggested Edgar thanks to the veteran's similarities to Nurmagomedov, whom the former featherweight and lightweight champion has also targeted as part of his redemption mission.

    Edgar, by anyone's account, would be an easier payday, particularly after two losses in his last three fights.

    Call it Gaethje-level safety, with better name recognition.

3. Jose Aldo

4 of 6

    John Locher/Associated Press

    And now we crank it up a notch.

    If it turns out that McGregor is willing to risk just a little bit more when it comes to putting his toes back in the UFC water, perhaps Jose Aldo is the man he should ring.

    For those uninitiated, the right side of Aldo's jaw was ground zero for McGregor's emergence as MMA's standard-bearer thanks to a one-shot KO that came after all of 13 seconds back at UFC 194 in 2015.

    The high-profile mugging netted McGregor the featherweight championship and ended Aldo's 18-fight unbeaten streak. The Brazilian has lost three times in six subsequent fights and has intermittently waffled on the topic of a possible McGregor 2.0, but he did take to Instagram to call out his former foe, saying "It's time, Joker."

    It's not the hardest option out there for McGregor, but Aldo, even at 32 and in the midst of a skid, is no joke. And few things are as motivating as the chance to erase a loss that overshadows all your wins.

    Put it in the Big Apple and watch the stars come out.

2. Max Holloway

5 of 6

    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Yes, they fought already. But it was a long time ago.

    So long ago that Max Holloway was only 21.

    So long ago that Conor McGregor was not a household name.

    So long ago that it came on a Fox Sports 1 broadcast, not a pay-per-view show.

    And it's that lengthy time lapse—72 months and counting—that makes the prospect of a rematch between the two much more intriguing, and that much more challenging for the first time's winner.

    Now 27 and a nine-year pro, Holloway succeeded McGregor as UFC featherweight champion and has won 14 of 15 fights since the three-round decision loss in 2013. He owns two TKO wins over Aldo, beat Edgar in his most recent fight and had no hesitation when asked whether a second go-around was on his radar.

    "A McGregor fight can happen any way," Holloway told Dave Doyle of MMA Fighting in 2016. "He said 155, 170. I recently said I'll go ahead and fight heavyweight if he wants to fight heavyweight."

    McGregor, too, indicated in his ESPN interview that Holloway had earned the opportunity:

    "If you beat a man convincingly, a first-round KO, a dominating performance, there's not really a need for a rematch. But, if that individual rises up the ranks, if he goes back, checks himself, humbles himself, stays focused, stays positive, and rises up exactly like Dustin Poirier has done, and exactly like Max Holloway has done, well then there is rematches deserved."

1. Nate Diaz

6 of 6

    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    There are opponents for whom McGregor is better suited stylistically.

    There are opponents for whom the reward would further outpace the risk.

    But when it comes to the tantalizing meld of outside-cage circus and inside-cage spectacle, no opponent can provide a more visceral payoff than Nate Diaz.

    The foes engaged in as good a two-bout series as the sport has produced across five glorious months in 2016, with Diaz arriving as a late substitute and shocking McGregor at UFC 196 in March before the Irishman revealed his inner steel and won an instant-classic rematch at UFC 202 in August.

    The press conferences leading up to both bouts were a just-as-compelling hors d'oeuvres, and the rivalry has regained cyber buzz since Diaz ended a three-year exodus with a defeat of Anthony Pettis earlier in August.

    Not to mention, no less an authority than McGregor's own coach, John Kavanagh, went on record earlier in the summer to say it's the fight that he would most like to see his man take.

    "I always loved the Diaz trilogy," he told ESPN (via MMA Fighting). "I've kind of said that from the start. ... If you're going to put a gun to me, it would be the Diaz trilogy. That would be for me."

    Good enough for us.

    Gentlemen, start your insults.