Conor McGregor left out of lightweight title picture, so what's next for the UFC's biggest star?

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Much of what happens in the UFC revolves around Conor McGregor. The UFC sells more tickets, and at a higher price, when he fights. It sells more pay-per-views when McGregor is on the card.

UFC president Dana White gets asked about McGregor far more than any other fighter and the conversation surrounding McGregor on social media dwarfs that of any other fighter.

But as the UFC prepares to return to action after three shows were canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s McGregor who is the big star on the outside looking in with nothing significant lined up.

Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s ill-fated decision to leave his training camp in San Jose, California, to fly to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates ultimately led him to have to pull out of his title defense against archrival Tony Ferguson that had been planned for April 18 in Brooklyn.

Nurmagomedov thought the show would be moved to Abu Dhabi, relying, he said, on information he’d been given by UFC officials. But not long after Nurmagomedov arrived in Abu Dhabi, the royal family made the decision to shut the country down. So Nurmagomedov made the decision to return to his home in Dagestan, Russia.

He then withdrew from UFC 249, not knowing the location and if he’d be able to get out of Russia.

On Monday, White announced that No. 4 Justin Gaethje would replace Nurmagomedov against Ferguson and that the bout would be for the interim lightweight title. On Tuesday, news broke that it would be held at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, California.

That was the first shot against McGregor, because White had said for weeks that McGregor would fight the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson winner. But the UFC also had interest in having McGregor face Gaethje as one of the featured bouts during International Fight Week at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on July 11, given that the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson winner wouldn’t be available until fall.

Gaethje then closed that option for McGregor by taking the Ferguson fight, and Nurmagomedov will get the Ferguson-Gaethje winner in the fall.

Lightweight contenders Dustin Poirier and Dan Hooker look like they may fight each other, perhaps at welterweight.

So there is no easily makable major bout for the UFC’s biggest star.

Conor McGregor hasn't fought at 155 pounds since an October 2018 loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

White has long believed that a Nurmagomedov-McGregor rematch would sell over 4 million on pay-per-view, and so he planned to make it at all costs if Nurmagomedov beat Ferguson. Nurmagomedov has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to fight McGregor again after having beaten him by submission at UFC 228, which sold nearly 2.5 million on pay-per-view.

But he’d make a staggering amount of money to take the rematch and UFC officials were confident they’d be able to make the fight if Nurmagomedov had beaten Ferguson.

Now, though, there is no way that McGregor can fight for the title before Nurmagomedov returns. Nurmagomedov can’t fight or train during Ramadan, which is April 23 through May 23 this year.

But he’d be able to be ready by late summer or early fall, which would dovetail nicely on the schedule for the winner of the Ferguson-Gaethje bout.

Diaz or Felder could face McGregor

The natural opponent for McGregor would be Nate Diaz. They have fought twice previously, and each has done well on pay-per-view. A rubber match would be massive and could exceed 2 million. Diaz, though, is mercurial and difficult to pin down. 

McGregor, who has fights at welterweight on his résumé, could be matched against either BMF champion Jorge Masvidal or welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, but the UFC has been trying to pit them against each other for the welterweight title on International Fight Week.

McGregor has been urging social distancing in Ireland, and so isn’t looking to fight any time soon, but it’s still odd with so many significant bouts in his weight class that he’s not the centerpiece of those talks.

It’s evidence of the high-end talent in his division, but McGregor still is the cog in the wheel.

The UFC tentatively plans to return to Dublin on Aug. 15, but it has to be considered in doubt because of the coronavirus pandemic. If it does happen, it’s unlikely that McGregor would fight there because the arena isn’t big enough and the UFC would be leaving millions in gate money on the table if he fought there.

But a fight with Paul Felder — known as “The Irish Dragon” — would not only be a great stylistic match, but would be hugely popular in Dublin.

Things always change because of injury mostly, but plenty of other reasons. There is no way the UFC will forget about McGregor.

But the first man to hold two weight class championships simultaneously in the UFC is on the outside looking in as the promotion returns to action and mega-fights in his division are being made.

It’s not normal, but nothing is normal in these crazy times.

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