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LAS VEGAS – Lost amid all of the craziness that ensued following the conclusion of UFC 229 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena is this simple fact: Conor McGregor has come to a career crossroads as a fighter.
The original “champ-champ” was submitted in the fourth round by lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, making him 2-2 in his last four MMA fights and 2-3 if one includes his 2017 boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.
Though McGregor became the first man in Nurmagomedov’s 27-fight career to win a round from him, he was thoroughly thrashed and wasn’t really in the fight. McGregor is a striker, though he did a commendable job fighting off Nurmagomedov’s vaunted grappling, especially early. But he was on the defensive most of the time and trying to get away from the gritty champion.
McGregor spent most of the first round on his back, being worked over by Nurmagomedov. He spent most of the second round doing the same, though he took more of a beating in the second than he had in the first.
It was also in the second where the only knockdown of the fight was scored. A right hand by Nurmagomedov dropped McGregor. And while he wasn’t badly hurt, it was a notable event given the perceived advantage McGregor had on the feet.
McGregor managed to keep the third round standing, which is more than most of Nurmagomedov opponents could say, but he never landed that one clean shot he needed to change the course of the fight. In the decisive fourth round he was, to use Nurmagomedov’s pre-fight words, mauled.
He wasted little time tapping his submission once Nurmagomedov sank in the rear-naked choke.
McGregor made an enormous amount of money from Saturday’s show, with the take likely zooming past $30 million when the pay-per-view receipts are counted. UFC president Dana White wasn’t in a mood to discuss the pay-per-view after the melee ruined what had been up to that point a spectacular night, but it’s probably safe to say McGregor made the biggest payday of his MMA career and his second largest payday ever.
He signed a six-fight contract extension with the UFC last month, and posted on social media that he will return to competition. At this stage of his career, McGregor is only going to take meaningful, potentially historic fights.
McGregor noted on Twitter that he was interested in a rematch, but it’s hard to see how the outcome would change given the gulf between them on the ground. The online sportsbook Bovada made Nurmagomedov a minus-280 favorite to defeat McGregor in a potential rematch. Nurmagomedov closed at minus-185 at the MGM Grand sportsbook on Saturday.
It made odds on who would be McGregor’s next opponent, with Nurmagomedov the overwhelming favorite at minus-160. It has Nate Diaz at 13-10; Jose Aldo at 9-1; Georges St-Pierre at 15-4 and welterweight champion Tyron Woodley at 18-1.
The most lucrative of those fights would be with St-Pierre, the former welterweight and middleweight champion who is also one of the most popular fighters in the sport’s history. But given St-Pierre’s outstanding wrestling and grappling, as well as his physical size advantage, it’s hard to see McGregor defeating him.
The same is true of Woodley, an All-American collegiate wrestler who would seemingly be able to power McGregor to the mat.
An immediate rematch with Nurmagomedov seems unlikely for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the Nevada Athletic Commission is likely to suspend him for leaping over the cage. While McGregor’s insults over the two-month promotional were far too personal, there is no excuse for Nurmagomedov’s attack on McGregor teammate Dillon Danis.
By doing that, Nurmagomedov put the safety of innocent people at risk.
McGregor, though, wasn’t innocent, either. Not long after Nurmagomedov went after Danis, McGregor climbed the cage and had one leg over trying to get to the floor and get involved in the melee. He was restrained from doing so by Charvez Foger, an inspector for the Nevada Athletic Commission.
But videos shot by fans and posted to social media clearly show McGregor, while he’s on top of the cage, punching a member of Nurmagomedov’s team in the face as that person was also trying to go over the cage to get involved in the fracas on the floor:
McGregor has history with the Nevada commission for throwing bottles at a news conference with Diaz in 2016. He also took part in the infamous bus attack in Brooklyn in April, which the Nevada commission will take into account when it assesses this incident.
McGregor should get kudos for not reacting when he was punched by two of Nurmagomedov’s teammates who illegally entered the cage. One of them was so gutless that he struck McGregor from behind. But that’s only going to mitigate a penalty handed down by the commission, not eliminate it entirely.
So McGregor will likely be suspended for a while, as well. Upon his return, though, would it make sense to match him with a powerful wrestler? Not if the UFC wants to keep him around for a while as its greatest pay-per-view attraction.
The fight to make next for McGregor in light of everything would be the winner of the Dustin Poirier-Diaz fight, which is the co-main event of UFC 230 in New York. McGregor has wins over both men, though Diaz submitted him with a rear-naked choke at UFC 196 in March of 2016.
McGregor is a hugely exciting fighter when matched with the right opponent. A match with Ferguson would also be an amazing fight for him, though Ferguson deserves a championship shot.
A good guess is that if Nurmagomedov is suspended and Poirier defeats Diaz at UFC 230, Ferguson and Poirier would subsequently fight for an interim lightweight title after that. That would leave McGregor to then do a rubber match with Diaz.
A loss, or even three losses in his last five overall fights, doesn’t keep McGregor from remaining a massive draw. The potential matches he faces, though, are difficult and he’s likely to be a heavy underdog in most of them.
Before he thinks about the next one, though, he’ll have to worry about how Nevada deals with him. Throwing that punch while he was perched on the top of the cage was ill-advised and will cost him dearly.
Right now, fending off the Nevada Athletic Commission will be McGregor’s next fight.
More UFC 229 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Kevin Iole: Crazy scene erupts after Khabib submits Conor
• Dan Wetzel: Despite ugly scene, UFC will gladly cash in
• Khabib says Putin congratulated him after fight
• UFC skips ceremony after Khabib’s attack