UFC needs McGregor-Diaz III now more than ever

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UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor said his next bout will be a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather. (Getty Images)
UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor said his next bout will be a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather. (Getty Images)

Saturday’s UFC 209 main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson is off after Nurmagomedov was hospitalized Friday due to complications from a severe weight cut. It’s a rough blow to the company. Nurmagomedov-Ferguson may not have broken into the mainstream consciousness, but it was highly anticipated by core fans and promised to deliver a thrilling bout.

Now it’s gone, extending a drought of major 2017 matchups, just as the UFC tries to find its footing under its new ownership group, William Morris Endeavor. WME dropped $4 billion to buy the UFC in late 2016.

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It’s why, now more than ever, it’s time for the UFC to solve its Conor McGregor problem.

That means ending the silly, distracting discussions about a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather and offering McGregor the greatest possible (non-Mayweather) payday available.

Set up a trilogy fight with Nate Diaz for this summer and make it worth McGregor’s while to end his break as he expects the spring birth of his first child.

McGregor-Diaz III may be the only fight (among any combination of fighters) the UFC can make that would assuredly draw more than 1 million pay-per-views.

That’s critical not just for WME, which has considerable debt service. The old days of the Fertitttas and Dana White being able to wait out downturns is over – they owned everything free and clear back then. Now a bill comes due each month.

It’s also important for the fans, who other than the hardcore followers, have been given little to get excited about thus far in 2017.

And it’s important for McGregor, mixed martial arts’ biggest star, who has technically stepped away from fighting but remains motivated almost exclusively by money, hence his public willingness to fight the world’s most elite boxer. He needs to focus on MMA, not circus acts.

McGregor’s two biggest pay-per-view successes came when he fought Diaz, a massively popular, if underappreciated fighter. The first fight had less than two weeks of hype and did a reported 1.3 million buys. The rematch went even higher – a reported 1.65 million. Not even McGregor’s headlining of the UFC’s historic first card in Madison Square Garden in November 2016 could approach either Diaz fight. It reportedly barely topped 1 million buys.

Diaz won their first fight via submission. McGregor won the second via close decision. Both were at 170 pounds, a seemingly advantageous weight for Diaz. However, Diaz has said he’d take the third one at McGregor’s preferred 155. That ought to help lure McGregor in.

Look, the fight would sell. It would be a jolt. It would offer the major event that WME has been lacking since taking over ownership. Fans, even ones who appreciate the deep undercard, like big fights and big hype. No one wins having both McGregor and Diaz sitting on the shelf.

The sport, in the long run, will be fine – new stars and new rivalries always emerge. WME bought the UFC for years or decades, not months. While the pay-per-view cards are struggling, the general television product and ratings are strong. The sky is not falling on WME. Still, this isn’t a great stretch.

Ronda Rousey’s career likely ended in December. A January card was canceled. The February one headlined by Holly Holm proved even duller than many feared, and Holm didn’t even win. Now 209, has taken a major hit.

Meanwhile, Jon Jones is still suspended due to PEDs. The return of Georges St-Pierre is delayed as he gets back into the testing protocol – and he’s set to take on Michael Bisping, perhaps in July. That won’t approach McGregor-Diaz, though. The April card led by a rematch of Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson isn’t going to do breakout numbers. It’s tough to imagine a heavyweight title fight of Stipe Miocic and Junior dos Santos in May doing much better. What else is out there? Fights by Joanna Jedzejczyk and Amanda Nunes? “The Ultimate Fighter” clash between T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt should be good, but that may not be on PPV. Even if it is, it doesn’t feel like a big headliner.

Diaz-McGregor III is, though. If that can’t work, then find a way to work Tony Ferguson in there. He can fight McGregor – although it won’t deliver the same payday as Diaz. Or square Diaz off against Ferguson and have the winner take McGregor in the fall.

Diaz likes fighting real fighters and Ferguson more than qualifies as that. It may not be the perfect fight, but it unleashes the buying power of Diaz, who has been inactive since August. And it at least sets up a progression to build on.

Slumps in talent, transition periods, injuries and bad luck are all part of mixed martial arts. The UFC has weathered them before and will weather them again. This is no different.

You could say the current slide requires some creative solutions, but it actually doesn’t.

Someone call Nate. Someone call Conor. Make a deal and get the discussion back to what is going to happen inside the Octagon and not what delusional social-media interactions Mayweather and McGregor are involved in.

The sport, the fans and its new ownership need a big-time fight, ASAP. There is an obvious one waiting to be made.

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