If there was any question about who Conor McGregor wants to fight next, the answer was delivered on Monday afternoon in a series of profane tweets aimed at UFC interim lightweight champ Justin Gaethje.
McGregor said he would butcher Gaethje and put his teeth on a necklace. It’s a different stance than the one McGregor took late last year when Gaethje was calling him out before McGregor settled on facing Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone on Jan. 18.
Gaethje won the interim belt on Saturday night in a dominant performance, stopping Tony Ferguson via fifth-round TKO in the the UFC 249 main event.
UFC president Dana White repeatedly said the winner of Saturday’s fight would challenge lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov for the title, but could McGregor change those plans? McGregor is the biggest star in the history of the sport, and a fight against Gaethje — with a chance to land a rematch against Nurmagomedov — would be huge.
Meanwhile, Francis Ngannou emerged from Saturday’s 20-second knockout of Jairzinho Rozenstruik looking for a title shot, and few would argue his credentials. But heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic is in limbo as he fulfills his role as a part-time paramedic battling the coronavirus in a Cleveland suburb. Miocic also lamented not being able to train properly because his gym is closed.
White wants Miocic to defend his belt in a trilogy bout against Daniel Cormier, who has said that will be his last fight before retirement. White has indicated he could strip Miocic if he doesn’t fight soon. Will Ngannou wait it out or take another fight in the meantime?
And if Henry Cejudo really is retired, what happens at bantamweight?
ESPN’s panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim tackles these questions and more.
With Conor calling out Gaethje, do you think the UFC will book that fight? If not, who’s Conor’s next opponent?
Okamoto: No, I don’t think the UFC will make that fight. There was a time when McGregor called the shots — when almost nothing happened in the UFC’s lightweight division without considering him first — but that is no longer the case. Don’t get me wrong, McGregor still holds a lot of power in terms of calling his shot, but he can’t simply demand Gaethje on social media on a Monday and delay a title unification bout between Gaethje and Nurmagomedov. Now, what I will say, is we are living in strange times, as we all know. And those strange times affect athletes’ ability to train, travel itineraries, and visa applications. If, logistically, the UFC runs into problems booking Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje, then anything is possible. But as of right now, I would guess McGregor’s next opponent is Nate Diaz.
Raimondi: McGregor vs. Gaethje would make sense in some ways for the UFC. Dana White has said all along that the fight he covets most is the Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor rematch. If McGregor beats Gaethje, there’s no other fight that would make sense. However, that’s no slam dunk, and having McGregor fight Gaethje could jeopardize plans for that grudge match against Nurmagomedov.
What the UFC could possibly do is have McGregor wait and fight the Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje winner. That would also open up the possibility of having a live gate for a McGregor fight later in the year or in early 2021. There won’t be any fans at events for some time and McGregor would not be cheap to pay for without ticket sales. Another possibility is queuing up that anticipated trilogy bout between McGregor and Diaz. Although, do you really want to see that happen without fans in attendance? It wouldn’t be the same.
Wagenheim: Last week Conor was asking Diaz to “sign the contract” for their trilogy bout. Then he was dogging Oscar De La Hoya with “I accept your challenge.” Now he wants Gaethje. Who’ll it be next week, the rejuvenated Mike Tyson? Enough, already. It’s Gaethje vs. Nurmagomedov next for the lightweight championship. Period. If McGregor wants in on that action, he needs to go fight a top-five contender. (And Conor, here’s a hint for you: No, Nate Diaz is not a top-five contender.)
How should the UFC handle the bantamweight division, and who ends up as champ?
Brett Okamoto and Ariel Helwani discuss Henry Cejudo’s retirement announcement with Helwani not believing Cejudo is stepping away.
Okamoto: We need to know if Cejudo’s retirement is real. It felt like he was sincere about it on Saturday, but I don’t believe for one second he wouldn’t stick around if the UFC made it more worth his while. Will the UFC be open to doing that? Paying Cejudo more to get him to stay? I honestly don’t know. That’s a negotiation process that has to play out. My guess is that Cejudo ends up sticking around and faces the next No. 1 contender, which could still be Jose Aldo, according to the UFC. If Cejudo is in fact done, or done for the time being, I actually like Petr Yan vs. Marlon Moraes for the vacant strap. And have Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen fight on the same card.
Raimondi: The UFC should pay Cejudo enough to make it worth it for him to fight again. He’s been outspoken about pay in the past, and while I believe him that he will retire, I’m also fairly certain if the check is big enough he’ll continue to compete in MMA. Cejudo is one of the three best fighters on the planet, right behind Nurmagomedov and Jon Jones. It would be awful to lose him at 33 years old as he only continues to get better. Cringe act aside, Cejudo is an incredible fighter, and it would be such a shame to have him not fulfill his goals of becoming one of the best of all time.
Wagenheim: Moments after Cejudo’s retirement announcement, Sterling tweeted out a call for a fight with Yan for the title. “You know I’m in!” Yan immediately responded. “Let’s do it.” So there it is. Vacancy filled. I lean toward Sterling in that fight, but it would be fire. And line up Sandhagen vs. Moraes to see who gets next.
Assuming Stipe-DC 3 takes place in August or September, should Ngannou take another fight in the meantime or wait it out?
Okamoto: Wait it out, for sure. Now, that’s easier said than done. This man is in a serious groove right now, and none of his last four fights has lasted 90 seconds. I’m sure he’d like to stay active, because staying active gets you paid. But he is clearly, without question, the next title challenger at heavyweight. And a fight against Miocic or Cormier would be a big one. And at some point, Jones is coming to the heavyweight division. Ngannou is right in the mix of what could be some of the biggest fights in UFC heavyweight history. That’s worth waiting for.
Raimondi: It would be a long wait. He’d probably have to fight again, unfortunately. Ngannou has more than earned another title shot. But Miocic doesn’t seem to want to fight until the fall or when there are major improvements in the coronavirus pandemic situation. And who could blame him? His first priority right now is his other occupation: Paramedic and firefighter. Miocic is very serious about it. That is not just a job to him — it’s a vocation. He’s every bit as passionate about that work as he is MMA, maybe moreso. Maybe there’s something the UFC can do with Cormier and Ngannou, like an interim title like what happened with Ferguson and Gaethje. That’s not an ideal solution, but Miocic should be given some space here as he attempts to save lives on a regular basis.
Wagenheim: Ngannou already has earned another shot at the big-boy belt. He’s done enough. Whether Francis opts to render another man unconscious in the meantime is purely a financial decision. Can he pay his bills if he’s sitting out for up to a year? It’s not like time in the cage is what’s keeping him sharp. Ngannou knocked out his last four opponents — all top-shelf heavyweights — in a total of 2 minutes, 42 seconds, which is a pretty good hourly pay rate. If he can afford to sit and wait, I say he should do so.
Did Ferguson make a mistake in accepting the Gaethje fight?
Paul Felder joins SportsCenter with Chael Sonnen to break down how Justin Gaethje was able to defeat Tony Ferguson at UFC 249.
Okamoto: I think Ferguson made a mistake in cutting weight twice in three weeks. There was absolutely zero reason for him to do that. And I don’t care what he says, that could not have helped his performance on Saturday. Ferguson is a man who marches to the beat of his own drum, and it’s worked out well for him. But the human body is not supposed to cut that much weight at all if we’re being honest, let alone twice in a short amount of time. I’m not saying it cost him the fight, but it did him no favors, and what did he gain from doing it? Nothing. As far as accepting the fight itself, no, I don’t think it was a mistake. He’s a fighter, and this how he makes his living. This was a paycheck and a great opportunity to build his brand. Had he sat out, there were no guarantees on exactly what would have been next. I don’t blame him or his management for accepting the bout.
Raimondi: The short answer is no. Ferguson invested a ton of money, time and effort into a long training camp to fight Nurmagomedov for the title. Is he supposed to just drop all of that and wait a few more long months just for the possibility of fighting Nurmagomedov? Because we know nothing is guaranteed, especially when it comes to these two. I don’t think Ferguson made a mistake, but it is a terrible shame we never got to see Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson while both were on historic winning streaks. In fact, it’s one of the biggest matchmaking bummers in recent UFC history. The craziest thing is that it was really nobody’s fault. The universe stepped in and stole this one away from us for some reason. It stinks.
Wagenheim: Last month Tony was lined up to fight for the championship. Now he isn’t. So yes, of course he made a mistake. But he hadn’t competed in nearly a year, and those tractor tires, baseballs and sunglasses cost money. Bottom line, though: Tony is Tony. Are you going to tell him not to fight? He clearly loves what he does, and he’s good at it. So he took the Gaethje fight, knowing the risk, and it didn’t go his way. Life is not over. Let’s see how he rebounds.
My one bold prediction for the two cards this week is _
Okamoto: Dan Ige finishes Edson Barboza in their featherweight fight on May 16. I’ve been saying it for awhile: the featherweight division is where it’s at! Most intriguing division in the UFC right now. I’m definitely curious to see how Barboza looks at 145, but I think people are sleeping on Ige. Knockout or submission win for Ige.
Raimondi: A new title contender will emerge in some division. Perhaps more than one. If Anthony Smith knocks off Glover Teixeira, he’ll have won two straight and it’ll be hard to not put him on the shortlist of light heavyweight title hopefuls — even though he has already lost to Jones. Walt Harris is another possibility. If he beats Alistair Overeem, it’ll be the biggest win of his career and he’ll be right behind Ngannou in the heavyweight pecking order. And then there’s Angela Hill. This will be her seventh fight in 14 months. That’s an absurd stat. But if she beats Claudia Gadelha it’ll also make four straight wins and the biggest victory for her career. Hill would go from “female ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone” to potential future title contender.
Wagenheim: Fans are going to go into Saturday focusing on Walt Harris the human interest story, given the gut-wrenching loss of his stepdaughter to a fatal kidnapping. They’re going to end the night viewing Harris as a heavyweight star. He’s had four straight knockout wins, but none of his opponents have had the high profile of Alistair Overeem. Watch Harris close the show in style.