John Locher/Associated Press
Had Conor McGregor won his main event fight against Dustin Poirier at UFC 264 on Saturday, this article might well be about him challenging the UFC lightweight champion, Charles Oliveira, in the near future. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, the sport’s biggest star was brutalized and ultimately beaten when his tibia broke in the waning moments of the first round. It was a chaotic scene, comparable to the death of a star in the celestial sense, except that it was pain, anger and confusion that burst forth instead of superheated matter.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” UFC commentator Joe Rogan said as the replay showed McGregor’s ruined left ankle folding under the weight of a backward step.
After this grisly setback, which reduced McGregor’s UFC lightweight record to a hideous 1-3, the former champ-champ’s first priority will be a long and undeniably painful recovery. Once his injury begins to mend, he will inevitably begin to plot his next move, and when he does, he will most likely be disappointed.
The unfortunate reality is that the Irishman is suddenly short on options.
That’s not to say he’s completely without them. He could partake in a tiebreaking trilogy with Nate Diaz, which will seemingly do big business whenever it’s booked. However, Diaz has always been difficult to coax into the Octagon. Between that and McGregor’s recovery, which is likely to take quite a bit of time, it’s difficult to imagine this one happening any time soon. Even a 2022 date would seemingly require several small miracles to reach fruition.
Beyond that, there’s also a fourth fight with Poirier. While Poirier won his three-fight series with McGregor, the end of their third encounter certainly had a flukey quality to it—enough, at least, that UFC President Dana White, Poirier and the Irishman himself all seem determined to revisit the rivalry sometime down the road.
“The fight didn’t get finished,” White said at the UFC 264 post-fight press conference. “You can’t have a fight finish that way. We’ll see how this whole thing plays out. Who knows how long Conor’s out, so Poirier will do his thing until Conor’s ready.
“It’s all about timing, what’s going on, what happens [between now and] then,” White added. “Conor goes into surgery [on Sunday]. We don’t know how long he’s going to be out, how much rehab and therapy he’s going to need.”
A potential fourth fight would be a tough sell given the way Poirier handled McGregor in their second two bouts. While McGregor had his moments in both fights he lost, there’s no denying that Poirier put forth the far stronger performances. At this point, we all know who the better fighter is. Poirier is also headed for bigger and better things—namely a crack at Oliveira’s lightweight strap—and his interest in fighting McGregor may fade as the emotions of the moment dissipate.
McGregor has other options beyond rematches with Poirier and Diaz, such as fights with former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, former interim champion Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov stablemate Islam Makhachev, but none of those men seem like notable enough co-stars for the Irish knockout artist, even at this grim juncture of his career.
Therein lies the real conundrum: The man who only takes the biggest fights available no longer deserves big fights.
Based on all of that, it’s difficult to say what will come next. Maybe it will be the Diaz rematch. Maybe he’ll get lucky and get the Poirier rematch when his leg heals up. Maybe he’ll surprise us all by buckling down and taking on a few lesser-known contenders in an effort to regain his footing. Maybe he’ll turn his attention back to the boxing ring, where fights with the likes of Manny Pacquiao and trash-talking YouTuber Jake Paul could await.
Whatever the case, it’s unlikely that anything McGregor does will generate the deafening buzz that became customary in his heyday. There are many things that contribute to stardom in combat sports, but none are more important than winning, and McGregor hasn’t been doing enough of that.
He may still be the biggest star in the sport, but compared to his peak, he’s burning about as brightly as a streetlight.