Conor McGregor headed into UFC 257 with the combat sports world seemingly at his feet.
However, following his second-round defeat by Dustin Poirier in Abu Dhabi, the big question now is: what happens next for a man who has gone 3-3 in his past six octagon appearances?
For some fighters, things could start to get a little tricky. They would have to drop down the rankings and start facing lower-ranked opposition, or become a divisional „gatekeeper“ and get fed to the young, up-and-coming talent.
But while McGregor’s world-title aspirations – and his hopes of luring Khabib Nurmagomedov out of retirement for a rematch – may have taken a hit, his ability to remain a big-fight star in the octagon remains relatively unaffected.
The former two-weight world champion still has plenty of options.
Trilogies before titles
As a result of this defeat, McGregor’s immediate future is not likely to include a title fight, but that does not mean the Irishman is going to step out of the main event spotlight any time soon.
McGregor is 1-1 with Poirier and he said he would love to face him again in a trilogy fight. But with the American likely to move on to fight for the lightweight title in his next outing, a more feasible option could be McGregor taking on old adversary Nate Diaz for a third time.
Diaz rocked, then submitted, McGregor at UFC 196 in March 2016 to inflict the Irishman’s first UFC defeat. However, McGregor took revenge five months later in their rematch at UFC 202, with a unanimous decision win after a five-round thriller in Las Vegas. A rubber match between the pair would be a huge winner at the box office.
Those two trilogy match-ups were also at the top of McGregor’s mind during the post-fight news conference.
„I’ll certainly regroup and pick myself up; get up off the floor and go again,“ said the 32-year-old.
„Styles make fights, and there’s many great stylistic match-ups out there. Myself and Dustin are 1-1, myself and Nate are 1-1. There’s many good match-ups for me.“
Back to boxing?
Former eight-division world champion and current WBA welterweight super champion Manny Pacquiao has made no secret of his interest in fighting McGregor. The Filipino’s signing to Paradigm Sports Management, the same company that looks after McGregor’s interests, only seemed to strengthen that possibility.
However, despite stating during fight week that „talks had intensified“ over a planned bout between the pair, McGregor admitted he was not sure how his defeat in Abu Dhabi would affect that.
„I always did want to focus on my MMA [mixed martial arts] career, but I’m also open. I’ll see what happens,“ he said. „That Manny fight was happening. That was as good as done, so I don’t know.“
Shortly before UFC 257’s main event, Pacquaio posted on social media: „Good luck tonight Conor! Let’s make 2021 the best year ever for fight fans.“
If McGregor wanted an easier payday inside the boxing ring, there is always the option of fighting YouTuber-turned-celebrity boxer Jake Paul, who has gone to great lengths to call out the Irishman in recent weeks.
That would represent low-hanging fruit for McGregor, but ultimately it would not help him in his quest to return to the top of the UFC.
A crossroads moment
After the fight, UFC president Dana White said McGregor’s career stood at an important crossroads, as he likened the Irish star’s situation to the one faced by fictitious boxer Rocky Balboa during his career.
„There’s two ways this goes: hungrier or ‘I’m done’,“ said White. „I’m a huge Rocky fan – this is like Rocky III.
„When you get off a 310ft yacht, living that good life, it’s tough to be a savage.
„He’s got the money, he’s got everything he ever wanted, so I don’t know.“
However, while McGregor may have seemed disappointed and frustrated after his defeat, he did not look like a man who was ready to hang up his gloves just yet.
This is undoubtedly a different McGregor – a man focused on legacy rather than currency – and it appears likely that we will see him back in the octagon later this year.
„Things don’t go your way at times,“ he said.
„I’ve got a lot of good things going in my life, so I’ll just keep my head high. You take the shots, take the licks and keep on going.“
And the always-confident Irishman did not rule out another run at the UFC lightweight title before he eventually does quit.
„I would like to get in and get back on the horse and secure that new belt with the Irish flag on it. Anything can happen in this business,“ he said.
„As long as you stay active, as long as you compete, things shape around you. You show up, you reap the rewards, and that’s it.
„That’s what happened to Dustin tonight, and it’s what’s happened against me tonight. I’ll keep my eyes on the prize.“
Whatever McGregor chooses to do next, one thing is guaranteed: the world will be watching.