Conor’s choices: Defend UFC belt, box again, or Diaz III?

Published 4:15 pm Monday, August 28, 2017

LAS VEGAS — Conor McGregor was exhausted and hurt by the 10th round, his audacious venture undone by every logical problem with a mixed martial artist entering a professional boxing ring for the first time to take on the most accomplished boxer of recent years.

Yet the Irishman lasted longer and fought more competitively against Floyd Mayweather Jr. than just about anyone expected. McGregor was gracious and analytical afterward, but he was bothered by one aspect of his defeat: Referee Robert Byrd’s seemingly wise decision to stop the bout while McGregor was still on his wobbly legs.

“Let the man put me down,” he said.

Email newsletter signup

Among his many talents, McGregor has a knack for coming up with slogans that would look good both on a T-shirt and a coat of arms.

Even though he didn’t get his wish to taste the canvas, McGregor left the Vegas ring with his honor intact — and he can go just about anywhere he wants from here.

“I’ll see what’s next, but I’m open,” McGregor said. “I love a good fight, and tonight was a damn good fight. I can’t tell you exactly what’s next, but something will be next.”

After hanging in there against Mayweather, McGregor is in an unprecedented position as a huge draw in two combat sports. He could command another hefty boxing paycheck, or he could return to the UFC to defend his two championship belts as the biggest star in his up-and-coming sport.

McGregor will make no decisions before his upcoming yachting holiday in Ibiza, but he certainly doesn’t seem eager to limit himself to one sport.

“I believe I’ll do it again,” McGregor said of boxing, before immediately adding: “I’m looking forward to kicking something again. I’m also looking forward to grappling. I’m looking forward to getting back in and having a good, solid knock again.”

The UFC wants its biggest star back in the octagon quickly. McGregor has won titles in two weight classes, but he has never defended either belt, and he hasn’t fought at all since last November.

Yet the UFC also just made untold millions from McGregor’s dalliance with boxing while he was under contract. President Dana White realizes McGregor will be impressed by boxing money, and White says he is willing to write a check that will keep McGregor in the cage.

“I would rather he did not (box again),” White said. “This is not what he does. He is a mixed martial artist.”

A third meeting with Nate Diaz is an obvious choice for McGregor’s next UFC fight after their two crowd-pleasing brawls in 2016. McGregor immediately mentioned that possibility, but also said he would want that bout at the lightweight limit of 155 pounds, not the 170-pound welterweight mark at which they fought the first two times.

“I’m the 155-pound champion,” said McGregor, who weighed in for Mayweather at 153 pounds. “If he wants that fight, he must come down. That’s a fair trade.”

Other possible UFC opponents include the winner of the interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee in October. McGregor also has said he would like to fight No. 1 lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov in a major UFC event in Russia.

Returning to featherweight is less likely, given the effort necessary to make that 145-pound limit. McGregor hasn’t fought there since he knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds in late 2015, and the vaunted Max Holloway recently won that belt.

If McGregor wants boxing-size paychecks, a fight with his retired sparring partner, Paulie Malignaggi, seems logical. Other 154-pound boxers would line up for a chance to prove that Mayweather was washed up by clobbering McGregor.

But McGregor’s capable performance will have consequences rippling beyond his own wealth: He likely opened opportunities for other mixed martial artists to cross into boxing, if the UFC and boxing promoters can make profitable deals. UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt is among the MMA fighters who grew up in boxing gyms and would love to pursue a career in both sports.

No matter what he decides, McGregor established himself as a major sports icon with his valiant defeat and world-class trash-talking. He intends to cash in on that success in his limitless future.

“I’m young, I’m fit and I’m fresh,” McGregor said. “I’ll continue to get better, and I’ll continue to make adjustments that I learned from this fight to make myself a better fighter. I always have, and I always will.”