Predicting McGregor’s next opponent with Pacquiao now in the mix

UFC superstar Conor McGregor. (John Locher/AP)

After cementing his place among the highest-paid fighters in the history of combat sports with a marquee match against Floyd Mayweather Jr., Conor McGregor is now sitting pretty, carefully weighing his options before choosing his next opponent.

There’s been plenty of speculation surrounding the route McGregor chooses to pursue next, with a number of interesting bouts in both the boxing and mixed martial arts worlds on the table. All signs point to him returning to the UFC, though it’s fair to assume the right offer from the boxing world — or the wrong step from the UFC brass — could draw him in the other direction.

“There’s a couple of opponents, different sports now in place,” McGregor told reporters earlier this month. “You’ve got the boxing game also clawing to get me in. So we’re at the contract negotiation stage. That’s it.”

Another intriguing option opened up on Thursday, when eight-division champion Manny Pacquiao called the Irishman out on Instagram.

Though Pacquiao has gone 2-2 over his past four bouts, there’s no denying he remains one of the biggest names in the sport, having ranked among the top pound-for-pound talents in boxing for the majority of the past two decades.

But he’s far from McGregor’s only option, or perhaps even his best. That said, let’s take a look at the top opponents for “The Notorious” as he looks to follow up his highly publicized loss to Mayweather.

The Grudge Match
If McGregor is looking to settle some scores, he has two potential matches that would satisfy that craving, one in the ring and one in the octagon.

McGregor and Nate Diaz battled through two wars at UFC 196 and UFC 202, with each winning one of the two matches. After seeing his dominant run stopped cold by a submission loss to Diaz in their first meeting, McGregor earned a bit of redemption with a decision victory in the rematch. The Crumlin, Ireland, native looked good in the second bout between the two, but with Diaz’s rear-naked choke victory remaining as the only blemish on McGregor’s UFC resume, and the Irishman unable to get the much-desired finish, there’s still something to be proved.

The trilogy fight is just sitting there waiting to happen, and it may be the one with the fewest questions regarding fan interest.

On the other hand, McGregor also has the option of returning to the boxing world to face sparring partner-turned-rival Paulie Malignaggi. It might have once seemed absurd to think Malignaggi would warrant a genuine look as an opponent for McGregor, but the duo’s continued war of words — and the difference of opinion regarding what exactly took place during their sparring sessions — has managed to actually create some buzz for a potential McGregor–Malignaggi fight.

It would be a sideshow, of course, on a more absurd level than the Mayweather bout, but if the Irish brawler wants to remain in the glitz and glamour of boxing, and get another shot at proving he can hang in the ring, Malignaggi is his chance.

The Belt Reclamation
For mixed martial arts purists, there are only a few true options for McGregor. The former two-time UFC champion had his fun in the boxing world, and got paid handsomely for it, but plenty of unfinished business remains back in his own territory.

In the featherweight division, the one that saw McGregor emerge as a combat sports superstar, Max Holloway reigns as the current belt-holder. Holloway has made his opinions on McGregor’s brief run as featherweight champ known — McGregor won the featherweight belt in 2015 before moving on to fight at welterweight and lightweight — recently criticizing the former champ for never defending his title. Holloway’s chances of landing a match with McGregor are the slimmest of anyone listed in this piece, having already lost to the Irishman once and watching McGregor move on to higher weight classes.

But Holloway is still the top dog in the featherweight division, the one McGregor made his own for years, and has rolled through 11 straight wins since losing to McGregor. If the latter wants to go back to his roots and prove he’s still the top dog at featherweight, he goes through Holloway.

A more likely path to getting back in the UFC title game? Lightweight champion Tony Ferguson.

McGregor is still technically the UFC lightweight champion, despite being absent from the octagon for over a year. While he was gone, Ferguson took the lightweight spotlight as a wrecking ball few are eager to take on, snagging the interim title in the process, setting up a potential meeting with McGregor to unify the belts.

Manager Audie Attar, who represents both Ferguson and McGregor, seems convinced the two will meet some time down the line.

“With Tony and Conor, it’s inevitable,” Attar said on Michael Bisping’s podcast in October. “You have the lightweight champ and the interim lightweight champ, so that’s a fight that’s naturally going to happen.”

A potential Ferguson–McGregor bout would be an electrifying one, with the interim champ on a tear that has seen him collect three Performance of the Night bonuses and three Fight of the Night bonuses over his past six fights. McGregor has proven himself dominant through his UFC run thus far, but Ferguson would be no easy test.

The Superfight (Again)
There’s a good chance McGregor returns to the mixed martial arts world that made him the global star that he is, and there’s a better chance that he takes a title fight that satisfies his UFC fanbase. But there’s also an outside chance McGregor spurns all of that for another big-money superfight, because the McGregor-Mayweather madness proved there’s simply no predicting what will come of the Irishman’s career.

The first of those potential marquee matchups presented itself just this week, with Pacquiao seemingly calling out McGregor for a 2018 bout. Coming off an arguably strong performance against one of the best boxers in the history of the sport, could McGregor decide to return for one more crack at boxing glory? Dethroning Mayweather and spoiling his undefeated record would have been a sweet sidenote on the UFC champ’s resume, but that result eluded him — though, according to McGregor, not by that much. Taking down another legend might just be the antidote for falling short in his high-profile boxing debut.

However, there’s another legendary talent potentially awaiting McGregor in his own primary sport: Georges St-Pierre.

Absent from the UFC picture for four years, St-Pierre returned with authority earlier this month, defying his doubters with a strong submission victory over Bisping to claim the middleweight title. Speculation surrounding a McGregor-St-Pierre match began the moment the latter saw his hand raised on Nov. 4. It might not be the next fight on the docket, but it wouldn’t take much to spark interest in a meeting between two of mixed martial arts’ biggest names at some point before St-Pierre hangs up his gloves once and for all.

It would pit the UFC’s brightest star, the one that helped pull mixed martial arts into the mainstream, against the legend that carried the organization as it first began its ascent in the sports world.

The options are plenty and varied for McGregor, as the 29-year-old has grown into a big enough draw to essentially write his own ticket. And yet, the stakes are high, as the name he chooses next, and the sport in which he looks to continue, will likely alter the perception of his legacy when all is said and done.