Next month, Donald Cerrone will fight former UFC interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson at the United Centre in Chicago. Nine weeks later, former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis will duke it out with Nate Diaz at the Honda Centre in Anaheim. These are objectively fascinating stylistic match-ups, between exciting fighters, which demand our attention for wildly different reasons.
UFC 238’s Ferguson-Cerrone could just as well be for the interim-interim championship, with “El Cucuy” having won 11 in a row and briefly holding one version of the 155-pound title over 2017-2018 before having it hastily stripped in March for what we’ll call “political reasons.” His opponent, “Dad-Cerrone,” is in the midst of a remarkable resurgence, having recently reclaimed a top-5 ranking with a near flawless performance over former title challenger Al Iaquinta earlier this month in Ottawa. They are fighting to determine who might be next for the winner of September’s unification bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier; and more broadly, for an opportunity to etch their names into the history books as a UFC champion. It is the convergence of two epic odysseys, two of the sport’s most winningest and most resilient participants making a final break for the top of the mountain.
By contrast, UFC 241’s Diaz and Pettis will lock horns in a grudge match more than half a decade in the making. It will take place in a weight class neither of them belongs in, and by the time the cage door closes, it will have been a full three years since the recalcitrant Stockton native last fought, and more than four years since “Showtime” put together consecutive wins. It is a not a fight with title implications, but rather the intersection of two fighters who, in an age of weekly shows and Reebok-induced anonymity, have managed to capture and retain the public imagination. Pettis and Diaz have brand names. Diaz is the cannabis-smoking mutineer who never got treated right by the UFC brass until he shocked the world by submitting then-featherweight champion Conor McGregor on 11 days notice at UFC 196. Overnight, Diaz was on the mainstream sports world’s radar, and before you knew it he was extracting seven-figure paydays, beefing with Justin Bieber and inadvertently reviving a push towards fighter unionization. Pettis’ road has been a bit more windy: the former champion whose star power -- and commercial appeal -- once seemed unlimited, fell on hard times before re-branding as a bonus-hunting prophet of the “anywhere, anytime” ethos. Pettis has jumped across weight classes chasing big names, and last moved up to welterweight to fight resident Rubik’s cube Stephen Thompson, knocking out “Wonderboy” in one of the biggest upsets of 2019.
These two fights tell us much about their participants -- their respective career arcs and motivations -- but they also speak more broadly to the depth of the 155-pound and 170-pound divisions. In 2019, a full third of the UFC’s events have been anchored by lightweights or welterweights, and with all due respect to UFC 238 and 241’s respective headliners, the injections of Cerrone-Ferguson and Diaz-Pettis were needed if the pay-per-views were to be even remotely successful. Even in the absence of their titleholders, meaningful, needle-moving fights abound in these equidistant divisions.
And yet amidst this embarrassment of riches, there is one conspicuous absence: that of Conor Anthony McGregor, who has been linked to Ferguson, Cerrone, Diaz and Pettis in the past few months, but remains on self-imposed gardening leave.
McGregor teased bouts with Cerrone in January after “Cowboy” stopped heavily-hyped Alexander Hernandez, Diaz a few weeks later at UFC 234 in a social-media-moderated dialogue with Anderson Silva, and Pettis in March after he stopped “Wonderboy” in Nashville. Words have also been exchanged between McGregor and Ferguson, dating back to UFC 216 when Ferguson briefly cinched the interim strap.
The cryptic “Mac” call out, followed by a deluge of news headlines and a prompt return to the status quo, has become so common, it feels like part of the production; just as routine as the post-fight press conference or Megan Olivi masquerading as a journalist.
To what end? That much is unclear. A cynic might speculate that it’s purely instrumental: a way to shore up interest in his product while the door to a comeback fight is ajar. Or perhaps it’s his megalomania: a genuine inability to hear fighters in his old stomping ground receive accolades without injecting himself into the narrative.
Either way, it has grown tiresome. If McGregor’s career is done, as his “retirement” tweet in March suggested, then that would be a cause for celebration; MMA’s most transcendent figure retiring at 30 years old with his eyes set on new frontiers to dominate. If he is back, then there are suitors in abundance to keep him occupied; whether he wants fun fights like Pettis or a Diaz trilogy or a title eliminator with someone on in the top 5.
Instead he chooses to occupy a bizarre middle ground, demanding the praise and attention of his fans for his past achievements whilst demonstrating a marked reluctance to set his sights on ones. According to McGregor’s worldview, UFC broadcasters shouldn’t dare call Jose Aldo the greatest featherweight of all time, and the right-hand that Nurmagomedov dropped him with at UFC 229 was a lucky punch; one of MMA’s most articulate and inspiring figures reduced to old-man-yells-at-cloud-levels of inanity.
Which is a shame too, because in reality lightweight and welterweight are their most competitive and exciting in the sport’s history. If McGregor really wants to leave his mark on the sport -- and reinsert himself back into the pound-for-pound conversation -- he has ample opportunity. But by playing this game, he is asking us to remember him for everything he didn’t do.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.