Conor vs. Jorge debate: Will it happen? Risky for Conor? BMF belt at stake?

MMA

UFC president Dana White does not think it would be a good idea for Conor McGregor to fight Jorge Masvidal, at least not as his next opponent. He has said so several times.

White thinks it would be smarter for McGregor to wait for a potential rematch against lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, who faces No. 1 challenger Tony Ferguson on April 18. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have been booked four times before and each time the fight has fallen through, so McGregor said he’ll stay ready to step in if one of them drops out again.

But McGregor has taken offense to the implication he can’t beat Masvidal, who had a breakthrough 2019 with three impressive stoppages. Masvidal is a natural welterweight while McGregor — a former featherweight and lightweight champ — has fought just three times at the 170-pound limit, going 1-1 vs. Nate Diaz in 2016 and beating Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone on Saturday.

Masvidal has said he wants this fight. McGregor has not yet called out his next opponent.

It would seem to be a risky fight for McGregor, but it would be a massive event, dwarfing the magnitude of McGregor’s return bout vs. Cerrone. McGregor and Masvidal are the two biggest names in MMA at the moment. Besides, if McGregor did lose to Masvidal at welterweight, it wouldn’t necessarily mean he couldn’t challenge Nurmagomedov or Ferguson at lightweight.

ESPN’s panel of insiders, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim, discuss the various aspects.

Will the momentum behind Conor vs. Jorge force Dana White’s hand to make a fight he says he doesn’t want to make?

Okamoto: History shows White is in charge of the UFC, and if he doesn’t want a fight to happen, well, I’d bet against it happening. It’s interesting that McGregor didn’t call for this fight immediately. Had he done that, the demand for it would have instantly been at a fever pitch. I think this all comes down to how bad McGregor wants the fight, if he wants it at all. I still think the Nate Diaz trilogy is in play for his next bout — not the favorite, certainly, but still a possibility. Ultimately, I don’t think this is necessarily about forcing Dana’s hand, I think it’s about what McGregor wants to do, and he hasn’t yet identified that. Percent the fight happens: 51.

Raimondi: Timing really is the key. I don’t think any decision on McGregor’s next move will be made before Nurmagomedov and Ferguson fight. If Nurmagomedov beats Ferguson and jumps into training camp right after Ramadan, he likely wouldn’t fight until mid-July at the absolute earliest.

Would McGregor want to wait that long, especially since he’s so fresh after finishing Cerrone in under a minute? His coach John Kavanagh said Monday on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show that McGregor will “definitely” fight before summer. It doesn’t sound like McGregor’s team thinks Nurmagomedov is next — unless, of course, Ferguson withdraws from UFC 249 and McGregor steps in. It seems like McGregor vs. Masvidal is the fight fans are behind right now and there’s no better time for it than now. But it’s going to take a few moving parts for White to be convinced, it seems. Percent the fight happens: 55.

Wagenheim: No one with a grasp of UFC matchmaking history believed White when he was suggesting he wouldn’t book McGregor against Masvidal because Jorge is too big for Conor. C’mon, Dana. If there were enough money in it for his company, White would send McGregor into the cage in an exhibition match against Akebono, Butterbean and the ghost of Andre the Giant.

Why the hesitation, then? It was because the UFC president felt McGregor was the one who was too big, in a tale-of-the-tape measurement of star power. Dana was weighing risk vs. reward. Prior to Masvidal’s fight with Nate Diaz for a BMF belt, and all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding that Madison Square Garden main event, there simply wasn’t enough reward to be had in a tussle with “Gamebred.” But now it’s a big-money fight. And that’s the only “big” that White really cares about. Percent the fight happens: 60.

If Conor’s (and the UFC’s) ultimate goal is a Khabib rematch, is fighting Jorge too risky?

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Dana White assures Conor McGregor will get his rematch against Khabib Nurmagomedov following McGregor’s TKO over Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

Okamoto: No, because the UFC loves the idea of Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor 2. The promotion is always going to lean toward that fight, because it sees it as a massive moneymaker. As long as McGregor’s next fight is at 170 pounds, I don’t think it has any bearing on him getting a lightweight title fight. Now, do I agree with that? I don’t. If McGregor were to fight Masvidal at 170 pounds, lose, and still get a title shot at 155, I don’t think it’s great for the sport. I don’t even think McGregor is the No. 1 lightweight contender right now, Justin Gaethje is. But the fact is, the UFC has already made it clear it wants the rematch, and McGregor fighting Masvidal — and even potentially losing to him — at welterweight isn’t going to jeopardize that.

Raimondi: McGregor said something interesting Saturday night in the postfight news conference. He said a UFC lightweight title fight will “always be there” for him. That doesn’t sound like a man who is obsessed with fighting Nurmagomedov, like White said. McGregor probably knows going into a fight with Nurmagomedov now, as he’s attempting to rehab his image and change his ways, could be disastrous. Not only is there true hatred between the two men, it’s the hardest possible stylistic matchup for McGregor.

If McGregor believes Nurmagomedov and the lightweight title will always be there, then there wouldn’t be much risk in fighting Masvidal. It would be a fight in the welterweight division and even with a loss McGregor could drop back down to lightweight, win a fight — maybe not even that — and be right back as a title challenger.

If he fights Masvidal and wins, forget it, McGregor is right back to the stature he attained leading into his bout with Floyd Mayweather — and Khabib vs. McGregor 2 will be a historically massive pay-per-view event.

Wagenheim: Where’s the risk? McGregor is coming off his first victory since 2016. He hasn’t built any sort of momentum that could be ruined in a fight with Masvidal. Look at White’s most recent title fight bookings: Israel Adesanya and Henry Cejudo are going to defend against challengers who are coming off two straight losses each. You think a McGregor defeat is going to derail the money train?

Sure, the UFC could put bubble wrap around McGregor when either Masvidal or Justin Gaethje is in the vicinity, and book the Irishman in a less risky matchup with Nate Diaz. But would the fans want that? Would Conor?

How would you break down a Conor-Jorge fight?

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John Kavanagh says he prefers Conor McGregor to keep fighting at 170 pounds, but the overall goal is to get the lightweight title back.

Okamoto: Masvidal would be the favorite, in my mind. He has a size advantage, and he’s a crisp striker. He hasn’t been finished in a fight in over 10 years. On paper, this is a stand-up fight between two guys with power. McGregor’s power clearly stands out, but even after this last finish against Cerrone, most of his power has been demonstrated at a lower weight. There’s a difference between Masvidal and Cerrone right now, respectively. Masvidal would have a wrestling advantage, if he chose to use it.

Raimondi: It’s a tough fight for McGregor on paper. Masvidal will be the bigger, stronger man and he wouldn’t be giving up too much in speed and explosiveness, either. Masvidal also has very good wrestling and grappling that he doesn’t show often, but it could come into play against McGregor. MMA math doesn’t work, but look at how McGregor had to scratch and claw for everything against Diaz over five rounds compared to what Masvidal was able to do against Diaz.

Historically, Masvidal has done well against strikers. But his last defeat came against one in Stephen Thompson at UFC 217 in November 2017. Thompson and McGregor have some similarities. Both have elements of karate in their game and strike at unorthodox angles. Thompson is the taller, longer fighter, though. And that was one of the things that gave Masvidal the most trouble.

If McGregor has shown anything, it’s that his power in the first round might be the most devastating for any fighter at 170 pounds or lighter. McGregor would probably argue his timing and precision is just as significant — and he’s not wrong. Masvidal is likely to get hit in the first round and one shot from McGregor can be a fight changer.

Wagenheim: A wise man once said, “Precision beats power, and timing beats speed.” That’s not just a clever McGregor catchphrase it’s a spot-on self-assessment, a summation of what makes the Irishman special inside the cage.

Masvidal has been on an explosive run over the last 10 months, and if he had been the opponent for McGregor’s return fight instead of Donald Cerrone, there would have been legitimate concerns over whether a rusty Conor could get caught flat. But with McGregor back in the flow — even with just those 40 seconds of cage time on Saturday — he has the footwork and cage IQ to keep a fight against Masvidal at a distance that nullifies Jorge’s power while maximizing his own. McGregor might not knock down Masvidal with one punch or kick, as he has done to smaller men, but the expectation here is that Conor would land not just one.

If they do fight, should the BMF title be on the line, or would the fight be big enough without gimmicks?

Okamoto: Why not? The fight would be big enough without any gimmicks, for sure, but the BMF title was a popular, fun idea in 2019, and it would be the same in 2020. McGregor has already expressed interest in wanting it. And honestly, if this fight is made, you kind of want the stakes to be hard to define. You have to imagine the UFC wouldn’t mind promoting this fight, building two of its bigger stars even bigger, and then promoting both of them in title fights in their respective divisions. So, to say a fight between McGregor and Masvidal is for a BMF title would promote the idea of it being a fun fight that doesn’t necessarily impact either of their standings at lightweight or welterweight. If the fight is made, I would expect the BMF title to make a comeback.

Raimondi: No belts are needed for this one. I’d like to see the BMF title go away. It was a one-time, special event at Madison Square Garden between Masvidal and Diaz. Masvidal doesn’t now need to defend that belt. Like he has said, that’s a “one of one” belt. If you start having Masvidal put that title up in future fights, it’s almost like the UFC is creating a separate division and taking away from the actual world title in each weight class.

Now, if that’s the direction the UFC wants to go — a division with Masvidal, Diaz, McGregor and others of that caliber who can sell tickets and pay-per-views — then I’d be on board. But they have to own it and call it what it is. It would be extremely pro wrestling and I’m a huge fan of that art.

If that kind of positioning is not in the plans — and I doubt it would be — then it’s better left with Masvidal and the sport can move on from the BMF title being a thing.

Wagenheim: White did say the gimmick behind Masvidal’s fight with Diaz was a one-off. So he can instruct his graphic designers to keep “BMF” off UFC posters and tell his video team to keep it out of hype videos. He can even scold reporters who ask about it at press conferences. But you know Masvidal is going to be lugging around that silver belt wherever he goes. And even though McGregor dismissed it as “make-believe” on Saturday night, you know he’s going to demand that the strap be handed over, if he wins. So the novelty will live on, whether the UFC likes it or not. And that’s fine. It’s not a real championship, so why not have fun with it?

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