Should Conor McGregor make a highly anticipated return to the UFC octagon this summer, lightweight Michael Chandler has emerged as arguably the perfect comeback opponent.
Not, however, at lightweight. Chandler made a poignant post-fight speech after what I believe is the knockout of 2022 in MMA so far against Tony Ferguson at UFC 274 this month, issuing a challenge to the Irishman to meet in the middle, at welterweight.
“I’ve got one dude on my mind,” said American Chandler, still high on adrenaline. “Conor McGregor, I am the most entertaining lightweight on the planet.
“I want you at your baddest and I want you at your best; you and me at 170lb.” Great call, delivered at the perfect pitch, and it set many minds racing – not least McGregor himself.
McGregor, judging by recent pictures, in shape and looking in the beefy vicinity of 185-190lbs, might not relish hiking his body through a camp to get back to the lightweight division.
It looks highly unlikely. Speaking to SBG team-mate Peter Queally at Bellator London a couple of weeks ago, he told me McGregor is “in great shape” and could well be back this summer.
McGregor v Chandler does thrill the bones when you think about them dancing in the octagon. Chandler put himself into that position with that front kick to the chin of Ferguson knocking him out cold, with UFC president Dana White deeming it “the most vicious knockout I’ve ever seen”.
Well, having been there to witness it in February 2011 at UFC 126, Anderson Silva’s first-round left front kick to Vitor Belfort’s face which crumpled the Brazilian like a shirt being dropped into a suitcase was just as brutal. I also recall a mask being worn by Silva, and more than 10,000 fans at a raucous weigh-in in Sin City.
Different times, different pay too – officially $200k for Silva, $275k for Belfort – but lest we forget them.
The scale of reach and earnings now though for ‘Notorious’ McGregor, who turns 34 in July, is on a completely different scale today. Unthinkable a decade ago, we might suggest, and with estimated wealth at a staggering $200m, and having fought four times in four years – McGregor is 1-3 in his past four UFC appearances, losing twice last year to Dustin Poirier.
His fighting career clearly sits at a crossroads. Does he fight Chandler, welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, or someone else? What is his tie-in with the UFC? Some suggest it could be forever.
The truth is, though, McGregor could pick anyone. McGregor fills seats and can command any pay-per-view platform. The pattern of the past few years suggests there is a big fight, perhaps two, still in the tank.
But that said, like his old foe Floyd Mayweather Jr who McGregor fought in a boxing match in 2017 which changed his life monetarily forever, McGregor does not need to fight anyone, nor prove anything. This is a sport, and even more so, a business.
McGregor has already made it in every way. Mayweather, now 45, is still making comeback after comeback, indulging in fights last year with Logan Paul, and just days ago against Don Moore in a one-sided exhibition bout in Abu Dhabi, earning tens of millions of pounds.
The difference? Mayweather does not have the business interests McGregor has cleverly cultivated.
But back to Chandler. The 36-year-old is a live opponent, with a style that would blend beautifully with that of McGregor. The American, a brilliant former collegiate wrestler, has been a huge asset to the UFC since his move from Bellator, and after just sixteen months and four fights on their platform, has become one of its biggest stars with the fans, given his tenacity and will to be in eye-catching fights.
His ‘mini Mike Tyson’ physique, frame and willingness to stand and bang with the former two-weight UFC champion McGregor does stir thoughts of a thrilling build-up and fight.
Simply because McGregor is the biggest star of the MMA firmament, and given his 45 million Instagram followers – more than the UFC and its bold president White combined – the future lies in the hands of the Dubliner. Does he really want to go through the grind, blood, sweat and tears to get through another camp, media round and event build-up?
In the fight promotion business, reach is everything for the industry movers and shakers.
Hunger is a huge thing for fighters, too. The fire will still be burning within McGregor. So many fighters have told me it is an addiction, a drug they need which haunts them. Proving themselves over and over again is a constant battle, and it could be that which draws McGregor back.
As Chandler himself says of McGregor: “He deserves and has earned the right to decide when he wants to fight, who he wants to fight and where he wants to fight.”
Indeed, when Chandler laid bare his challenge, McGregor, watching the event, did respond. “I’d have a nice knock off this guy, no doubt about it,” he tweeted. “A firework spectacle. I like the 170 shout also. Tipped him over. I’m definitely game to fight this guy at some stage in my career.”
Let’s hope so – and next – because the MMA world misses McGregor.