MMA Ratings Podcast

May 12, 2020

UFC 249: Should Justin Gaethje Fight Khabib Nurmagomedov or Conor McGregor Next?

By Adam Martin

In the most complete performance of his MMA career to date, Justin Gaethje tore apart Tony Ferguson's face, legs, and body for over 23 minutes before the referee mercifully stopped the fight and put an end to the main event of UFC 249. It was an incredible performance by Gaethje, who was crowned the UFC Interim Lightweight Champion with the victory, and it sets him up for a title unification bout with UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov later this year.

Gaethje winning the interim strap all but guarantees he will get the next crack at Nurmagomedov. But he has options, and one of those options is a fight against Conor McGregor, who is hoping to return to the Octagon in the next few months. McGregor wants to fight Nurmagomedov himself in a rematch, but with Gaethje winning the belt, he won't be getting that next crack at the belt. That leaves McGregor without an opponent.

For the last six months or so, Gaethje has been calling out the Irishman on social media, but he received crickets in return. However, now that Gaehje has UFC gold, it seems like McGregor is a bit more interested in this fight. McGregor made a public callout of Gaethje on his Twitter after the impressive win over Ferguson, but even though McGregor usually calls his shot, now that the division has two champions, that adds another layer of complexity to the UFC's matchmaking at 155 lbs.

Odds are, either Jorge Masvidal or Nate Diaz is going to be next for McGregor. But we can't completely write off a fight against Gaethje just yet. As mentioned earlier, Gaethje spent the better part of the last six months calling McGregor out to no avail. At the time Gaethje didn't have much star power or leverage, but now after winning the UFC interim lightweight belt, he's a bona fide star. If McGregor wants to get the next crack at Nurmagomedov, he will have to get through Gaethje first.

For Gaethje, the goal has always been to become the UFC Lightweight Champion, and that means going through Nurmagomedov. But his other goal is to make a lot of money in this sport before he retires. There's no doubt a fight against McGregor sells millions of PPVs. If Gaethje is in this to make a lot of money, then perhaps he can find a way to fight McGregor before he fights Nurmagomedov. With the interim belt on the line, McGregor would accept the Gaethje fight now, as a win would punch his ticket to that elusive rematch with Nurmagomedov.

But ultimately, it depends on what Gaethje wants to do. He didn't take much damage against Ferguson, so he should be good to go in the next few months. We know McGregor wants to return to the cage in July. Nurmagomedov has mentioned July as well, but most think he will want to fight in the fall, potentially in September. If Gaethje wants to take the ultimate risk, maybe he could fight McGregor for a big payday and try to parlay that into an even bigger fight with Nurmagomedov later this year.

Considering Ali Abdelaziz manages both Gaethje and Nurmagomedov, it would stand to reason that he would try to put that fight together, considering he stands to make twice the commission for one fight. But Abdelaziz knows how much a McGregor fight would bring in. For Gaethje, he's never had that massive PPV and has never made millions to fight. He still needs to pad his bank account, and if he wants to make the most money, then he will try and target a fight against McGregor first.

It's risky, but the risk could be well worth the reward. Just say Gaethje tells UFC President Dana White he wants a quick turnaround and a fight with McGregor in July for the interim belt, with the winner fighting Nurmagomedov later this year to unify the title. That gives the UFC two massive pay-per-views and it gives Gaethje the opportunity to maximize his value at the peak of his career. It seems crazy, but maybe Gaethje is the guy to give up a title shot in order to have a big-money fight, and bet on himself.

Ultimately, I expect the UFC to make a decision fairly soon on what to do with Justin Gaethje, Conor McGregor, and Khabib Nurmagomedov. The promotion needs to fill up its schedule for the next few months, and you'd imagine at least one lightweight title fight will be on the promotion's radar. Gaethje seems likely to be one half of the equation and Nurmagomedov is probably going to be the other half of it, but you can never completely count McGregor out of talking his way into a big fight if he wants it.

UFC 249
Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje (UFC Interim Lightweight Championship): Justin Gaethje def. Tony Ferguson via TKO (punches) at 3:39 of Round 5.

UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje (formerly UFC 249: Khabib vs. Ferguson) was scheduled to take place April 18, 2020 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Due to ongoing concerns regarding the coronavirus, the event was rescheduled for May 9, 2020 and relocated to VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.

Click HERE for more UFC 249 Post-Fight Analysis

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