Ariel Helwani’s MMA thoughts: Why Nate Diaz should be Conor McGregor’s next move

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Remember last week when I told you it was conceivable that if all went well against Donald Cerrone, Conor McGregor could fight anyone from featherweight to welterweight next?

Well, I guess I was wrong. I should have included bantamweight, too.

On Monday’s Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, McGregor’s manager, Audie Attar, said this regarding McGregor’s next fight:

“Whoever Conor gets motivated by and wants to compete against is going to be who the next fight is. It could be Jorge [Masvidal]. It could even be [Jose] Aldo.”

I don’t think Aldo is currently in the running to fight McGregor. By now we know the UFC is trying to book Aldo versus Henry Cejudo for the bantamweight title in May (more on that later).

But his inclusion speaks to just how many options McGregor has. There’s a strong case for at least seven people, and that doesn’t include boxing, which I would rather not entertain right now.

This is why McGregor’s return is so much fun. The fights are great and all, but the speculation and debate as to who could be next is almost as entertaining.

So where do we stand? Well, it’s important to note that we’re just four days removed from UFC 246. Nothing has been decided yet.

But remember when McGregor said in our prefight interview that he would take Sunday off and then get back to training Monday? I’m told he did that. He’s keeping his word. That is promising for his fans.

I think his next opponent will be one of three candidates: Masvidal, Nathan Diaz and Justin Gaethje.

I am not entertaining the idea of Khabib Nurmagomedov or Tony Ferguson because that fight is booked for April 18, and we all want that fight to happen. It has to happen.

Now, I have to say, after talking to Masvidal on Monday, I think he has officially set his sights on Kamaru Usman. I think this fight motivates him more for two reasons: He really wants to win a major championship, which is something that has eluded him for years, and he really dislikes Usman. I get the sense that he thinks that once he gets by Usman, the McGregor fight will be waiting for him, and it will be even bigger because it would be for the welterweight strap.

Until further notice, I’m moving on from McGregor vs. Masvidal. The UFC, Usman and Masvidal have all said in one way or another that they want Usman vs. Masvidal next, so what’s the point in discussing anything else for those two? If it weren’t for McGregor returning as a welterweight, we’d all agree that’s the most logical next welterweight title fight, so it all makes sense.

Moving along, McGregor’s head coach, John Kavanagh, surprised me a bit when he said he’d pick Gaethje at 170 pounds next. I understand his thought process, and that would certainly be a fun fight on paper, but I don’t sense much momentum behind that fight right now. That could all change with a single tweet or interview, but right now, it feels flat.

Then there’s Diaz. Remember this quote from McGregor during Saturday night’s postfight news conference?

“Let’s go, Nathan. Let’s go, brother. Number three. It’s always here. So we’re right here, Nathan.”

Did you see the way McGregor lit up when he spoke about his old pal Diaz? (Extra points to him for calling him Nathan, not Nate. That was my favorite part.)

McGregor has always said the trilogy will and needs to happen. He has never shied away from it. In fact, he tried to make it happen last year. There is a part of me that thinks McGregor respects Diaz and their past and thinks closing the book on that rivalry is the perfect next step to buy him time before he challenges for a title.

I know Diaz is coming off a loss, but tell me you wouldn’t want to watch that one again. Wins and losses don’t matter when it comes to those two. The second fight will go down as one of the greatest fights ever. Those two are magic together, and if McGregor-Cerrone generated a gate of more than $11 million, I have no doubt that McGregor-Diaz 3 would do more than that.

McGregor doesn’t like the narrative that he is a new person. He believes he is becoming a better version of his old self. What better way to prove that than against the man who handed him his first UFC loss and took him to the brink in the rematch.

Again, nothing has been decided yet, but the more I think about it, the more I like this idea and think it has legs. Diaz is healthy and ready to go. His tweets on Saturday night proved that he is itching to get back in there and wants that fight.

Sign me up.

Other random thoughts from last week in Las Vegas:

It’s hard to argue against the notion that it was a perfect week for McGregor. He needed to be on his best behavior all week, and he was. He needed to win impressively, and he did. He needed to leave people thirsty for more, and he did that, too. I was most impressed by his demeanor from the beginning of the week until the end. He seemed genuinely happy and grateful to be back after a tumultuous 2019. Kavanagh told me that if you would have told him last year that things would turn out this way in 2020, he would never have believed you. That’s how bad things were going. Now the big question is, can McGregor build off this? Can he stay sober during fight camp? Can he stay out of trouble? Can he remain focused? Only time will tell, but he most definitely gave his loyal fans hope that he can.

Another big question that needs to be answered: When can McGregor return? Both McGregor and Kavanagh guaranteed that he’d be back before the summer. March is no longer an option because they booked Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero as the main event for UFC 248. April has Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson, and there’s no way they’d put McGregor on that card. May is in Brazil, so you can forget that, and then we get to June and July. The only way a return before the summer is guaranteed is if they add a pay-per-view to the schedule. Worth noting, this Jan. 18 pay-per-view was added just for McGregor, so that isn’t out of the question. This will be interesting to monitor.

I have the utmost respect for Duke Roufus and Ben Askren. They know more about MMA than I’ll ever know. That said, I thought they should have called off the Maycee BarberRoxanne Modafferi fight when it was clear that their fighter, Barber, was fighting with a severely injured knee. She’s 21. She wasn’t winning that fight. She could hardly stand. Live to fight another day. I wish this line of thinking were more prevalent in MMA.

I’d like to propose a trade: PFL sends Lance Palmer to UFC in exchange for Anthony Pettis. Tell me you wouldn’t do that. Both have hit a ceiling in their respective promotions, and both bring something fresh to their new homes.

I’m glad to hear Alexa Grasso is moving up to 125. I think she has a lot of untapped potential, and I think the lack of depth at 125 will serve her well. Plus, those weight cuts seem brutal.

I think Drew Dober is going to have a breakout year. I think we’ll be talking about him in a big way when the year is over.

I want to see Carlos Diego Ferreira fight the winner of Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker next.

UFC and Bellator go head-to-head on Saturday. I am very much looking forward to Cris Cyborg’s debut vs. Julia Budd. Also, Michael Chiesa vs. dos Anjos and Arnold Allen vs. Nik Lentz. Also, I’m supremely curious to see how Aaron Pico looks. He fights on the Bellator prelims versus Daniel Carey. I want to see how he does with a full camp at JacksonWink under his belt. I suspect he will look good and be a little more measured in his fighting approach. After being knocked out in his previous two, he will need to be.

Final thoughts:

Last week was a weird week for title shots. We found out that Romero, who has lost three of his past four fights, was getting one, and that Aldo, who has lost two in a row, is getting one. What is going on here? Remember when you had to go on a long winning streak to get a title shot? Now, I know Romero wasn’t the first choice at 185. That was supposed to be Paulo Costa, but he got injured. The only other conceivable option is Jared Cannonier, but I think most people think he would be better served fighting one or two more times before going up against Adesanya. There aren’t many other options left. Fine. But guess what? There are at least three better options at 135 than Aldo. Their names: Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen. I wonder if the UFC would have entertained the Aldo title shot idea if it weren’t going to Brazil in May. Still, that isn’t how title fights should be booked. Title shots should be earned. You don’t earn one on a losing streak. It devalues the belts when they are given to fighters on losing streaks, regardless of what the fighters did years ago.

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