It’s almost hard to believe it, but we’re now less than three weeks away from one of the biggest UFC events in some time. On January 23rd at UFC 257, Conor McGregor returns to the Octagon to face off with Dustin Poirier. Conor McGregor is undoubtedly the UFC’s biggest star right now, but can he climb back to the top of the mountain? And exactly how does he match up with the UFC Lightweight division’s top five?
It’s definitely a question worth asking, particularly when you take into account the fact that – a sub-minute thrashing of Donald Cerrone aside – Conor McGregor hasn’t actually fought in the UFC since October 2018.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how The Notorious One matches up with the UFC’s best 155lbers.
#1 Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Khabib Nurmagomedov might’ve retired from MMA, but at the time of writing, he hasn’t actually relinquished the UFC Lightweight title and remains at the top of the UFC’s rankings. Essentially then, he’s still the world’s top 155lber going into 2021.
Unfortunately for Conor McGregor, everyone – or at least the millions of people who watched UFC 229 back in October 2018 – knows how he matches with Khabib. And the answer is pretty badly.
The only defense of Conor McGregor’s performance against The Eagle was that he hadn’t fought in the UFC for almost two years before stepping in against the Dagestani. Simply put, The Notorious One was absolutely mauled by Khabib.
Conor McGregor couldn’t stop Khabib’s takedowns, took a serious beating throughout the first two rounds and was even decked during a brief stand-up exchange. To be fair to the Irishman, he did well to survive into the fourth round but was then submitted by a pretty brutal neck crank.
Overall, thanks to his wrestling and grappling ability, Nurmagomedov will always be a horrible match for Conor McGregor. And if the two were to fight again, The Eagle would be the obvious pick.
Winner: Khabib Nurmagomedov
#2 Conor McGregor vs. Justin Gaethje
Justin Gaethje has become such a star in the UFC’s Lightweight division that it’s actually hard to believe that he debuted after Conor McGregor had become the division’s champion at the end of 2016.
This would be a pretty tricky fight to call in my mind. Gaethje would almost certainly represent the hardest-hitting opponent in Conor McGregor’s career, but The Highlight is definitely not a one-dimensional power puncher.
Gaethje has vicious leg kicks, a rock-hard chin, and in his win over Ferguson, he also displayed far more patience than we’d ever seen from him before.
However, it is worth noting that Gaethje is still somewhat of a wild, hittable fighter, and few Lightweights have the pinpoint accuracy of Conor McGregor. I’d also give the Irishman a slight speed advantage in this one, and his chin is pretty strong too, having never been beaten by KO or TKO.
For me, this fight would most likely come down to which man could land a clean haymaker first. And when you consider Gaethje’s aggression and Conor McGregor’s counterpunching skills, I’d probably favor The Notorious One by a hair.
Winner: Conor McGregor
#3 Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier
Well, we haven’t got to wait long to see exactly how Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier match up in 2021. If all goes to plan, the two men will do battle in the main event of UFC 257 on January 23rd. And so we should have a strong indication of the Irishman’s relevance to the UFC Lightweight division then.
However, it’s worth remembering that Conor McGregor has already fought – and beaten – Poirier before. That fight took place in 2014, at UFC 178, in the Featherweight division.
And it didn’t last long at all, as Conor McGregor had Poirier backing up with his striking. He then landed a nasty right hand to the back of the ear, dropping The Diamond face-first in just under two minutes.
Since then though, Poirier has developed as a fighter hugely. He’s put together a nasty pressure-based boxing game, which he’s used to beat the likes of Justin Gaethje and Max Holloway.
His chin looks better for his move up in weight, and more to the point, he’s far less likely to be overawed by Conor McGregor’s reputation this time around.
Conor McGregor’s counterpunching skills mean that this will still be a tricky test for Poirier, though, and I suspect The Notorious One will have a slight speed advantage too. With that in mind, I think the Irishman will likely land another big shot on January 23rd and come away from this one victorious.
Winner: Conor McGregor
#4 Conor McGregor vs. Charles Oliveira
Brazil’s Charles Oliveira is the most recent arrival in the UFC’s top five at Lightweight, as Do Bronx surprised many people by destroying Tony Ferguson at UFC 256. Oliveira is now on a lengthy winning streak – eight fights – and now appears to be in his physical prime.
So how does Oliveira match up with Conor McGregor? In my mind at least, it sounds like a good match for the Brazilian. Oliveira has always been an absolutely venomous grappler. But in recent years, he appears to have filled out his frame to become a larger 155lber.
And by doing this, his takedowns and wrestling game have improved tenfold. Oliveira used to struggle to take opponents down, and now he’s body-slamming a fighter like Tony Ferguson. It’s a huge leap forward.
Conor McGregor is undoubtedly still a better striker than Oliveira, despite Do Bronx holding KO wins over the likes of Jared Gordon and Nik Lentz. But it’s also true that The Notorious One doesn't have the greatest takedown defense.
And more to the point, the Irishman doesn’t have the best submission defense either. All four of Conor McGregor’s losses have come via submission, and in Oliveira, he’d be facing the most prolific submission artist in UFC history. No fighter has managed more than Oliveira’s 14 tap outs in the Octagon – not even Royce Gracie.
With that in mind, I feel like this would be a horrendous fight for Conor McGregor. He’d need to catch Oliveira cleanly in probably the first exchange – otherwise, he’d find himself dragged to the ground and submitted in no time.
Winner: Charles Oliveira
#5 Conor McGregor vs. Tony Ferguson
In a parallel universe, we would probably have seen Conor McGregor face off with Tony Ferguson to crown an undisputed UFC Lightweight champion at some point in early 2018. At that stage, The Notorious One was still the titleholder despite taking a year away from the sport. On the other hand, Ferguson had just beaten Kevin Lee to claim the UFC’s Interim Lightweight crown.
Of course, it didn’t happen, and instead, Khabib Nurmagomedov claimed the title when McGregor relinquished his belt and an injury ruled Ferguson out of a potential unification fight.
Since then, things haven’t gone so well for Ferguson. El Cucuy was scheduled to fight Khabib for the title this past April, but when COVID-19 made that clash impossible, he fought Justin Gaethje instead. Ferguson found himself overwhelmed by Gaethje’s power striking game.
And following that loss – Ferguson’s first since 2012 – El Cucuy was overwhelmed by Charles Oliveira, seemingly knocking him out of title contention.
The truth is that at the age of 36, Ferguson is probably past his physical prime. He’s taken a crazy amount of damage in his UFC career and didn’t look close to his best in 2020.
Stylistically, Ferguson makes a tricky match for Conor McGregor. His 76.5” reach would give him a 2.5” advantage over the Irishman, and his wrestling background and willingness to take a fight to the ground would make him a submission danger, too.
However, while El Cucuy had a rock-hard chin and was extremely quick in his prime, in 2020 he looked much slower and much less durable. With that in mind, if these two clashed today, I’d take Conor McGregor. Had the fight gone down in 2018, though? I’d have picked Ferguson without hesitation.