For someone who was nowhere near Vancouver during the past week, Conor McGregor's presence sure was felt during UFC Fight Night festivities.
The specter of the former lightweight champ loomed large as Justin Gaethje battled Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone on Saturday night, looking to help define the path to challenge for Khabib Nurmagomedov's crown.
Gaethje did his part, scoring a first-round TKO to take a step closer to title contention. But will that next step put Gaethje in an Octagon opposite McGregor?
McGregor hasn't fought since losing to Nurmagomedov on Oct. 6, 2018, and he wants a rematch. But the bad blood from that event, which featured a postfight melee, runs deep, and Nurmagomedov would rather give the title shot to No. 1 contender Tony Ferguson.
UFC president Dana White opened the door for a McGregor-Nurmagomedov rematch by saying if Ferguson's bid for a title shot fell through, the rematch would make sense. It certainly would produce huge pay-per-view numbers for the UFC.
But if Ferguson does land his well-deserved title shot, the UFC will face an interesting decision in picking an opponent for McGregor's return.
Gaethje had been mentioned as a possible McGregor opponent earlier this year, but no fight materialized. Gaethje had harsh and personal words for McGregor in the lead-up to Saturday's card, and afterward he said: "The Irishman is retired. I want a real fighter. I want the winner of Tony and Khabib." Later he added, "If [McGregor is] going to fight, I definitely want to fight him. He punched an old man in the face. I want to f--- him up for that."
A panel of ESPN experts discusses whether Gaethje should be McGregor's next opponent, and how that fight would look.
Chael Sonnen, ESPN analyst and former UFC middleweight contender
I think that Gaethje vs. McGregor would make sense in terms of the ranking and the matchup and the ability to draw. It just doesn't appear that Conor wants to fight anyone. He's doing this really weird thing where every week he's calling somebody out. He's never called anyone out who hasn't immediately accepted, giddy and excited, and somehow that turns him off and he goes and calls somebody else out. No, I would not think that Gaethje is going to fight Conor. I would argue that it does make sense, but no, I would not predict that it would happen.
If it did happen?
We don't get better as human beings with age, and we certainly don't get better at something by not doing it. Conor hasn't done it in a meaningful amount of time, while these guys are working their asses off and competing, so I think it would be pretty hard to create a scenario where you would favor Conor in a contest with Gaethje. The styles have one thing to do with it, it's like a lazy approach that everybody breaks down. It's much more about rust and activity and momentum and work ethic than it is about jabs and crosses, but stylistically it would be fun. Conor is a stand-up fighter, Gaethje is a stand-up fighter and very durable. It would be very fun to watch.
Ariel Helwani, ESPN analyst
It's impossible to say for certain right now because McGregor's next fight isn't set, but I do think Gaethje would be the perfect opponent to welcome McGregor back. First, his style suits McGregor. He primarily likes to strike and doesn't mind getting a little reckless in there. That's perfect for McGregor. Second, Gaethje has been poking McGregor a lot this year and has even made things personal lately, so this would obviously be a sellable fight. Now, I tend to think that even with his Q rating feeling a little low, McGregor vs. a broomstick sells, but if you can find a striker who will make it personal, all the better. Gaethje is that guy. I don't think McGregor should jump back in there with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Get a win, and then shoot for the rematch.
If it did happen?
It depends on which McGregor shows up. If it's a motivated McGregor, I would favor McGregor in that fight. Historically, he has done well against fellow strikers, especially ones who throw caution to the wind like Gaethje. If it's an unmotivated McGregor, all bets are off. It's hard to predict which McGregor will show up these days because of everything going on in his life and his immense fame.
Brett Okamoto, ESPN analyst
Should Gaethje get the fight? Yes. It's marketable. Conor McGregor vs. The Most Entertaining Fighter in MMA? The UFC can sell any McGregor fight, but that's a nice narrative. Not to mention, Gaethje's been rather outspoken lately on what kind of human being he thinks McGregor is. You know, Dustin Poirier just threw out McGregor's name as well, and for me, either option (McGregor vs. Poirier 2, or McGregor vs. Gaethje) is a nice fight. But it sure doesn't look like McGregor is fighting before the end of the year. And as we well know, there are no guarantees on when he's coming back.
If it did happen?
Gaethje would have the same thing going for him against McGregor that he does against all of his opponents, and that's pressure. Close your eyes and picture a McGregor fight. Where is he? He's in the center of the cage. He's not on his back foot, circling the perimeter. Gaethje forces his opponents to do just that with his constant pressure. Now, the drawback in that style is he typically takes some damage as he implements it ... and you can't afford to take many shots from McGregor. I don't care that Nate Diaz was able to take McGregor's best shots. You don't want to make a habit of it. On paper, I would tend to favor McGregor in this matchup.
Cormier wants to see Gaethje vs. McGregor next
Daniel Cormier explains why a fight pitting Justin Gaethje against Conor McGregor is the one to make at lightweight. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Marc Raimondi, ESPN staff writer
It certainly puts Gaethje on the list of being McGregor's next opponent, and maybe even near the top. In McGregor's recent interview with our own Ariel Helwani, he said that he was in talks with the UFC to fight Gaethje back in July at Madison Square Garden before McGregor broke his hand in training. Of course, Gaethje said that was the first he ever heard of such a potential booking, so take all of that for what it's worth. If Nurmagomedov faces Ferguson, Gaethje makes as much sense as anyone for McGregor next. Should it be McGregor vs. Gaethje? It would surely be a ton of fun and no fans would complain about it. Will it be the fight? There are too many variables to say for certain.
If it did happen?
It would be very interesting to see. On paper, Gaethje's style would be an advantage for McGregor. Gaethje comes forward, pressures and throws first, while McGregor is an extremely accurate and powerful counterpuncher. Remember McGregor's 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo? That's not an exact comparison, but if there's one thing McGregor is good at, it's timing and distance. Gaethje will try to close that distance in a hurry and keep McGregor on his heels. Now, Gaethje is going to eat some shots. That's just the way he does things. He sacrifices defense at times to get into positions where he can let his hands go. A big question here is whether or not Gaethje can survive McGregor's monstrous left hand, the one that has befallen many an opponent. Nate Diaz was able to survive those shots, though he took a licking early. McGregor tends to tire in the middle rounds and he did halfway through the second in the first Diaz fight. Gaethje has cardio for days, not unlike Diaz. The other factor at play: Is this the same McGregor, the same guy who smoked Alvarez and Aldo and showed heart gutting out the second Diaz fight? If it's not that same guy, then getting into a cage with Gaethje seems like a dangerous proposition. Gaethje will test McGregor's chin and will.
Jeff Wagenheim, ESPN editor
You know the term "addition by subtraction"? Well, this booking would be the equally beneficial mirror image of that. By adding Gaethje to McGregor's dance card, the UFC would be subtracting Conor from the conversation around Nurmagomedov's next title defense. And frankly, that is what's most important here.
McGregor surely would prefer a Khabib rematch over a fight with Gaethje or anyone else, not just because of the belt that'd be on the line, but even more so because he's not one to accept defeat and walk away. Conor is the GOAT when it comes to self-belief. Despite being thrashed by the lightweight champ last October, he wants nothing more than another shot, I'm convinced, just as he did after being choked out by Diaz three years ago. Here's hoping he gets that chance at redemption, but not just because he's a cash cow for the pay-per-view business. Let him earn it in the Octagon. A win over an all-action, high-pressure fighter like Gaethje would go a long way toward getting McGregor there. So, yeah, let's book the fight.
If it did happen?
It depends on who steps off the private jet from Dublin. Is it the same hungry Irishman who fought his way to the top by continually setting the bar higher and higher, yet somehow never out of reach? Is it the same guy who crumbled the legendary Aldo in seconds and became a two-division champion by making then-champ Eddie Alvarez look like a Contender Series also-ran? That version of Conor McGregor could very well dismantle Gaethje with breathtaking efficiency. But does that guy exist anymore?
"Precision beats power," Conor used to say, "and timing beats speed." Those weren't just words. That was McGregor's inward-focused scouting report on what made him special during his rise. But does it still apply to him after three years mostly away from MMA and with his growing whiskey business on his mind? It's impossible to determine much from the Nurmagomedov fight -- McGregor got smashed, but everyone gets smashed by Khabib. Are Conor's impeccable precision and timing rusted over? They had better not be, because the all-out assault of Gaethje would be an unforgiving test.