Sunday, February 25, 2024

Next fights, rumored opponents for top stars Conor McGregor, Jon Jones, Sean O’Malley and more

UFC fans have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. The promotion’s next three pay-per-views are packed with talent. One thing missing is star power. The PPV offerings ahead are fantastic for educated fans but lack the draws to make MMA a cultural event.

The future is clear but not set in stone for mixed martial arts’ biggest stars. Conor McGregor, Jon Jones and Sean O’Malley have tentative plans in the works. Some potential bookings are exhilarating, others lethargic. McGregor remains the sport’s most popular athlete even as his act wears thin. His comeback will be a major moment in sports this year but don’t hold your breath when UFC and McGregor do business together.

Let’s take a look at what the year has in store for UFC’s biggest stars.

Conor McGregor: A painfully overdue fight with Michael Chandler

McGregor vs. Chandler was an exciting proposition when announced in February 2023. Fatigue has set in and it’s starting to feel like an empty promise. McGregor claimed the fight would take place on June 29. UFC president Dana White denied the news. The most annoying thing about this ordeal is the lack of communication. There is no confirmed cause for the delay. No injuries. No drug suspensions. No alternative plans. It’s mostly been subtle finger-pointing, half-baked attempts to maintain interest and various parties venting their frustrations. McGregor and Chandler were supposed to fight sometime after coaching “The Ultimate Fighter.” The show ran from May 30 to Aug. 15 last year and we’re no closer to a date.

Jon Jones: Battling injuries and Stipe Miocic

No fight in the heavyweight division takes priority over Jones vs. Miocic. It doesn’t matter who complains. UFC interim heavyweight champion Tom Aspinall, fans and media have implored the UFC to move the division along to no avail. White is determined to book an expired dream match between Jones and Miocic, the UFC’s most accomplished light heavyweight and heavyweight champions, respectively. Jones won the vacant heavyweight title last March and was booked against Miocic at UFC 295 in November. Jones, however, pulled out with an injury and UFC opted to remove Miocic from the card as well. Aspinall emerged as interim champion in Jones’ absence but is being blocked from the fight he earned against Jones or a consolation interim title defense against Miocic. The UFC is determined to rebook Jones vs. Miocic this year come hell or high water.

Sean O’Malley: A vengeful first title defense against Marlon “Chito” Vera

The jury is out on O’Malley’s potential as a superstar. What’s undeniable is he has a better chance than most at breaking through. O’Malley will headline a stacked UFC 299 card against the only person to ever defeat him. O’Malley vs. Vera has a lot going for it: a flashy champion, crossover potential, a real feud and a strong undercard. The fallout from O’Malley’s first bantamweight title defense will say a lot about his trajectory. O’Malley is angling for a super fight against Ilia Topuria should the Spaniard beat featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 298. Winning impressively will bolster O’Malley’s chances.

Israel Adesanya: Potential title shots in two divisions & a marquee spot at UFC 300

Former UFC middleweight champion Adesanya is in an unexpectedly strong position. Adesanya had planned a long hiatus after a shocking loss to Sean Strickland in September. He cut the break short and is mounting a comeback. There is no confirmation of what awaits Adesanya but the options are bountiful. Adesanya was in attendance to witness Dricus du Plessis become the middleweight champion. Light heavyweight titleholder Alex Pereira is a candidate to headline UFC 300 but doesn’t have a healthy challenger available. Adesanya finds himself at a fork in the road: he can try to reclaim his title from a man he deeply despises or pursue a second weight class title against his greatest rival. It’s unclear if Adesanya will be healthy in time for UFC 300 but there’s a strong chance he fights for UFC gold this year.

Islam Makhachev: Three likely challengers for his next title defense

There is no firm timeline for Makhachev’s return but he won’t struggle to find an opponent. A division is fortunate to have multiple legitimate contenders. Lightweight is one such weight class. The leading candidates to challenge Makhachev are Arman Tsarukyan, Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje. All three will compete at UFC 300. Gaethje will defend his ceremonial BMF title against Max Holloway at lightweight. Oliveira and Tsarukyan will fight each other. Oliveira vs. Tsarukyan was dubbed a title eliminator so the winner should be next at bat. Unfortunately, No. 1 contender fights are fickle promises in 2024. Convenience takes priority with UFC’s busy events calendar. Whether it’s the Oliveira-Tsarukyan winner or a victorious Gaethje, whoever is most available to meet the matchmakers’ needs will fight Makhachev next.

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