Conor McGregor UFC return: What's his end game and who could he fight?

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor spoke at a press conference in Russia on Wednesday

'Notorious' Conor McGregor, the richest fighter in the history of mixed martial arts, is returning after a brief seven-month retirement.

Or at least, that's what he told a Russian media circus in Moscow on Wednesday.

The former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion McGregor says he will return to the Octagon on 18 January at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and that he already knows the name of his opponent.

The 31-year-old then stated that he would move on to face the winner of next weekend's scheduled UFC 244 main event - before once again challenging for his old UFC 155lb championship belt by the end of 2020.

For an athlete who has climbed inside the cage just once in the last three years, McGregor's three-fight schedule for 2020 seems optimistic - although it would be similar to the run of activity during his double title-winning campaigns in 2015 and 2016.

What could this mean for McGregor's legacy?

Former UFC welterweight title challenger turned analyst Dan Hardy admits he is dubious about McGregor's protracted plans for the coming year.

"I think Conor is seeing all of the attention being paid to the New York event [UFC 244] next weekend, and he's missing the limelight," Hardy told BBC Sport.

"It's an ambitious schedule he's laid out for himself over the next 12 months, but in three fights he potentially puts himself right back at the top of the sport. And beating the opponents he's mentioned would solidify his legacy in mixed martial arts - without him having to fight much past the end of 2020."

So, is McGregor simply offering up soundbites to stay relevant in a sport that was seemingly passing him by?

Or is 'Notorious' genuinely focused on writing another chapter, competing three times in a year and reclaiming the lightweight championship?

Conor's legacy as a prizefighter means everything to him. He got into MMA long before fighters were earning multi-millions inside the Octagon. He raised the bar unequivocally to heights no other mixed martial artist ever imagined possible. But in doing so, has his bank balance surpassed his work ethic?

While McGregor states he is in "prime physical condition", one thing he knows as well as anyone is that you can't shortcut fight sports. He tried that in his last outing, at UFC 229 in October 2018, jumping in with champion Khabib Nurmagomedov despite being inactive in MMA for two years. And he got beaten up.

Far more realistically, he's given himself at least two fights to sharpen his tools ahead of a potential return with the seemingly unbeatable Dagestani grappler this time around. But the rapidly evolving world of MMA waits for no man, not even Conor, and to stand across from Khabib once more he's going to have to come through back-to-back top 10 opponents.

So, who is McGregor likely to face in January? BBC Sport picks out five of the leading contenders:

1. Donald Cerrone

Long associated with a fight against a returning McGregor, 'Cowboy' Cerrone is a stand-up fighter who has mixed it, like McGregor, through various weight classes. An ageing warrior with a big fan following, many fans see this fight as one Cowboy deserves - even if only financially.

Will it happen? 4.5/5 - name-checked by McGregor on Wednesday and likely everyone's first choice.

2. Justin Gaethje

The human highlight reel has bagged seven performance bonuses in six fights in the UFC and is guaranteed entertainment, pushing potential pay-per-view sales. He's also easy to hit and despite solid wrestling, he will only want to stand and bang, suiting McGregor's striking style.

Will it happen? 4/5 - also mentioned by McGregor, but a much bigger risk than Cerrone.

3. Dustin Poirier

Although McGregor has a win over Poirier from 2014, Poirier has lost just twice in 12 fights since, the latest being challenging Khabib for the belt in September. What better way to get relevant again than beating the most recent title contender?

Will it happen? 3/5 - going over old ground is risky, despite the ranking rewards.

4. Nate Diaz

Since Diaz pulled himself out of the UFC 244 main event, still to be confirmed by UFC, he may well be benched in the short term at least. A trilogy fight against McGregor would likely generate bigger pay-per-view revenue than anything seen before in the sport.

Will it happen? 2/5 - all depends on Diaz's participation, if at all, in New York.

5. Paul Felder

Tough, gritty but ultimately limited, Felder is another walk forward brawler that would suit McGregor's fighting style. He's also on a solid run at 155lb and knows how to sell a fight. His commentary work has made him a bigger star globally, but is he big enough for McGregor?

Will it happen? 1/5 - like the rest, Felder will be praying for the McGregor fight call.

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