Is Conor McGregor a lock for the UFC’s Fight Island debut? Not all experts agree

UFC president Dana White has been touting Fight Island for over six weeks, during which time he’s been asked about it at every opportunity. But his plans remain shrouded in mystery.

Where is the island?

When will it debut?

Who will fight there?

White has said the concept of fighting on an island outside the United States is to circumvent the traveling restrictions his international fighters would face in this country because of the coronavirus pandemic. So we know there will be an international flavor.

White also said there are hotels on the island.

He said the infrastructure should be completed by mid-June, but he’s not sure if the first card will be that weekend or at the end of June.

White also said the lightweight title unification bout between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champ Justin Gaethje will be on Fight Island, but with Nurmagomedov less than a month removed from the holy month of Ramadan, during which he fasts, and with his father hospitalized, it’s unlikely he’ll fight in the near future.

So what will the main card of Fight Island’s debut look like? ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim booked the main cards they would like to see for an event that — according to White’s estimation — could be at the end of June.

Ariel Helwani’s main card for Fight Island debut

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz

Darren Till vs. Robert Whittaker

Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington

Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Derek Brunson

Brian Ortega vs. Chan Sung Jung

I know what you’re probably thinking right off the bat: No title fights on the debut of Fight Island? What gives?!

Two things:

1. McGregor is bigger than any UFC title. You know this already.

2. And the UFC won’t put any other champion on the same card as McGregor, because his pay-per-views draw so well they don’t want to share that PPV pie with a champion who may qualify to get a percentage of the PPV revenue. Now, they could put a vacant title on the card, but I don’t think they will.

Also worth noting: The UFC isn’t generating any live gate revenue these days, because their fights are in empty arenas, so they have to be a little more selective when it comes to the construction of these cards.

So why McGregor vs. Diaz 3? Well, weirdly enough there isn’t a sure-thing opponent for McGregor right now. Not with Justin Gaethje and Khabib Nurmagomedov tied up. So who’s the next best thing? Ol’ faithful Nathan Diaz, that’s who. The fight sells itself, and if you add the wrinkle of the feud being settled on the famed Fight Island, it makes the fight feel bigger. One caveat: It has to be at 155 pounds. Feels like the stakes are bigger if it’s a lightweight fight, because that’s the weight class in which both have done so well.

As for the rest of the card, yeah, I know Whittaker vs. Till was supposed to happen in August, but they seem easygoing enough to fight sooner. I think they can be persuaded. Love that fight. Shahbazyan is one of the UFC’s bright young stars, and this would be a great way to showcase him to what would be a large audience. Also, they’ve tried to book this Brunson fight for him in March and April, so they’re due. Edwards deserves a big fight after all the bad luck he has had, so who better than the UFC’s biggest heel to serve as his foil on the Island? And Jung vs. Ortega is one of the UFC’s best grudge matches right now after what happened at UFC 248 in March, when Ortega slapped Jung’s friend Jay Park, who happens to be a very popular recording artist in South Korea. I know fans won’t be in attendance, but Park had better be there for this fight. It’s only fair.

Brett Okamoto’s main card for Fight Island debut

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz

Joseph Benavidez vs. Deiveson Figueiredo (flyweight title fight)

Darren Till vs. Robert Whittaker

Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Yair Rodriguez

Robbie Lawler vs. Anthony Pettis

I’ll break it down by fight, starting with the main card curtain-raiser.

Lawler vs. Pettis, at welterweight. I know Pettis wants to return to lightweight, and he should. It’s his best weight class. And I know Lawler fought comfortably at middleweight for years. It might seem like I’m throwing Pettis to the wolves, but he has never shied away from a scary fight, and Lawler isn’t in his prime. Not long ago, Lawler fought Donald Cerrone, whom Pettis just beat. What’s the big fight at lightweight for Pettis right now? I don’t see one. These are two veterans with a history of entertaining fights and similar mindsets. Start the main card with a bang.

Zabit vs. Yair. One of these two could be the future of the featherweight division. They’ve danced around the idea of squaring off multiple times in the past few years. Fight of the year potential.

Till vs. Whittaker. This fight was originally scheduled for August, and the fan reception to it was a 10 out of 10. I don’t think there was anyone who saw this matchup and didn’t instantly fall in love with it. Let’s keep it together and throw it on the island.

I know what many of you are probably thinking: A flyweight fight as the co-main event of Fight Island’s debut? Even if you like the flyweights, that’s some serious real estate to give the 125-pounders. But look, that’s kind of the point. This division has always suffered from a lack of general interest, but here’s what I’ll tell you about this fight:

1. It’s an entertaining style matchup. Go rewatch their first meeting. It was a risky standup affair for both, and I believe the rematch will be the same.

2. It has storylines: Benavidez’s last shot; Figueiredo missing weight last time; the head-butt controversy. Plenty to talk about in the buildup.

3. It’s worth promoting. Give it some shine. Put it where it will attract a lot of eyeballs.

McGregor vs. Diaz. I kicked around a few ideas for the main event, but ultimately I kept coming back to the obvious one. McGregor. He’s the biggest star in the sport, and Fight Island is the most unique idea/concept for a fight location in UFC history. It has to be McGregor, and the opponent has to be Diaz. Jorge Masvidal would be fun, but he needs to fight Kamaru Usman. Justin Gaethje would be fun, too, but he’s looking at Khabib Nurmagomedov. Tony Ferguson would be amazing, but he can’t make that turnaround after that brawl with Gaethje on May 9. McGregor vs. Diaz 3 has always had to happen. Always. It’s just a matter of timing. How about we finish the trilogy during a global pandemic at a place called Fight Island? Sounds perfect.

Marc Raimondi’s main card for Fight Island debut

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz

Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa (middleweight title fight)

Henry Cejudo vs. Jose Aldo (bantamweight title fight)

Rob Whittaker vs. Darren Till

Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Chan Sung Jung

McGregor, Diaz, Adesanya, Costa, Cejudo and Till on an island. What’s the worst that could happen, right?

The McGregor vs. Diaz trilogy is a no-brainer at the top. It would be a shame for the third fight not to be in front of a live crowd, but even worse if it were in an empty arena. The third will be on an island, and what better place to cap one of the sport’s best rivalries? The first two bouts were among the top-selling pay-per-view events in UFC history. With not much happening in the sports world in the near future, imagine how much interest this would create.

The co-main event is a scrap between the world’s two top middleweights. Costa would have had the title shot sooner had he not suffered a biceps injury. Adesanya was able to edge out Yoel Romero at UFC 248 on March 7. That was not a great fight, but Adesanya vs. Costa has all the ingredients for fireworks, including bad blood.

Cejudo “retired” after his successful bantamweight title defense over Dominick Cruz at UFC 249 on May 9. What he really wants is a bump in pay, compensation befitting one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world. So how about pay-per-view points on the McGregor vs. Diaz trilogy card? Plus, Aldo is the opponent Cejudo has wanted all along, even if he is not the top bantamweight contender. It’s still a tremendous fight.

The Fight Island main card is rounded out by a pair of contender fights. Till has to be booked for this event, right? He’s the social media quarantine king. Plus, if someone falls out of Adesanya vs. Costa, Till or Whittaker could fill in. And then you start things off with a featherweight battle between two of the most creatively violent men in MMA. Cannot go wrong with Zabit and The Korean Zombie.

Jeff Wagenheim’s main card for Fight Island debut

Jon Jones vs. Jan Blachowicz (light heavyweight title fight)

Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa (middleweight title fight)

Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway (featherweight title fight)

Colby Covington vs. Leon Edwards

Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Chan Sung Jung

It’s always about championship fights for me. I would have loved to have built this big-splash card around the most intoxicating title tussle on the UFC’s horizon, Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje, but the canoes will be leaving for Fight Island a little too soon for that one, especially with the champ’s father in the hospital. So let’s replace it with a sparkly trio of title fights, including the second-biggest one destined for international waters. Adesanya-Costa is a pairing in which heat is just a spicy side dish to a main course of 19-0 vs. 13-0.

I’m making it just my co-main event, though, because of title bout tradition — heavier champs fight later — and because Jones, even in a matchup not nearly as eagerly awaited, is pound-for-pound royalty and a GOAT candidate. A dominant performance here would douse the bitter aftertaste of his two straight narrow decisions and would beef up a heavyweight showdown with Francis Ngannou. By the way, I’m giving the title shot to Blachowicz, not Dominick Reyes, because I believe a challenger who falls short, even by a razor-thin margin, should have to fight his way back to a second chance.

Bonus: Having Jones and Adesanya stuck on an island together could spin off into its own reality TV drama.

Volkanovski vs. Holloway deserves better than to be a third-billed afterthought, but this event deserves nothing less than seeing champ and ex-champ run it back. And that makes two City Kickboxing title bouts.

Then there are the two opening fights, either of which could steal the show. And Covington vs. Edwards could create a No. 1 contender in a welterweight division with lots of moving parts. Gotta keep harvesting raw materials for the next crop of championship fights.

Why no McGregor main event, like my colleagues? I’m just keeping it real. Love watching Conor compete, but he’s such a pot o’ gold all by himself that the UFC tends not to stack his cards. And I wanted to stack this card. Besides, the McGregor matchup I want — a rematch with Poirier, which would be a legit route to top-contender status — doesn’t have the momentum that Nate 3 does. So I’ll pass for now.