The adage a fighter’s next fight is their most important rings especially true for five UFC legends whose backs are against the Octagon fence writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The following quintet have reached significant highs but find themselves in serious slumps that threaten to derail their careers in 2023.
Locked inside a must-win maze, it’s imperative for each of these fighters to find their way back to the winner’s circle on their next walk to combat sport’s ultimate proving ground.
5: Tony Ferguson
Once the most feared lightweight in the world, Ferguson painted the Octagon red with the blood of his opponents during a legendary 12-fight win streak.
A title fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov never materialised, despite the dream match being booked multiple times, and a shot at the interim title changed the course of his career.
Fighting Justin Gaethje in the first main event of the Covid era, his superhuman durability finally wilted as he was bludgeoned and stopped for the first time in the fifth round, a brutal defeat that started a losing streak that now stands at five.
He’s only fought the best in his current slump, however, it’s clear that “El Cucuy” is well past his prime and his yet-to-be-announced next fight could be his last if he’s unable to turn things around.
4: Cody Garbrandt
Garbrandt’s fall from grace has been even more gutting. He dethroned the consensus greatest bantamweight of all time Dominick Cruz in one of the best championship performances in history in 2016 to stand atop the mountain with a perfect 11-0 record and an opportunity to become the UFC’s new superstar.
However, former training partner and friend turned enemy TJ Dillashaw put a stop to all that, twice. Their maiden meeting was the start of “No Love” abandoning technique and throwing wildly to his own demise as it led to him being knocked out in the second round and even faster in the rematch.
He’s won just one of his last six fights, an all-time great one-punch knockout of Raphael Assunção in 2020 and after an ill-fated drop to flyweight finished in a first-round loss to Kai Kara-France last December, he’ll return to the division he once ruled for a must-win fight against Trevon Jones, a short-notice replacement for Julio Arce, at UFC 285 in March.
3: Darren Till
As a highly-marketable striker who started his career with a 17-fight unbeaten streak, Till took the torch from former middleweight champion Michael Bisping as the new face of UK MMA and it seemed inevitable that he, too, would capture gold.
That dream turned into a nightmare as “The Gorilla” was stopped in the second round by then-welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in 2018 and he was knocked out cold by Jorge Masvidal in his next bout on home soil, prompting a move to middleweight.
His razor-thin split decision win over Calvin Gastelum, who’s also in desperate need of a victory, in his 185-pound debut in 2019 remains his only triumph in the weight class.
Three consecutive losses, the most recent a submission defeat to South African ace Dricus du Plessis last December, have left him pondering his future, knowing full well his UFC journey could end if he can’t find success in his next fight, whomever he faces.
2: Jorge Masvidal
A fighter’s fighter who first threw down in the streets and backyards as part of Kimbo Slice’s crew, Masvidal revitalised his career in 2019 when he slept Darren Till and busted up Leon Edwards in a backstage altercation on the same night.
“Gamebred” maximised that buzz with a record five-second knockout of Ben Askren that broke the internet and beat fellow fan favourite Nate Diaz for the specially built “BMF” belt later that year.
Having become a megastar, Masvidal received two cracks at then-welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, losing the first by decision and ending up on the wrong side of the 2021 knockout of the year in the rematch.
He shifted his focus to friend turned foe Colby Covington last year and suffered a frustrating decision loss, frustrations he took out on “Chaos” at a Miami restaurant that landed him in legal trouble that’s yet to be resolved.
On a three-fight losing skid, Masvidal’s been matched up with fellow former title challenger Gilbert Burns at UFC 287 in April, where a loss wouldn’t hurt his overall popularity too much but would see him fall back into journeyman status.
1: Conor McGregor
As the biggest megastar in MMA history, McGregor has to win his next fight not only to remain a top contender in the lightweight division but also for the sake of the UFC and the sport in general.
No one in history has drawn more casual fans to the sport whilst also being a decorated member of MMA royalty as the transcendent Irish icon and for that dual status to remain intact, he has to get past Michael Chandler in his comeback fight.
The game-changing “Notorious” has won just one fight since his legendary masterclass against Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden in 2016 to become the first-ever fighter to hold two titles simultaneously, a first-round TKO of Donald Cerrone in 2020.
Prior to that, he lost the lightweight title he’d won from Alvarez to arch-rival Khabib Nurmagomedov and after his quick win over “Cowboy”, he suffered back-to-back defeats to Dustin Poirier in 2021.
It’s the nature of his losses to “The Diamond” that raised questions over whether McGregor, who’d spiralled out of control after making $100 million in his crossover boxing bout against Floyd Mayweather in 2017, is still among the elite as he was knocked out for the first time and then dominated before he broke his leg.
He and human highlight reel Chandler will serve as coaches on season 31 of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s reality TV tournament, and face off later this year.
It’s a dangerous yet favourable match-up for McGregor, who’ll vault right back into title contention with a victory. A loss, on the other hand, would signal the end of his time as a title contender.