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Ariel Helwani's MMA thoughts: McGregor should be Gaethje's focus

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Gaethje: I'll fight McGregor if he comes back (1:03)

On the UFC Fight Night Post Show, Justin Gaethje says he'd be interested in fighting Conor McGregor. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc. (1:03)

Remember Yair Rodriguez?

Feels like it's been a while since we saw him compete, right? (Ten months, to be exact.)

Remember that spectacular last-second knockout against Chan Sung Jung in November? In the words of the late Chris Farley, that was awesome.

Well, I'm not sure if you heard, but he finally returns this weekend in the main event of UFC Fight Night versus Jeremy Stephens in Mexico City. This is a big deal for "El Pantera" because not only is he fighting back home in Mexico for the first time in over four years, he's also headlining his first UFC Mexico show. His career has felt stagnant at times, but I still think he can be a player at 145, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how he's received this week.

My other favorite storyline of the week? Tyson Nam's UFC debut against Sergio Pettis. Nam has been fighting professionally for over 13 years, and, by my count, has fought for 16 organizations in his 28 fights. He finally gets to make that walk to the Octagon on Saturday night. Talk about paying your dues.

But before we get to all that, here are some thoughts on the week that was in MMA:

The Lede

Earlier this summer, the UFC tried to book Conor McGregor vs. Justin Gaethje. They even had a date at Madison Square Garden on hold if McGregor was willing to fight. He was. He liked the idea of fighting Gaethje, too. Problem was, he broke his left hand shortly thereafter, and all McGregor plans were put on hold.

Well, it's time to revisit those plans.

Just as Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson is without a doubt the fight to make for both men, the same can be said for McGregor vs. Gaethje. Gaethje shrugged it off when asked about it after his first-round knockout of Donald Cerrone this past Saturday night, but we all know that's a fight he wants. He wants it so bad, he's even made it personal recently, taking shots at McGregor the husband and father on social media.

Gaethje is on a roll -- that was his third straight first-round knockout. He's never been in a boring fight. He'll bring the fight to McGregor, and he'll make the buildup fun. He's earned this.

For McGregor, Gaethje represents the perfect return fight. He's well-liked and respected. His style is a good one for McGregor, and a win over Gaethje would mean something.

Most interesting, from a technical standpoint, is that Gaethje has seemingly evolved from being a reckless brawler to a calm striker since his April 2018 loss to Dustin Poirier. This has made him even more dangerous. Still, he'll stand toe-to-toe with McGregor, and that should be the kind of opponent Team Mac is looking for.

I recall after that Poirier loss, his second in a row at the time, the talk was that Gaethje was going to have to evolve or his career would be over before we knew it. Not only was he taking too much damage, he also was unapologetic about it. It seemed like he hit a ceiling.

But he has looked increasingly more relaxed and less willing to absorb shots in his past three fights, all impressive victories over top opponents (James Vick, Edson Barboza, Cerrone). This is without a doubt the best version of Justin Gaethje we've ever seen.

Let's be very clear: Saturday night was a home run for Gaethje. But if I could nitpick for just a moment, I do believe he stumbled in his postfight interview approach. I know all the rage these days is to ignore McGregor's existence or to just brush him off, but guess what? He's still the biggest draw in the game. He'll make you the most money. Daniel Cormier specifically asked Gaethje about McGregor, and Gaethje dismissed him by saying he was retired. Nice burn, but I think he should have gone all-in. I mean, you've been doing so on social media for months, so why not on a live mic? Call your shot. Just look at the success Nate Diaz has had doing that recently.

So, I thought that was a miss, but it's OK. The fight is still right there to be made.

But what about that tweet?

Late Sunday night, McGregor tweeted "Dublin, Dec. 14." Naturally, that got everyone thinking whether McGregor would return to action on Dec. 14 in his hometown. As of right now, the answer is no. No deal is imminent. Reading between the lines, if I may, McGregor was letting the world know he's ready to fight on Dec. 14. That's the date of the UFC's final pay-per-view of 2019. That's good news. Problem is, that card is scheduled for Las Vegas. So why Dublin? I believe McGregor is focused on winning his fellow countrymates back. This means a lot to him. It's no secret he's fallen out of favor with many of them. So does this actually happen? There are no plans to make it happen as of right now, I'm told, but I suppose wackier things have happened.

By the way, as I've mentioned before, McGregor vs. a broomstick is massive business. Regardless of what everyone on the internet says these days, he can pretty much fight anyone not named Khabib Nurmagomedov right now between 145 and 170. And while no opponent has been signed yet, don't dismiss his comments about Frankie Edgar in our interview last month, either. McGregor believes that Edgar would be the perfect opponent to get him ready for a rematch against Nurmagomedov and appreciates that Edgar has never made it personal between them. Edgar's next assignment isn't booked yet, but the UFC has shown interest in booking him versus Aljamain Sterling before year's end. Obviously a McGregor fight would trump that.

Slow down, Cowboy

I hope Cerrone doesn't fight again this year. I know that's not in his nature, but this was his fourth fight of 2019 and his second loss in a row. He's 36, after all. No need to rush back in there.

By the way, I know Cerrone debated the stoppage, but not only was it the right call, I also agree with Gaethje, who seemed to get mad at referee Jerin Valel because he thought it was too late. There was no need for Cerrone to take more damage.

One of a kind

They don't make them like Trevor Wittman anymore. Not only is Wittman, head coach for the likes of Gaethje and Rose Namajunas, to name a few, one of the best coaches in the game, he's also one of the most compassionate. Remember how he spoke to Nate Marquardt when Marquardt had nothing left to give at UFC 188? That's how a corner should behave. Did you see him put ice on Cerrone's neck immediately after Saturday night's main event ended? Yes, I said Cerrone, not his own fighter, Gaethje. Cerrone has trained with Wittman before, so clearly they have a history, but I have no doubt he would have done that for a young fighter he's never met, too. That's just the kind of coach Trevor Wittman is.

Wittman told me once that he refuses to celebrate a win until he knows the opponent is OK. You just don't hear that often.

And so, after Gaethje's big win, I thought it would be interesting to have Wittman on the show on Monday. Again, he's one of the brightest minds in the game, and there's a lot to discuss with him. Here's what he told me via text message:

"For myself and my family, I prefer to stay out of the social presence. The fighters are the ones that deserve the spotlight. I appreciate you. My opinions are meant to be in my circles. Life is perspectives, and I prefer having a presence in this industry by the actions of my athletes and not my gibberish."

He politely declined. I respect it. We need more Coach Wittmans in this sport.

All that glitters is not gold

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0:22

Pereira does a backflip in fight

Michel Pereira shows off his athleticism with a cartwheel and backflip to start the fight with Tristan Connelly. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

When you fight like Michel Pereira does -- you know, with all those crazy backflips -- there's a few things you have to do:

1. Make weight.

2. Win.

Unfortunately for Pereira, he did neither last week. And although he missed weight, his style is so much fun that most fans were willing to overlook the weight miss in hopes of witnessing another highlight-filled performance. They were even willing to overlook, it seemed, the dangerous backflip off the ceremonial weigh-in scale, which could have resulted in the first ceremonial weigh-in injury. Just win, baby.

Pereira was booked against Canadian Tristan Connelly, who took this assignment -- his UFC debut -- on five days' notice. This felt like a showcase fight if there ever was one.

Well, the fight started in typical Pereira fashion. You know, with cartwheels and flips and all that good stuff. It was a lot of fun. But again, if all that fun doesn't result in a win, it's not a good look. And that's what happened. It became apparent rather quickly that Pereira was getting tired and Connelly, of nearby Victoria, British Columbia, came to fight.

In the end, Connelly was unimpressed and unfazed. He shrugged off Pereira's theatrics and got the unanimous decision win in front of the hometown crowd. In fact, of the four Canadian-born fighters on the card, Connelly was the only one to get a win Saturday in Vancouver. What a story. But it gets better.

Just how great was this week for Connelly? Well, how about this: He got his show and win money, plus 20 percent of Pereira's purse, plus a $100,000 Fight of the Night bonus (he got Pereira's $50,000 cut because Pereira missed weight). Again, not bad for a guy who wasn't in the UFC a week ago.

I've been lamenting that the well of Canadian talent has felt dry as of late, but there was Connelly, just waiting for his shot all along. I, for one, am excited about the Tristan Connelly era.

As for Pereira, it's important to note that Saturday was his 10th pro loss. He's not invincible, but this was definitely embarrassing. Here's what he needs to do:

1. Move up to 185. He's way too big for 170. I can't believe he even made 172 on Friday.

2. Dial back the showboating just a tad. Look, I'm not the fun police. I don't mind showboating. Sports are supposed to be fun. But you can't dance to the cage and do all that wacky stuff and then run out of gas at the end of the first. Heck, if you did all that and lost a decision but still had good cardio, I wouldn't mind it as much. But it's clearly making him tired, so, what's the point? Last thing you want is to be the butt of the joke. And he'll become just that with one more showing like Saturday night. Beware.

Welcome back, Todd

What to make of Todd Duffee vs. Jeff Hughes? I thought Duffee was winning early on, but Hughes hung tough. It did look like Hughes accidentally eye-poked Duffee, but I will admit I didn't think the fight would end as a result. Actually, it was reminiscent of the Cheick Kongo-Ryan Bader finish of a week ago. Far be it for me to question someone who says they can't see in the midst of a cage fight, but unfortunately it seems like Duffee did himself no favors in there after his four-and-a-half-year layoff. I personally think the fans are being a bit harsh on him, but I think it's because his body language suggested he was fine with the fight ending when it did rather than being outraged.

Speaking of Duffee, I thought his criticism of the MMA media was off base last week. In case you missed it, his basic premise was that the media criticized fighters way too much and even looked to do so rather than build them up. While not uncommon, this type of criticism always seems weird to me. If you have an issue with someone, call them out. Don't paint everyone with the same brush. Also, the media's job isn't to build or break anyone. It's to call it like it is -- good or bad. I know that's easier said than done and no one is perfect, but it seemed like Duffee was confusing internet trolls more so than legit media. So, between that and the actual fight, we were reminded that it's never a dull moment with the Duffman. Hopefully it isn't four years before we see him again.

Vancouver odds and ends

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0:25

Hall connects with devastating right hand

Uriah Hall catches Antonio Carlos Junior with a powerful right hand that sends him to the canvas. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

I love seeing Uriah Hall, one of the all-time enigmas in MMA history, at Fortis MMA. Curious to see what he can do with rising star coach Sayif Saud by his side. So far, so good. ... Louis Smolka has now won five of six since his life and career bottomed out following his release from the UFC. He's been sober now for almost two years and looks real comfortable at 135. No doubt a candidate for comeback fighter of the year. ... Kudos to the Vancouver crowd. Last time I attended an event in that arena, it was UFC 174 in 2014, and the place seemed way too quiet. It was nice to see fans genuinely excited about the return of the UFC.

El Toro lives

Cain Velasquez's second lucha libre match on Sunday night was just as impressive as, if not more than, his debut. If he keeps this up, I can't imagine he fights again. I mean, why would he? He has one fight left on his deal with Mexican pro wrestling organization AAA, and once that is up, every major promotion is going to come after him. When you're that big, and move that well, and have the real fighting credentials he has, you're a wrestling promoter's dream. Again, who saw this coming? I certainly didn't. Credit to his agent, Mike Fonseca, for reviving Velasquez's career, because this time last year it felt like his days of competing in anything were all but over.

Memories

With the UFC back in Mexico City this weekend, I'm reminded of my old friend Adam "Snacks" Geller. I first met Adam when he was working for Showtime Sports over a decade ago. He was hard to forget. He was funny and extremely quirky and just a huge fan of combat sports. He was unlike anyone I had ever met in TV. His jokes were that of a 65-year-old man, yet he was in his early 30s. Over the years, we got to know each other better and even worked together at Fox Sports. He was my backstage producer for years, so I watched many a card with "Snacks" on a tiny monitor in the back. (That was his nickname because he liked to eat a lot of snacks, naturally.) He was the life of the backstage scene. In fact, Adam would travel with a second suitcase filled with costumes because ConCom, the production company that produces UFC telecasts, which he worked for, would use him to rehearse the weigh-ins, back when there were only afternoon weigh-ins. So, Adam dressed up as each fighter, stepped on the scale and loved every minute of it. It was his time to shine. He'd talk about it all week. The only thing he loved more than his job was his wife, Deborah, and daughter, Sydney. He adored them and talked about them all the time. I swear he found a way to talk about his wedding every time we were together, and while I busted his chops about this, I very much admired it. In fact, he must have cut 30 or so different videos about his wedding for his YouTube channel, which he was very proud of, and never missed an opportunity to tell someone about the pro wrestling/MMA-inspired theme they had.

Anyhow, the first time the UFC went to Mexico, back in 2014, Adam organized a trip to an AAA event. He was so excited about this. We all bought lucha masks and had a blast. It was one of the most fun nights I had on the road covering this sport. So, Mexico reminds me of Adam. It also makes me miss him.

Adam died of colon cancer in January 2017. A few weeks before his death, he told me via text that he had lost a ton of weight because of a new diet. I was really happy for him. Little did I know the weight loss wasn't because of the new diet. I had no idea he was sick. He never told me, and I wish he did. My father-in-law survived stage 4 colon cancer and is now the president of the Colorectal Cancer Canada organization. I wish he could have helped Adam. When I found out he died, I was shocked. I'm still shocked he's gone. I wish I could hear what he thought of Cain Velasquez, luchador, or the unexpected rise of Jorge Masvidal. He had a joie de vivre unlike most. He just really loved his life. And I think that's why his passing affects me so much. Adam really acted like he hit the lottery in life.

I wish he were around this week. If he were working the broadcast, he'd no doubt be bugging me about the lucha libre show he's going to Friday night and asking which mask he should wear. If he somehow reads this, I bet he's making fun of me for getting all sappy but also excited he's being mentioned on ESPN.com. He made a point to clip off any time I gave him a shoutout. Miss you, Snacks. Hope you're having just as much fun up there.

Welterweight stalemate

If you would have asked me this time last week whether the Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington welterweight title fight would be a done deal by now, I would have said yes. Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal were out of the way, and the lane was clear to book the title fight everyone wants to see.

Well, as of right this moment, the fight isn't done. Amazingly, they are essentially at the same stalemate they were last week, and there's no end in sight. UFC isn't budging on its offer to Covington, in particular. This is problematic for Covington for two reasons: 1) The UFC tends to win in these situations, and 2) Leon Edwards is ready, willing and able to take his spot. Now, I know Usman vs. Edwards isn't as lucrative as Usman vs. Covington, but Edwards has certainly done enough to warrant a title shot, so I can foresee the UFC finally giving the fight to him if talks continue to go nowhere. I know Tyron Woodley is out there, too, but I don't think the UFC is too eager to give him another title shot yet. It would be a shame if Usman vs. Covington doesn't get made. This time last week, I thought it was inevitable. But now I'm not so sure anymore. Stay tuned.

What's up, Bones?

Jon Jones has been teasing a big fight announcement lately, which has turned into one of the biggest mysteries in the sport. Now, Jones has been known to tease this sort of thing just for kicks, but I'm told he's being serious this time. The question is, what is he talking about? It's unclear at this time, but it says here that nothing is bigger than a move to heavyweight. If it's not that, it's not that big. This move is long overdue for Jones. Let's see.

Odds and ends

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1:58

Masvidal tells his side of the Colby Covington feud

Jorge Masvidal explains what he thinks really happened in his beef with former training partner Colby Covington.

Could we get a Jorge Masvidal appearance on The Dan Le Batard Show every week until Nov. 2? ... Speaking of Masvidal, with tickets going on sale this week for UFC 244, expect to see both him and Nate Diaz in New York this week. ... Maybe I'm naive, but I don't see how Colby Covington can continue to train at American Top Team without incident. ... I don't have a lot of interest in a Paul Felder vs. Edson Barboza trilogy right now. I think they should both go their separate ways. ... I like the idea of Jacare Souza moving up to light heavyweight, as well as the gimmick where Jan Blachowicz is the guy who tries to stop all these middleweights from finding success at 205.

One last thing

When Misha Cirkunov started his UFC career a perfect 4-0, I really thought he'd be a legit player at 205. Since then, he's 2-3 inside the Octagon, including Saturday's thrilling win over Jimmy Crute. I don't know if he'll ever live up to those expectations, but he will no doubt be remembered for pulling off just the second Peruvian necktie in UFC history. I mean, did you see that thing? It was a beaut. Perhaps this will be the moment that gets his career back on track. For now, it's my 2019 submission of the year front-runner.

Monday's Helwani Show lineup:

1 p.m. ET: Weekend recap

1:05 p.m.: Tristan Connelly will discuss winning his UFC debut on just five days' notice in front of his hometown fans.

1:25 p.m.: Al Iaquinta will preview his UFC 243 showdown with Dan Hooker.

1:45 p.m.: Ben Askren will look ahead to his UFC Singapore fight versus Demian Maia and discuss the state of the welterweight division.

2:05 p.m.: Dustin Poirier will talk about life after his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov.

2:25 p.m.: Todd Duffee will discuss the controversial ending to his fight against Jeff Hughes on Saturday and how his eye is feeling.

2:45 p.m.: Cat Zingano will explain her surprising release from the UFC and talk about where she goes from here.

3:05 p.m.: MMA superfan Action Bronson will weigh in on the latest news in the sport.

3:25 p.m.: Jeremy Stephens will look ahead to his main event fight against Yair Rodriguez this Saturday.

3:45 p.m.: In his first interview since his knockout loss to Jan Blachowicz in July, Luke Rockhold will discuss his fighting future.