What comes next in the UFC for Conor McGregor, Francis Ngannou and Nate Diaz?

The best of Nate Diaz (1:21)

Check out highlights from the long and memorable career of Nate Diaz. (1:21)

Conor McGregor is the biggest star in combat sports. Francis Ngannou is the baddest man on the planet. Nate Diaz is one of the UFC's most beloved needle movers.

Every time one of them steps into the Octagon, fans get excited. But right now, all of their UFC futures are in limbo.

McGregor, the former two-division UFC champion, is recovering from a broken leg suffered last July, leaving the timing of his return in question. Ngannou, the UFC heavyweight champion and a breathtaking knockout artist, has fought out his contract and might not return to the UFC cage at all. And Diaz has just one fight left on his deal -- how can the UFC make the most of it?

Marc Raimondi and Brett Okamoto look into the future and try to sort out what's next for these three UFC mainstays.

How did Nate Diaz and the UFC get to this point?

Raimondi: Diaz cashed in big after submitting McGregor at UFC 196 in March 2016. He signed a massive five-fight deal with the UFC ahead of the McGregor rematch at UFC 202 in August of that same year. Diaz lost that fight to McGregor via majority decision, but the bad boy from Stockton, California, only rose in popularity. The more screen time Diaz has received over the past several years, the brighter his star has shined -- regardless of the result.

On this five-fight contract, Diaz is 1-3 leading into the final fight of his deal. One of those fights was a blockbuster at Madison Square Garden against Jorge Masvidal for the mythical BMF title, which followed his win over former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. He nearly finished top welterweight Leon Edwards in his most recent bout at UFC 263, but outside of that moment, Edwards dominated and the bout resulted in a unanimous decision loss.

Although he's no longer in his prime, the weed-smoking, mean-mugging Diaz still has a cult following. He turns 37 this year, and his reputation as a real fighter who will scrap -- inside or outside the cage -- with anyone still holds. Diaz is unpredictable and politically incorrect, and that's why many fans love him.

The question now is, will he continue to be that guy in the UFC, or will he move on? Diaz is a bankable box-office star, and he will garner significant interest as a free agent if he chooses that path. The UFC extended the time on his contract for six months in late 2021 after Diaz reportedly turned down a fight, which the promotion can do contractually. So, it's unlikely we'll see Diaz in the Octagon until the summer at the earliest. That will be the final fight on his contract and a pivotal one for his future.

Whom should the last fight on Diaz's UFC contract be against?

Okamoto: Conor McGregor. Diaz wanted to fight out his contract at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, but the UFC is being selective about the final fight on his deal. The McGregor-Diaz trilogy is a massive fight, and the UFC doesn't want to lose its opportunity to make it. Now, the promotion also can't expect Diaz to sit and wait forever, and when it comes to McGregor's schedule, there are never guarantees. But for the time being, that's the fight the UFC wants to make for Diaz, and no one can blame the promotion for feeling that way. It's the fight to make.

Raimondi: Dustin Poirier. Diaz wants that fight, and so does Poirier. The UFC is interested, too. Right now, it's just a timing issue. The UFC extended Diaz's contract, so it technically does not have to offer him another fight until late spring or early summer. Diaz and Poirier were supposed to fight at MSG in 2018, but the bout fell through. There is bad blood there. And a win over Diaz would help Poirier bounce back from his title loss to Charles Oliveira. For Diaz, Poirier represents a guy he doesn't like and a big name who beat McGregor twice last year.

The UFC will be very tempted to do McGregor vs. Diaz 3. But there are still questions about McGregor's health, as he fractured a leg against Poirier last July. He said he would be able to spar in April, but there's no actual time frame yet for his return. Plus, if Diaz wants to hit the open market, he'd be in extreme demand coming off a trilogy victory over McGregor. It's part of the fight business to send away an outgoing fighter with the most challenging fight possible. But the UFC might be seduced by the McGregor-Diaz trilogy payday.

What could life look like for Diaz if he leaves the UFC?

Conor McGregor stares down Max Holloway from home

Conor McGregor posts a video of himself pacing his living room and staring down Max Holloway before Holloway's fight.

Okamoto: Lucrative. Either way, Diaz's future is attractive, but he doesn't need the UFC to get paid. Any MMA promotion would love to have him and might even be willing to sign him to one-fight deals if that's what it takes. Interest in Diaz wouldn't be tied only to the United States or MMA.

A boxing match against Jake Paul is an obvious possibility, but not the only one. Life outside the UFC would likely involve Diaz partnering with the highest bidder, probably on short-term deals that would allow him the freedom to pursue the most profitable opportunities as they present themselves. It would mean less relevant fights for him in terms of any championship aspirations but plenty of money and flexibility.

Raimondi: Diaz will command a boatload of money regardless of what happens in the final fight of his deal. He's one of the biggest names in MMA and one of the biggest names in combat sports. Diaz's fights against McGregor are among the highest-selling pay-per-views in UFC history. Whatever he does next, Diaz is a viable pay-per-view headliner as an A-side or a B-side.

It's unlikely Diaz would go somewhere like a PFL (Professional Fighters League) or Bellator, at least not on a long-term contract. But Diaz and his brother Nick do have a good relationship with Bellator president Scott Coker going back to the days of Nick fighting for Strikeforce.

Boxing would make a lot of sense. Diaz is a longtime training partner of former top pound-for-pound boxer Andre Ward, and Ward has praised Diaz's ability in the squared circle. He could challenge himself there, maybe against Jake Paul, which would be one of the most significant pay-per-view events of the year if it happened. One could imagine Diaz boxing UFC legend Anderson Silva, who went 2-0 as a boxer in 2021.

Prediction: How does this end for Diaz?

Okamoto: I think Diaz will re-sign with the UFC. The Diaz-McGregor trilogy will happen in 2022, and before that fight, Diaz and the UFC will come to terms with a new deal. Diaz wants to fight in a premier organization. Exploring other options will be tantalizing, but ultimately he'll re-sign.

Raimondi: Diaz tries his hand at boxing. Maybe with Triller, maybe against Paul. Maybe both. The restrictiveness of the UFC doesn't always work great with Diaz, who is a free spirit and prefers to do things his way. Boxing would allow him greater flexibility and shorter contracts. The massive paydays won't hurt, either.

How did Conor McGregor and the UFC get to this point?

Okamoto: McGregor signed a massive six-fight contract with the UFC in 2018, just before his blockbuster title fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov. Since then, McGregor has fought four times and recently confirmed two fights left on his deal.

How did McGregor arrive at this spot in his contract? The pandemic and the lost year of 2020 played a role. McGregor went into that year with talks of a "season." He said he wanted to be active, and while some things the Irishman says are bluster, behind the scenes, there was a lot of support to back up what he was saying. He was in a good place. He was motivated.

There was frustration when the pandemic hit, and he couldn't book fights timely. His January 2021 fight against Dustin Poirier was one McGregor tried to force the UFC into booking by announcing beforehand he intended to do it for charity outside of the promotion.

It's also worth noting the Manny Pacquiao rumors that swirled ahead of that fight against Poirier a year ago. Had McGregor beat Poirier, there is a strong chance he would have boxed Pacquiao later in the year.

Who knows what impact those factors would have had on his contract status? As it stands, it has been two relatively inactive, disappointing years for McGregor leading into the final two fights of his deal.

Whom should the last fight on McGregor's UFC contract be against?

Okamoto: It depends on how his next fight goes. If McGregor returns from his leg injury to a trilogy bout against Diaz and wins, the UFC likely books him in a lightweight title fight. That's unfair to the rest of the 155-pound division, but it's reality. McGregor against Charles Oliveira, Justin Gaethje, Islam Makhachev, Beneil Dariush -- it honestly doesn't matter who it is. Some of those matchups would be bigger than others, but if it's McGregor trying to win a championship fight for the first time since 2016, it's money in the bank.

If he were to lose to Diaz, it'd be about finding McGregor an opponent that makes the most money. If the UFC is ever in a situation where it has only one fight left with McGregor, expect the promotion to want to cash in as much as possible. Perhaps Jorge Masvidal or Max Holloway?

Raimondi: There are so many variables here. When does McGregor come back from a broken leg? Who is his first opponent back? It does seem like there is a swell of interest in doing McGregor-Diaz 3 for McGregor's comeback fight, but it's no lock. Let's say that's the one, for argument's sake. If McGregor wins that bout, it's enormous, and he could call his shot. More than likely, the UFC would book him in a title fight at that point.

The reason is twofold. One, McGregor is the biggest star in the sport's history, and his fighting for the title is a surefire blockbuster. If McGregor wins and becomes champion -- boom, the UFC's champions clause kicks in, and the promotion would extend his contract.

Those two things are probably the best-case scenario for the UFC. If McGregor faces Diaz next and loses, expect the UFC to renegotiate a new deal with McGregor or book him in a very tough fight for the final bout on his contract. Also, do not rule out a potential fourth fight against Poirier somewhere in there, as McGregor likely feels like there is unfinished business.

What could life look like for McGregor if he leaves the UFC?

Okamoto: One boxing match per year, maybe. If McGregor leaves the UFC, I don't see a world where he regularly competes in MMA for any other promotion. The money fights don't exist for him outside of the UFC. Don't get me wrong: Anything that McGregor touches turns to gold, but gold isn't enough these days. The only MMA fights that make sense for McGregor in terms of prestige, name value and marketability are in the UFC. If he were to fight out his contract, the most likely path forward would be one wildly lucrative boxing match every 12 to 18 months.

Raimondi: McGregor Sports & Entertainment takes flight. McGregor could become a fighter-promoter the way Floyd Mayweather has done for years. He could build his fight cards in MMA or boxing and lend his name and voice to them as a front man. Once or twice a year, he could compete in the main events for his promotion against opponents he could handpick. McGregor Sports & Entertainment is already an entity and was one of McGregor's promoters for the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight. The Irishman's business is undoubtedly something he would like to grow in the future, whether he's in the UFC or outside of it.

There would be some lucrative boxing matches out there for McGregor. Paul has already called him out several times. At one point, it seemed likely that McGregor would box Pacquiao. Heck, Mayweather vs. McGregor 2 could even come into the fold if McGregor is a free agent. McGregor would have the ability to make an obscene amount of money, and as someone who cherishes the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes every year, that could be appealing.

Prediction: How does this end for McGregor?

Okamoto: Re-signs with the UFC. McGregor and the UFC have had issues over the years, but they they remain relatively positive as partners because of the mutually beneficial relationship. If McGregor still has an itch to box, the UFC could get behind his ambition again, and I believe it would do so again under the right circumstances. I don't see either side walking away from the other after this contract is up.

Raimondi: McGregor is worth so much to the UFC. It would be shocking if McGregor went elsewhere. And honestly, despite some ups and downs over the years, McGregor has seemed pretty happy with the UFC, too. They have been excellent partners for each other. There's a world where both sides could be satisfied with a future deal that allows McGregor to box. Maybe McGregor even gets that stake in the UFC he has been asking for since 2016.

How did Francis Ngannou and the UFC get to this point?

Raimondi: The animosity between the UFC and Ngannou has been building up for years.

In 2018, following Ngannou's title loss to Stipe Miocic, UFC president Dana White said in interviews that Ngannou's ego had begun to get the best of him. Ngannou wasn't a fan of those comments and the two have not seen eye to eye since then.

The relationship was strained further after Ngannou won the UFC heavyweight title from Miocic at UFC 260 in March 2021. The UFC wanted Ngannou to turn around and defend the title last August against Derrick Lewis at UFC 265. Ngannou had already planned a trip to his home country of Cameroon in the late spring and early summer, though, and he wouldn't be ready for an early August date.

Rather than wait for Ngannou, who said he could fight in September, the UFC decided to have Lewis fight Ciryl Gane for the interim heavyweight title instead. That didn't sit right with Ngannou, who had just won the title five months earlier and had sat around waiting for his earned title fight for more than a year while Miocic and Daniel Cormier settled their trilogy. Behind the scenes, Ngannou's contract was nearing its end with no extension in place.

Gane ended up beating Lewis, setting up a title bout between Ngannou and Gane -- a pair of former teammates in Paris -- last month at UFC 270. In the lead-up to the fight, Ngannou felt like the UFC did him no favors. He said he thought the promotion set him up to walk by Gane and Ngannou's estranged former coach, Fernand Lopez, at Madison Square Garden last November to build drama for the bout. The incident was caught on video, with Ngannou walking by and ignoring Lopez and Gane. Then, sparring footage between Ngannou and Gane surfaced, making Gane look good. Ngannou said he thought the UFC was again messing with him.

Had Gane defeated Ngannou last month, Ngannou would have been a free agent. But because he won, the UFC's champions clause kicks in and Ngannou remains under contract for one year or three fights, whichever comes earliest. The 35-year-old knockout artist has been adamant about wanting to box before retiring, and that's one of several sticking points with the UFC. Ngannou has said he is willing to wait out the year and not compete again under this contract. To further muddy things, Ngannou went into the Gane fight with a torn MCL and damaged ACL, which will require surgery. Ngannou will be out for at least nine months.

Whom should Ngannou's last fight be against?

Okamoto: We might have already seen Ngannou's last fight in the UFC. If he doesn't sign a new deal over the next year, then I don't see him walking to the Octagon ever again. So, it's hard to answer this question -- or it's straightforward, depending on how you look at it. If he doesn't stay with the UFC, the answer to this particular question is Gane, and it has already happened. He won't have a big "last fight" send-off.

Raimondi: It might have already happened against Gane. Ngannou has said he won't compete again under this current contract with the UFC, which pays only a guaranteed $600,000 per fight. So, he might wait out the year and become a free agent. He said last week on "The MMA Hour" that he has left about $7 million in offers from the UFC on the table because accepting that meant adding more fights to his UFC contract.

Ngannou also said that the UFC emailed his agent, Marquel Martin, threatening to sue him the night of Ngannou's fight against Gane. The UFC's claim, Ngannou noted, is that Martin had improper conversations with Jake Paul's team about boxing while Ngannou was under UFC contract.

The two sides are not on solid terms right now, and with Ngannou facing an extended amount of time on the shelf because of the knee injury, it seems like there's a good chance he'll enter free agency without fighting again. If he does fight again for the UFC, It will be under a newly negotiated contract -- rendering this question largely moot.

What could life look like for Ngannou if he leaves the UFC?

Okamoto: That's an interesting question, as he turned down multiple offers from the UFC on a new deal. I believe life outside the UFC would include the one thing Ngannou seems to want more than anything: a high-profile boxing match. I think it's realistic for him to book a fight against someone such as Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder in 2023. Beyond that, it gets a little cloudy. Ngannou is a fantastic competitor and the best MMA heavyweight on the planet, but no, I'm not too fond of his chances against a seasoned heavyweight boxer. I think the boxing play could very well be a lucrative one-and-done, and then we'd see him back in MMA. An organization such as the PFL could be a good fit.

Raimondi: This is an easy question to answer. Just listen to Ngannou's interviews. The man's dream, going back to his time digging sand mines in Cameroon, has been to become the boxing world champion. That's why he left Cameroon for Morocco and why he hopped on a raft near the Strait of Gibraltar en route to Europe. Ngannou was looking for someone to train him in boxing, and MMA was just something suggested to him in Paris by former coach Didier Carmont. It turns out, he was very good at it -- good enough to become the UFC heavyweight champion.

But Ngannou's heart has always been with boxing, and he seems adamant that he will box before he retires. Fury has already called him out on social media. Even if Ngannou would be a massive underdog, that could be a real fight. Ngannou is a big enough name and he certainly looks the part of getting a fight with Fury, Wilder or Anthony Joshua. Win or lose, the payday will be massive. Fury is making north of $32 million for his next bout against Dillian Whyte, and Ngannou has a more prominent name than Whyte.

Prediction: How does this end for Ngannou?

Okamoto: I was always pretty optimistic that Ngannou and the UFC would eventually figure it out and he would sign a new deal. But after hearing him talk at the UFC 270 postfight news conference, I am less so. He didn't just sound like someone who was willing to leave the UFC; Ngannou sounded like someone who was resigned to the likelihood he is leaving the UFC. There's no rush right now to finalize a decision, as Ngannou is under contract through 2022 and he can't fight anyway because of injury.

A lot can change over a year, giving the two sides time to hash something out. This situation is impossible to predict. But taking my lead from what Ngannou said at UFC 270, I'll put his chances of leaving the UFC at 51%. Either way, we seem to be heading for an interim heavyweight title fight. Given the uncertainty around Ngannou's future and the fact he needs knee surgery, an interim title fight would make sense. And the fight to make for the interim title would be Stipe Miocic vs. Jon Jones.

Raimondi: Ngannou is going to box. The question is whether it's with the UFC's blessing or as a free agent. Either thing could happen, though it sure feels like at this point that Ngannou and the UFC are on the outs, especially given the legal threats to Martin, on fight night, no less. That's not to say this is a done deal. There is plenty of time for the UFC and Ngannou to make a deal. But if they don't, one would expect Ngannou's next fight to be in a boxing ring sometime in 2023 against a big heavyweight name.