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UFC 246: Opportunity knocks for McGregor

Welterweight fighters Conor McGregor, left, and Donald Cerrone face off during a ceremonial weigh-in for UFC 246 at Park Theater at Park MGM on Jan. 17, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Steve Marcus/Getty Images)
Welterweight fighters Conor McGregor, left, and Donald Cerrone face off during a ceremonial weigh-in for UFC 246 at Park Theater at Park MGM on Jan. 17, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – There was a moment on Friday when Conor McGregor was strutting across the stage and stopped to look out at the audience of fight fans who had assembled to cheer him on.

In that moment at the UFC 246 ceremonial weigh-ins, you could see how much it all meant to him. You could begin to understand why McGregor has returned to the UFC.

He didn’t need to.

The Irishman has ascended to a level of fame that goes way beyond the MMA bubble. He has more money than he’ll ever be able to spend. He doesn’t need to get punched in the face anymore, and that’s something that even UFC president Dana White acknowledged.

And yet, here he is, preparing to headline UFC 246 on Saturday night with a fight against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. He’s insisting that he’ll fight multiple times in 2020 and maybe he’ll even be back in the octagon as soon as March.

His self-imposed hiatus is apparently over and he’s insisting that the day-to-day grind of training to fight professionally has been missing from his life. There’s been lots of talk this week about who needs the other more, the UFC or McGregor. It would seem that the UFC is sure happy to have McGregor back, but his hiatus might have taught the Irishman just how badly he needs the fight game, too

“Structure was missing, structure. I was sporadic with my work and with my life,” McGregor said. “I’m a lot more centred with my life now, a lot more focused, a lot more grounded.”

It’s been more than three years since McGregor had his last great moment in the octagon. Back in November 2016, McGregor became the first ever fighter to hold UFC belts in two different weight classes at the same time when he finished Eddie Alvarez to win the lightweight championship at Madison Square Garden.

It was an iconic moment in MMA history, and came at the tail end of a three-and-a-half year run that was packed with them. There was his 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo for the featherweight belt. His breathtaking victory over Nate Diaz in their rematch, just a few short months after the result of their first fight had gone the other way. The moment when the entire MGM Grand seemed to rise with him after he escaped Chad Mendes’ ground control at UFC 189 was no less memorable.

After the Alvarez fight, though, McGregor needed a break.

There have been some widely-viewed moments in the years since, but none of them have made McGregor look particularly good.

He threw a metal dolly through the window of a UFC bus in April 2018 in an effort to get at Khabib Nurmagomedov and was then badly beat when the two squared off in the octagon later in the year. He was caught on camera punching an elderly man in a Dublin pub. He was – unsurprisingly – outclassed in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather in 2017. There are also reports of sexual assault allegations against him being investigated, although those should not be talked about in the context of what they mean for his career.

It’s hard not to look at McGregor and come to the conclusion that maybe, as a person, he does better when he’s training and fighting than when he’s not.

And make no mistake, McGregor still has work to do if he wants to solidify himself as one of MMA’s all-time greats. Nobody with any real understanding of the sport ranks him among the pound-for-pound greatest fighters of all-time. Maybe he’s in the second tier, but his career accomplishments just don’t add up to those of Jon Jones or Georges St. Pierre or Amanda Nunes.

Maybe if he can avenge his loss to Nurmagomedov, he can sneak into that conversation in the eyes of some, but the nature of that loss in 2018 makes it hard to believe McGregor has any real shot of unseating the lightweight champion if they ever meet again.

The fun thing about the fight game, though, is as long as he keeps winning he’s going to get the chance to prove whatever he wants.

On Saturday, though, McGregor hopes to begin a run that could earn him a rematch with Nurmagomedov or, alternatively, a fight with welterweight champion Kamaru Usman or Jorge Masvidal, arguably the UFC’s second biggest star at this point in time. Get another belt back around his waist and it’s going to be hard to deny McGregor’s claim to being an all-time great.

That opportunity seems to be the main reason McGregor has returned to fighting. It’s the only real explanation. He already has more money than he’ll ever be able to spend and seems to have soured a little bit on the fame that came along with his meteoric rise.

“I always said ‘f— the fame,’ “ McGregor said. “I’ve never been in it for the game, it’s just been a necessary part of it. It certainly has its pros and cons. I think one day I’ll just log off and do a backstep out of it all. It is a wild game and sometimes it’s tough.

“I’m very grateful for the position I’m in. I’m very grateful for the support I have, of the people. It brings some bad but if I keep my focus right, my positivity sharp and keep the people I respect around me, that will overcome all of that.”

McGregor is only 31 years old. He may be closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but if he beats Cerrone on Saturday night there are going to be opportunities to create a few more of those iconic moments.

As he paused onstage and took in the crowd on Friday, you could see him take it all in and maybe, just maybe, recognize that this is where he should have been all along.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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