McGregor looks to take UFC over again with plenty to prove vs. Cerrone

Ariel Helwani joined Writer's Bloc to talk about the difference in Conor McGregor from his last fight to now and why it's in his best interests to end his fight against Donald Cerrone early at UFC 246.

In the summer of 2014, when Conor McGregor was nothing more than a 25-year-old plumber-turned-fighter earning a mere $16,000 to show and another $16,000 to win, he put an absolute battering on fellow up-and-coming featherweight contender Diego Brandao at The O2 in Dublin, got on the mic in front of thousands of delirious Irish fans, and delivered a line that would follow him for the rest of his career:

We’re not here to take part; we’re here to take over. He was talking about Irish fighters in general at the time, of course, but as McGregor meteored from those meagre paydays on regional cards to an existence among the planet’s most recognizable and highest-earning athletes, the soundbite morphed into a tagline for the bombastic southpaw’s career.

It was a hallmark within every promotional video the Ultimate Fighting Championship produced to publicize its biggest star. It was cast back upon again and again as McGregor rattled off three consecutive and dominant victories following the Brandao fight. It was remembered when McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo — at the time, MMA’s greatest featherweight — in 13 seconds. It was recalled when he dismantled lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez inside the second round to become the first dual champion in UFC’s history. He’d done what he said he would. He’d taken over.

But now? Apparently he’s here to take part. At least that’s how the now 31-year-old and long-since former champion has carried himself in the build-up to this Saturday’s confrontation at UFC 246 with Donald Cerrone. Reserved and subdued, McGregor’s been on his best behaviour throughout fight week, arriving punctually to his many media obligations, cheerfully kidding around with Cerrone when the pair have shared a stage, and singing the praises of his employer.

It’s anything but what we’ve come to expect from the lead-up to a McGregor fight, and the relative lack of buzz and anticipation surrounding the contest reflects it. McGregor’s no longer storming into press conferences late, whiskey bottle in hand, gaudy fur over his shoulders, to kick his feet up on the table and verbally deconstruct his opponent’s weaknesses and fallibilities. He’s not throwing dollies through the windows of buses, not whipping projectiles at his opposition’s camp, not doing anything he can to get under every last follicle of everyone’s skin.

He’s been calm, measured, and professional, and who’s to say what that means. The UFC is surely enjoying a bit more predictability and a bit less liability out of its biggest and most impactful star, even if that’s removed some of the allure that drew fans to McGregor’s fights unlike anyone else’s. And for those who simply enjoy watching him compete, it’s a decent indicator as to whether or not he’ll follow through on his pledge to treat 2020 as a season, fighting at least three times. But is he truly a reformed man?

Remember, as evidenced by a series of bizarre public behaviour, not to mention his own admission, McGregor spent the better part of 2019 on a rollicking, chaotic bender. There was a retirement announcement, the second of his career, made on Twitter; there was an arrest in Miami, in which McGregor was charged with robbery and mischief after allegedly damaging the phone of a fan taking pictures of him; there was an assault charge, which McGregor pleaded guilty to, following an unprovoked attack of a pub patron in Dublin; there were two separate, unproven allegations of sexual assault splashed across the pages of the New York Times, which Irish police say are still being investigated.

He was, as McGregor put it in a lengthy interview with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani recently, “just not living the life that I should be living — and that’s it.” That all took place not that long ago. But McGregor vows he’s recommitted himself to his training, abstained from alcohol, and focused all of his energy towards orchestrating another run through top UFC contenders like the one that shot him to stardom in the first place.

Whether or not fans buy what McGregor’s been selling with regards to his behaviour outside the octagon this week is a matter of personal inclination. But there will be no ambiguity as to what McGregor is inside of it come Saturday night. And he certainly has plenty to prove.

The last time McGregor won a fight — that clinical domination of Alvarez — Barack Obama was President. That performance was perhaps one of the finest and most tactically sound ever seen in a UFC title fight — a perfect encapsulation of everything McGregor’s capable of at his best. But there’s no telling if that version of McGregor still exists today, three years after the fact.

The UFC has certainly made conditions as favourable as possible. A proficient kickboxer with a strong array of weapons on the ground, Cerrone’s game as hell and more than capable of beating anyone on his night. But over the course of a ridiculously active, 50-match career, the 36-year-old’s proven susceptible to southpaws, fast starters, and power punchers, of which McGregor is all three.

It doesn’t take a black belt to discern that Cerrone ought to shoot for takedowns early and grind out a couple of rounds on the mat, draining McGregor’s energy reserves and counteracting the power disadvantage he’s expected to be at in the early going. But Cerrone’s said repeatedly he intends to stand and trade with McGregor, wanting to prove himself against one of the game’s most precise strikers.

There’s obviously reason to believe Cerrone’s being misleading and will utilize a more sensible game plan come Saturday. But anyone familiar with his career will also know he isn’t nicknamed Cowboy only because he wears a wide-brimmed hat. Cerrone’s been stubborn enough to meet other strikers on the feet and paid the price for it — see recent knockouts at the hands of Jorge Masvidal, Darren Till, and Justin Gaethje — without ever learning his lesson.

So, we’ll see. Regardless of where the fight plays out, the intended plan here is obvious. McGregor scores an emphatic victory in a cupcake matchup, announcing his return to form both physically and verbally on the microphone afterwards, and spins off into a future rematch with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who submitted him in 2018. McGregor may have to make a pit-stop to challenge the belligerent Gathje, the idiosyncratic Tony Ferguson, or the overnight sensation Masvidal first. But a bout with Nurmagomedov later this year, likely in Moscow, will remain the destination.

To that end, the only intrigue Saturday will come if McGregor loses. There’s no way the UFC can give him a fight with Nurmagomedov at that point and claim it’s a contest between two of the sport’s best. If he loses to Cerrone, a trilogy fight with Nate Diaz goes from something that has always been there for McGregor to perhaps the only thing that’s left. At that point, he might as well just walk away.

So, those are the stakes. Not quite the significance and weight that a McGregor fight once brought. And not quite the McGregor we’ve seen before. But if he’s proven one thing in the lead-up to this fight it’s that he can take part. Time to see if he can take over again.

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