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Column: Conor McGregor, a changed man outside the octagon, dominates inside it in UFC return

UFC 246 Mixed Martial Arts
Conor McGregor celebrates after he beat Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone by technical knockout in 40 seconds at UFC 246 on Saturday night.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

The high-water mark of Conor McGregor’s UFC career came a little more than three years ago at Madison Square Garden when he defeated Eddie Alvarez to become the first fighter in the promotion’s history to hold titles in two divisions simultaneously.

After his historic victory he stood in the center of the octagon with a championship belt draped over each shoulder and said, “I would like to take this chance to apologize … to absolutely nobody!”

It was an iconic moment for the infamously unapologetic McGregor. It’s also a reminder now of how much McGregor has changed.

Going into Saturday’s fight against Donald Cerrone at T-Mobile Arena, a calmer McGregor complimented his opponent at every turn, shook his hand multiple times and was genuinely sorry for being tardy to Friday’s weigh-in.

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“I apologize I’m a little bit late,” McGregor said. “It’s hard work getting the kids ready and bringing them to the events. So thank you all for your patience.”

Pretty soon, LeBron James will pass Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. For Bryant, it will be something to celebrate.

As much as McGregor has changed outside the octagon, he gave fans a glimpse of the old McGregor inside of it Saturday with a technical knockout in 40 seconds against Cerrone, who has the most victories in UFC history and was taken to the hospital afterward. Following a 15-month layoff, McGregor returned with a flurry of kicks and punches to score one of the most dominant victories of his career and put himself in position for another fight, perhaps as early as March 7 at UFC 248 in Las Vegas, or maybe at UFC 249 on April 18 in Brooklyn if the main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson doesn’t happen.

“He doesn’t believe the Khabib-Ferguson fight is going to happen,” UFC boss Dana White said. “He wanted this fight at 170 so then he’ll be ready for that.”

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White said at the postfight news conference that he wanted to set up a rematch with Nurmagomedov and that it would be the biggest fight in UFC history.

Jorge Masvidal, who beat Nate Diaz in November for the recently created BMF title and sat in the front row Saturday, is another possibility, as is welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, who also was in attendance. McGregor sounded like he wanted to fight them all.

“Any one of these mouthy fools can get it,” he said. “All of them. Every single one of them can get a chance. It does not matter. I’m back and I’m ready!”

Conor McGregor hits Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone during their UFC 246 bout Jan. 18, 2020, at T-Mobile Arena.
Conor McGregor hits Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone during their UFC 246 bout Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

McGregor has become a father — his son, Conor Jack McGregor Jr., was born in 2017 and his daughter, Croia, was born last year — and he started his own Irish whiskey company since his previous victory in 2016. He lost to Floyd Mayweather in his first and only boxing match in 2017 and lost to Nurmagomedov in 2018.

McGregor rededicated himself during training for this fight. He gave up alcohol and woke up early, which was once unthinkable for a fighter who regularly drank, stayed out late and slept in even during fight week.

“It happened naturally, to be honest,” McGregor said. “With the kids, I couldn’t stay up late and stay in bed. The kids would be running around and jumping on me.”

No one’s happier to see McGregor back than White, who would like him to fight two more times this year.

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“This guy is a massive superstar,” White said. “He’s not just the biggest star in MMA, he’s one of the biggest stars ever in the history of combat sports. I put him up there with Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard.”

There was some doubt whether McGregor would return to the UFC as he dealt with legal issues, pleading guilty to two assault cases and being the subject of two sexual assault allegations (he is being investigated but has not been charged). McGregor said, “I have done nothing wrong” but acknowledged the last 15 months helped him mature.

UFC 246 McGregor vs. Cerrone card: Round-by-round, fight-by-fight recap.

“I’m certainly more grown and more experienced and I’ve been through certain things that have helped shaped me as a man like us all on this journey of life,” he said. “But if you were to ask my family and the people who know me, I am no different. Inside I’m still the same young kid that I always was. I’m a passionate young man reaching for the stars and aspiring to do things that have never been done before.”

While the cocky McGregor fans became accustomed to has grown into a more mature McGregor, he said it’s for the best.

“I want to be the best version of myself,” McGregor said. “Everyone says they want the old Conor, the 2016 Conor, the Conor that fought Eddie, but I feel I’m in a better place than that. … Sometimes we have to go to certain places in our life to realize what we need to do and I’ve certainly turned over a new leaf.”


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