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It wasn’t long ago when the MMA world seemingly hung onto every word flung out of Conor McGregor’s mouth. Witty retorts at press conferences became viral memes, Twitter jabs became top news stories and his wildest ambitions were trash-talked into reality. No one fought like him, no one was paid like him and he made sure everyone knew both of those facts every time he had a mic in his face. The only thing more insatiable than his propensity to talk about himself was the general public’s desire to hear him talk about himself.
McGregor was not the first to drop good one-liners—at pressers or online—and he certainly wasn’t the first to pursue a cross-combat superfight, though admittedly the Randy Couture-James Toney fight is about as comparable as Proper Twelve is to Yamazaki. What made McGregor different, however, was how he transcended the sport. His rise to stardom was a perfect storm of merit and fortune. His run from 2013-16 was sensational, no doubt, but it also occurred while the rest of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s biggest stars faded rapidly from sight. Ronda Rousey retired ignominiously; Brock Lesnar’s brief return was a forgettable win that became a forgettable no-contest after his post-fight urine melted the test cup; and Jon Jones oscillated between legal trouble, USADA trouble and off-and-on performances in the cage. McGregor was arguably the biggest star in the sport even with those three in the mix, and in their absence, he was undoubtedly the face of MMA to the wider sports-viewing audience.
Yet things started to change after the “Money Fight” with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in August 2017. While the Irishman was living lavishly in what will likely remain the biggest payday of his life, the world around him began to unwind. At first, he merely slipped into competitive irrelevance, which clearly bothered him, but since then, his problems have escalated from the eye-rollingly annoying to the pettily criminal to the allegedly heinous. His knockout fists unclenched into gelatinous Twitter fingers; his competitive violence went unfulfilled until it manifested into dolly-throwing and old-man-punching; and now he’s under investigation for two counts of sexual assault. His sole fight in the last three years against Khabib Nurmagomedov saw him on the receiving end of a thorough drubbing that got even uglier after he tapped out.
Even the very things that amplified McGregor’s fame into the realm of the world’s biggest sports stars became tired indications of simultaneous oversaturation and stagnancy: “Who the fook is that guy?” is now tantamount to “Where’s the beef?” and his highlight reels corroded in cheap pools of endless Proper Twelve promos. Diehard fans got sick of him, and casual fans have all but forgotten about him.
It’s no wonder, then, that the buildup for McGregor’s first fight in nearly a year and a half has been so tame. You’d expect more fanfare for the reigning, defending biggest MMA star in the world, especially in a bout against Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 in Las Vegas on Jan. 18. Not only is “Cowboy” one of the most popular and beloved fighters in the UFC, but he’s also a particularly favorable matchup for McGregor. He’s a slow starter with porous striking defense coming off back-to-back TKO losses, while McGregor is a quick-starting power puncher with excellent timing. It’s about the best-case scenario for a successful return to the Octagon for McGregor, and a chance to complete the redemption narrative that ever so conveniently ignores his sexual assault allegations.
It also doesn’t help that McGregor’s coach is saying either the most flaccid and expected quips (“This is the best he’s ever looked.”) or the most disconcertingly unsurprising ones (“Conor knows best, so he calls the shots in camp.”) Neither sentiment instills confidence in McGregor’s assurances that he’s refocused and rededicated.
All this puts McGregor in a precarious position. The best possible outcome—his thumping Cerrone out the gate in a vintage performance—is also the most expected one, making anything less than that a letdown. Even a hard-fought, competitive unanimous decision win would likely feel less like a testament to Cerrone’s toughness than an indictment on McGregor’s seriousness, and that’s to say nothing of a possible “Cowboy” victory. If Cerrone can somehow elicit a third UFC tapout from the Irishman—submission represents his best shot at winning—whatever hopes McGregor had for a rematch with Nurmagomedov would be dashed.
I maintain that the fight game is better with McGregor actively in it. At his best, he’s an exciting, dynamic, don’t-blink fighter with a natural gift for self-promotion and honest self-evaluation. At his worst, he’s an aimless, bitter alleged sexual predator. The former involved regular competition, while the latter seemed to have metastasized in the absence of competition. Regardless of the outcome of the fight, McGregor has a long way to go before fans start to involuntarily tune in to whatever he’s doing and gleefully salivate after every word like they did in the past. No matter what he manages to accomplish in the cage moving forward, the only real redemption for him will be confronting and atoning for the sexual assaults of which he’s accused.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.