Conor McGregor has been doubted before, but nothing like he’s experienced over the past three years.
Following a meteoric rise where McGregor became the first-ever two-division champion, he came crashing back down to Earth.
McGregor had both of his championship belts stripped away as he pursued a better UFC contract and eventually a nine-figure payday against Floyd Mayweather in boxing. When he finally came back to MMA, he was soundly thumped by Khabib Nurmagomedov before being submitted at UFC 229.
As rumors swirled about an imminent return, McGregor sat out 2019.
The 31-year-old Irishman finally has been booked, facing Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone at UFC 246 on Jan. 18 in a main event. But even that news was met with some disappointment. As much as he’s accomplished in his career, Cerrone is coming off two straight losses. Many MMA observers thought he was taking the path of least resistance rather than facing a top contender like Justin Gaethje in his first fight in 15 months.
“Me and Donald have had a history for a while, right, and I did say I’d fight him,” McGregor explained to The Mac Life when asked how the “Cowboy” fight came together.
“If you look at the list of call outs or the people that I’ve engaged with, Donald was probably was one of the first ones. So he’s first on the list, and that’s it. I’ll get to every single one of them also.”
McGregor justified the matchup by pointing towards Cerrone’s long list of accomplishments, proof that “Cowboy” has done more than enough to deserve the opportunity.
“Donald’s a great fighter, great records, most knockdowns, most head kicks, most fights, most rounds, he’s got a lot of UFC records under his belt,” McGregor said. “I’ll get a great camp, a great fight and then it will take me into the year. I’m looking at this as a season.
“This is the beginning of the season. Donald was the first one that I agreed to have a bout with, and here we are.”
For all the compliments, McGregor still doesn’t feel like Cerrone has evolved that much since they got into a verbal sparring match at a press conference back in 2015.
Back then, McGregor took a lot of shots at fighters in the 155-pound division, calling them “stuck in the mud.” He promised to conquer the weight class, and eventually, he did.
“A lot has happened since that time,” McGregor said about his first encounter with Cerrone. “I was only the interim featherweight champion. So he’s gone on and had some great fights, (and) I’ve gone on and done what I done obviously. So a lot has changed.
“Skill-wise, he’s probably remained the same, I’d say. I’m very, very well prepared. My team has been phenomenal this camp. I can’t thank the people that are close to me enough. and I just feel good to be in this spot that I’m in.”
Rather than spending too much time building up or tearing down his next opponent, McGregor prefers to put himself under the microscope, in large part because of the lackluster outing in his last performance.
“I’ve been putting in the work,” McGregor said. “Focused work, committed. That’s it. You’re not touching me then. No one is touching me. You have no idea. That last camp was horrendous, and I have no one to blame but myself. I did blame myself, and I made the corrections. Thankfully, I have a strong team behind me that are pushing me and guiding me the right way. I’m guiding myself is the main thing. I’m listening to myself and I’m doing my work that I need to do, that I know I need to do.
“Fighting’s always close to my mind now, and I know I’ve got many businesses and these types of things that are driving at me. But fighting is my bread and butter and that’s what I’m focused on.”
The loss to Nurmagomedov – combined with a lot of boorish behavior outside the cage –resulted in doubts about his future. Did the money and fame take away the hunger and desire that defined McGregor’s early UFC career?
McGregor sounds determined to answer all of those questions at UFC 246.
“I look forward to getting that competition under my belt,” he said. “Get that sharpness back. I’m going to put on a beautiful display on Jan. 18. Get my fans excited. Get the forgetful MMA industry, that’s such a forgetful game. One guy can have a win or two wins and they’re on top of the world, and a guy can have a loss and he’s the bottom.
“I’m going to remind everyone and then continue to climb. Continue to get my sharpness and build on it, see where it goes.”