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The Conor McGregor bandwagon is filling up again, but the uphill climb starts now

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Conor McGregor stands in front of a crowd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas at UFC 246.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As welcome back parties go, it was a brief one. Forty seconds in, the candles were blown out and the guest of honor was on his way out the door. Still, they cheered him as loud and as long as they could. How could they not? They were there to see the king return, and return he has, still capable of innovating and incinerating opponents in a blink.

Three years after he last won a mixed martial arts fight, Conor McGregor looked vintage, like a barrel-aged whiskey, in a fight that he was supposed to win, and that he had to win. Those are sometimes the hardest ones to deliver. The weight of expectation has held down many a champion, the fear of failure has stalled even more.

Following a self-inflicted nightmare of a 2019 that included an arrest, an assault charge, two sexual assault allegations, a paternity claim and zero fights, McGregor likely carried more pressure than most can hold, yet throughout UFC 246 fight week, he wore a zen-like calmness like a bespoke suit. He refused to badmouth his opponent Donald Cerrone, instead consistently voicing his respect for all his accomplishments. He thanked his supporters for their loyalty. He declined to look ahead. He was the consummate professional. He didn’t seem so notorious. He seemed … happy.

It was a long time since we’d seen that, and it carried through his fight and beyond. After knocking out Cerrone, helped by a creative series of shoulder strikes followed by a head kick, he checked on his opponent, then shared a sympathetic embrace with Cerrone’s beloved grandmother. Even when he had a chance to stick it to his detractors, he didn’t, choosing instead the high road.

“Nothing, silence, focus on the positives,” he said in the UFC on ESPN+ post-fight show when asked what he might say to them. “I’m very grateful for the people who stuck with me through these trying times.”

What? Who is this guy?

After a pitch-perfect fight week on his best behavior, the hard part starts now. When all the possibilities open up again. When every fighter within shooting range of any McGregor weight class calls his name. When the world reminds him he can indulge any vice, any time.

It’s already begun. On fight night, Jorge Masvidal wore the same Versace robe that McGregor previously flaunted, clearly trying to goad him toward a fight. Within an hour of knocking out Cerrone, his old nemesis Floyd Mayweather was teasing a rematch between them. UFC president Dana White voiced a preference for McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov 2, saying it would be the biggest fight in UFC history.

After this week, it was as if he wiped the slate clean.

“In the fight business, people forget easily, quickly, and people are forgiving when you come back and you try to get back together and you have this great comeback story, and I think tonight was that story for Conor McGregor,” White said. “You’re always going to have people that don’t like you, but I think a lot of people jumped back on the bandwagon tonight and became fans again.”

After spending most of the last year shedding fans from his stable, McGregor Sports and Entertainment is back in business.

This was as good a setup fight as the UFC could have given him. Cerrone is popular, talented and has a reputation for toughness, yet he had struggled in his biggest fights, going just 2-7 against men who have held UFC titles. Still, it was up to McGregor to deliver, and with flourish. Nobody had seen such violent shoulder strikes to the face before last night, not ones that broke someone’s nose. Nobody had beaten Cerrone so quickly, so decisively. He underpromised and overdelivered. How refreshing!

His mistakes have been logged and catalogued, failures of commitment and integrity, but at least he recognizes his shortcomings. Both personally and professionally, he said, he has let people down. And this fight was the beginning of the way back to them.

“You put in the work, you reap the awards,” he said. “There’s no secret sauce to this. Recognize what you need to do and fu—ing do it. That’s it, and you will succeed.”

With everything feeling fresh again, McGregor has some slack in his line. The question now is whether he will continue to pull it to the point of snapping or stay within the boundary. Here he has something that is promised to no one: a second chance. He may not get a third. Nurmagomedov or Masvidal or Justin Gaethje will try to see to that. He can’t control their approach to him, but he must control himself. It is something he has failed to do far too often in the recent past, and that he will have to fight for in the future.

There is so much at stake for him, yet at least he seems to understand the changes he needs to make. He stopped drinking alcohol in camp, he reengaged his training as though he was starting all over again. But there is still far to go to reclaim his reputation. He will have to stare down impulses and reject overtures and embrace discipline. He will have to do this everyday, as long as his aspirations remain.

From the moment he touched down in Las Vegas until the time he left, McGregor put forth a different image: quiet, gracious, humble, professional. It was far removed from his past behavior, and he did it with aplomb, but other days will not be so easy. Other days he’ll wake up and stare in a mirror, trying to figure out how to leave notorious behind.