On Saturday night, “The Notorious” Conor McGregor, MMA’s most prominent star, will finally make his long-awaited return to the Octagon, as he’s set to take on Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in the main event of UFC 246 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Unlike many of his previous UFC bouts, however, this welterweight clash against Cerrone seems to be lacking the typical type of buzz that surrounds a McGregor fight. And there could be a few different reasons for this.
First off, the 31-year-old Irishman, who previously held two titles simultaneously, simply hasn’t been all that active. His last UFC bout came against lightweight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018. Prior to that, he hadn’t fought inside of a cage since taking on Eddie Alvarez in November 2016. Sandwiched in-between those bouts was a high profile boxing match against Floyd Mayweather, which took place in August 2017.
In addition to not being as active as he once was, McGregor also hasn’t been as successful in his recent run of fights. After putting on a masterclass against Alvarez to capture the 155-pound title, the “Notorious” one came up short against Mayweather, losing via 10th-round TKO. McGregor was then submitted in a relatively one-sided affair against Nurmagomedov, a bitter rival of his.
Ultimately, MMA moves faster than most sports. With so many events and so many fighters, fans are quick to move on and look ahead and if a fighter isn’t active, fans tend to forget about them, regardless of how popular they are.
Also, fans simply like winners. And not only that but fans are often quite quick to abandon a fighter once he or she starts to fall from grace. When McGregor made his meteoric rise through the UFC, he was fighting often and winning often. That hasn’t been the case in recent memory though and that could be why fans haven’t shown the same amount of interest in his upcoming bout against Cerrone.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that McGregor has run into quite a few issues outside of the cage over the last few years that have made fans question whether or not they’d like to continue to support him and root for him.
Ahead of UFC 223, for example, which was originally set to be headlined by a bout between Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, McGregor attacked a bus in Brooklyn that was filled with UFC fighters including the Russian champion. In the process, he injured multiple fighters and was arrested for his actions.
More recently, he broke a fan’s cell phone in Miami and punched a man in a Dublin bar who supposedly turned down a taste of his Proper No. 12 Irish Whiskey. And on top of all of that, there have been reports, most notably from the New York Times, indicating that McGregor is being investigated for sexual assault in Ireland, which, if true, would be a fatal blow to what was once a promising career.
All in all, it’s easy to see why fan interest surrounding McGregor and his fight with Cerrone isn’t at the high that it once likely would have been. Even the Irishman himself has recognized the fact that he lost himself somewhere along the way due to the fame and the money, an occurrence that is far from rare regarding high profile athletes and celebrities.
It’s why he’s said that he’s determined to return to being an active and successful fighter in 2020. He’s said he’d like to fight three or more times this year and get back to what got him to the dance. That all sounds good and well, but it also begs the question of whether winning will be enough to repair the damage he’s done to his reputation.
Simply put. sports fans have always loved and supported winners. It’s also true that sports fans have always been drawn to a comeback story, showing a deep interest in an athlete who was forced to build himself back up after a drastic fall.
This has even been seen specifically in combat sports. Former heavyweight boxing world champion Mike Tyson, for example, was arrested in 1991 and convicted on charges of rape. He was sentenced to six years in prison, but only served less than three years and was released in March 1995.
Despite sexual assault being an absolutely horrific crime, fans couldn’t get enough of Tyson’s comeback. His first fight after being released from prison, for example, sold over 1.5 million pay-per-views. He then went on to take part in massive fights against Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis as well.
A similar situation can be seen with Mayweather, who despite dealing with legal issues involving domestic abuse and serving jail time, remained the sport’s biggest star following his release. And although a large portion of fans tuned in hoping to see him lose, “Money’s” undefeated record was one of his biggest selling points.
In terms of MMA specifically, pound-for-pound great and current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones comes to mind. Few fighters in the history of the sport have been as dominant as Jones, though he too has had his fair share of issues outside of the cage including a hit-and-run accident where he crashed into a car driven by a pregnant lady along with multiple drug test failures.
Since December 2018, however, Jones has made a consistent return to action, competing three times, winning back his light heavyweight title and defending it twice. He’s once again set to put that title on the line next month against Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 in Houston, Texas.
Simply put, Jones, despite his issues, has come back, returned to his winning form, and has headlined multiple events in the process. It seems as if he remains one of the sport’s top attractions and that his issues become less and less of a talking point each time out.
Will this be the case with Conor McGregor, however? Say, for example, that the Irishman does return to an active schedule in 2020, winning multiple bouts and perhaps even reclaiming a title. Will fans begin to forget about the issues that have sidetracked him in recent memory? Will he be able to repair his image and return to the star he once was?
These questions would obviously become a bit more difficult to answer if the sexual assault allegations made against him were true, but it seems as if only time will tell. Regardless, Saturday night will at least begin to provide some context as to what the future looks like for MMA’s most infamous star.