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For Conor McGregor, the best may be yet to come

·Combat columnist
·4 min read
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Conor McGregor is nearing his eight-year anniversary in the UFC. He entered the promotion with a 12-2 record and championships at featherweight and lightweight in the Cage Warriors promotion, but he was largely unknown to American fans when the UFC signed him.

He captivated the media in the days leading up to his April 6, 2013, debut in Stockholm, Sweden, telling the story of him struggling to make ends meet and needing public assistance to survive despite his success on the regional circuit.

In many ways, it will be a very different man who climbs into the cage on Saturday in the main event of UFC 257 at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi to fight Dustin Poirier. McGregor has become the richest and one of the most decorated fighters in the history of mixed martial arts.

He’s 10-2 in the UFC, firmly established as the biggest pay-per-view draw in the world. He was the first UFC fighter to hold multiple weight class championships simultaneously, winning the featherweight belt in 2015 and capturing the lightweight belt 11 months later.

Like Muhammad Ali a half-century earlier, McGregor called his shots in many cases, earning himself the nickname, “Mystic Mac.”

He’s stuffed a career full of accomplishments into those eight years with the UFC.

And yet, as he prepares to fight Poirier in a rematch of their 2014 bout that McGregor won by knockout in 1:46, there is the sense that the best may be yet to come.

It’s no stretch to suggest he could raise his game. In his first eight years, if he had any weaknesses, it was his ground game and his conditioning.

McGregor is a perfectionist and after he lost to Nate Diaz in 2016, he vowed to improve his cardiovascular conditioning. He went out and fought hard for five rounds against Diaz in the rematch five months later.

The cardio issue isn’t totally conquered, but he’s spent millions working to improve it. He easily passes the eyeball test, though it’s a fight and not a bodybuilding contest. The big muscles require plenty of oxygen and many hulking fighters have gone down to ignominious defeats when their gas tank emptied early.

McGregor, though, has the resources to fix that and he’s spent generously in an attempt to give himself the best chance. This is a guy who so respects science and the finer details that he has employed a movement coach to help him.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 18:  Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Donald Cerrone in a welterweight bout during UFC246 at T-Mobile Arena on January 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. McGregor won by a TKO in the first round. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)
Another UFC title is just on the horizon for former dual champion Conor McGregor. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

His first moments of rebellion in the UFC came when he was so intent on training that he refused to fly to Las Vegas for a news conference and drew the ire of company president Dana White.

He’ll turn 33 in July, but his body doesn’t have the wear-and-tear that many of his peers who are 33 have endured. In his 22-4 MMA career, he’s gone 15 minutes or more three times; 18 minutes or more twice and 25 minutes once. He’s had 12 fights end in less than two minutes and five fights last 40 seconds or less.

His coach, John Kavanagh, has insisted repeatedly that McGregor has gotten better and his takedown defense rate in the UFC is 70 percent. No one has rag-dolled him, not even arch-rival Khabib Nurmagomedov.

McGregor is so quick and hits so hard that if he can keep a fight upright, he significantly increases his chance of winning.

He’s heading into a stretch where after he fights Poirier, he’ll be in the mix for bouts with Nurmagomedov, Justin Gaethje, Michael Chandler, Charles Oliveira, Max Holloway, Diaz and Tony Ferguson. He’d be favored in all of them with the exception of against Nurmagomedov.

If Nurmagomedov doesn’t come out of retirement, and the bet here is that he will not, McGregor would become the UFC lightweight champion with two more wins, Saturday against Poirier and whoever he fights next.

The key is keeping his interest in competing and staying out of trouble. It seems that each time he fights, trouble follows, and on Tuesday news broke that a woman in Ireland who has accused him of rape has sued him civilly.

The pressure on a fighter with the notoriety that McGregor has is enormous, and while there are many perks that come with it, it’s also extraordinarily difficult. Many who have walked in those shoes ahead of him longed for the days when they could walk down the street unnoticed and have dinner out with friends and family.

The demands and expectations could ultimately drive him away.

But he’s a young 32 in fighting terms, he’s got the resources to hire the best coaches, he has a brilliant mind for the game and he has the big-name opponents available.

It’s no stretch to suggest that, despite all he’s accomplished, Conor McGregor may just be getting started and the best may be yet to come.

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