Is Conor McGregor truly 'the best he's ever been'?

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

It’s part of the shtick that’s a part of just about every big fight: The threats of violence, the proclamations of feeling better than ever, the vow to win in a jaw-dropping manner.

Trash-talk sells tickets and pay-per-views, and nobody is better at that than Conor McGregor. Asked for a prediction prior to his lightweight title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov on Oct. 6, 2018, in the main event of UFC 229, McGregor said, simply, “Domination, his head bouncing off the canvas.” Pressed on a specific round, McGregor added “As long as it takes. I believe one. He’s a glass jaw.”

McGregor, of course, lost when he tapped to a neck crank in the fourth round of their heavily hyped fight.

McGregor is less than two weeks out from his return to the Octagon when he meets Donald Cerrone on Jan. 18 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in the main event of UFC 246, and his trainer, John Kavanagh, predictably said he’s had the best camp ever.

In an interview with Oscar Willis on McGregor’s website, “The Mac Life,” Kavanagh said, “I think this is the best he’s ever been.”

That’s big news, of course, and Kavanagh’s words made headlines around the MMA world. Those types of comments help create awareness of the event and help push the losses to Nurmagomedov and in a boxing match to Floyd Mayweather further out of mind, not to mention they help boost the boss’ considerable ego.

Conor McGregor poses during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, October 24, 2019. (Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina)
Conor McGregor poses during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, October 24, 2019. (Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina)

When he was ready to return to fight, McGregor wanted a rematch with Nurmagomedov, who wasn’t all that interested based on the enmity that built up between them during the lead up to UFC 229. UFC president Dana White told McGregor, who hasn’t won a fight of any kind since stopping Eddie Alvarez in New York on Nov. 12, 2016, at UFC 205, that he needed a win first before he’d get a title shot.

“I told him that and he said, ‘OK, who am I fighting then?’” White told Yahoo Sports on Monday.

Dana White on why McGregor, not Gaethje, deserves title shot next

Yahoo Sports asked why McGregor would deserve another crack at the lightweight title given how long it’s been since he’s won and that the Cerrone fight will be at 170 pounds. 

White repeated a statement he’d previously made to ESPN and said that Justin Gaethje had been turning down fights. Gaethje has won three in a row, all by first-round knockout, and he hasn’t fought for the title. Yahoo Sports told White he made more sense as an opponent for the winner of the upcoming April fight between Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson than McGregor.

“What’s happening now in this sport is that some fighters and a lot of their managers are trying to predict what we’re going to do and they turn down fights we offer them so they’re available to fight when they want, on the show they want or the opponent they want,” White said. “But when are these guys going to stop f---ing with me? I’ve been doing this 20 years. I know what I’m doing. I make the fights here. 

“We offered Gaethje a ton of fights. Why would I get in the way of Gaethje fighting [for the title]? He’s exciting and people love watching him. But he tried to play it. If he’d taken the fights we’d offered, this probably would be his fight. Believe me when I tell you, if I didn’t put [pressure on them], nobody would fight. I have to do it like this or else everyone would just sit around and wait.”

Is the old McGregor back?

McGregor’s own interview with Willis is interesting not so much for what he said but for the impression he created. He appears as if the motivation that propelled him to the top of the sports world has returned.

McGregor entered the UFC as a Cage Warriors double champion, but little known outside of the United Kingdom. He was an unemployed apprentice fighter who was on public assistance and had a quick wit and a love of fighting.

As he rose the ranks in the UFC, he became the guy who was the fighter White had been searching for, for years: Truly, the guy who’d fight anyone anywhere at any time. And when he fought, he fought with a passion and a vigor and clearly went for the finish, further endearing him to the fan base. But the richer he got, the less he needed to fight and the more he moved away from the sport.

He told Willis that even as the Nurmagomedov fight was exploding — it sold well more than 2 million on pay-per-view and became the best-selling UFC PPV ever — he wasn’t all that into the fight.

“That [loss] was after a horrendous camp where I was so disrespectful to the people that believe in me,” McGregor said. “I was disrespectful to my team with my lack of commitment, and I still went out and done that.”

Most high-level athletes at McGregor’s level don’t want to admit that their opponent was better, so part of McGregor’s answer could be interpreted as him simply explaining away a loss.

Khabib Nurmagomedov submits Conor McGregor in their UFC lightweight championship bout during UFC 229 inside T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 6, 2018 in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Khabib Nurmagomedov submits Conor McGregor in their UFC lightweight championship bout during UFC 229 inside T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 6, 2018 in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

He went on to say that Nurmagomedov “is trembling,” and doesn’t want a rematch. The truth is, Nurmagomedov doesn’t need McGregor any more. He made an eight-figure payday for UFC 229 and now commands seven-figure appearance fees. He was reportedly paid $1 million to attend the Dec. 7 boxing heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. in Saudi Arabia.

He’ll make so much money off the Ferguson fight that he won’t ever have to work another day in his life if he didn’t want to.

So Nurmagomedov is hardly trembling; he’s getting even by denying McGregor a chance at the title. But he won’t be able to deny him for long. If Nurmagomedov gets past Ferguson, White will almost certainly call for the rematch with McGregor, assuming McGregor defeats Cerrone. 

White could also try to bring McGregor back in the middle of the year to fight Gaethje, but that would then be giving in to Gaethje’s demands. 

There is nothing we can really take from McGregor’s interview with Willis to assess where he stands at this point. He looked fabulous physically, but even when he’s not training, McGregor is fit.

You need to read between the lines to get any kind of a sense of where McGregor is in regard to fighting. 

My sense — and clearly this is the sense he desperately wants to convey — is that he’s where he was prior to the Chad Mendes fight at UFC 189 in 2015, when he was hungry, motivated and ripping through the best fighters in the world.

If I’m reading him correctly, we’re in for one of the most entertaining years in a long time.

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