The plans laid out by Conor McGregor this week had an aptness to them considering his location. The Irishman’s UFC comeback was announced in Moscow, and a three-fight return would, according to him, culminate there in 2020.
The former two-weight UFC world champion was ostensibly on a promotional visit to the Russian capital, but took the opportunity to declare that he would be back in the octagon on January 18 in Las Vegas to face an as yet unnamed opponent. From there, McGregor is eyeing the winner of the Nate Diaz versus Jorge Masvidal ‘BMF’ bout, before moving on to a blockbuster rematch against UFC lightweight ruler Khabib Nurmagomedov in the Russian’s backyard later in the year.
It was typically audacious and ambitious stuff from McGregor as he reveled in being the center of attention in the homeland of Nurmagomedov, with whom animosity still simmers more than 12 months after they faced off in Las Vegas.
But amid all the brash statements of intent from McGregor, it feels as if now more than ever he stands at a crossroads in his fighting career. If his Moscow plans pan out as ‘Mystic Mac’ has foretold, then they will ensure a glorious second act in a cage career that has already ensured he will go down as a legend of the sport; if they don’t, and if McGregor’s return falls flat or is frustrated by not getting his way with the UFC, it could mean he slinks off in bitterness and resentment, his second coming falling short of what he has prophesied.
For now at least, one thing is for certain: to stand any chance of making his dream 2020 scenario a reality, McGregor, 31, has to get back into the octagon at the earliest opportunity. We’ve been here before with his unilateral declarations of a return – one came in September when he tweeted that December 14 in Dublin was the date and location he was aiming for, before that was shot down by UFC boss Dana White.
On this latest occasion, the UFC have indicated that they are “targeting [January 18] for Conor’s return, but that no deals are even close to being signed.” Lightweight rival Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone, among the most realistic opponents for that date, has hinted on social media that the fight will be made, but beyond that there is nothing cast-iron.
Step one of the plan must happen at the time outlined by McGregor for either of the remaining two components to fall into place – and that’s assuming he wins on his return, which is something he hasn’t done for three years. That last happened when McGregor gained ‘champ champ’ status with victory over Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden in November 2016, a second-round TKO victory sealed with a crunching combination initiated by McGregor’s notorious left hand.
That peak – as high as it was – looks increasingly in danger of being McGregor’s summit inside the octagon. Since then we have seen a hugely lucrative detour into boxing against Floyd Mayweather, followed by a comprehensive defeat to Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in October 2018.
Dana White’s recent comments that McGregor “isn’t the man anymore, Khabib is” were unsurprisingly met with a spite-filled response from the Irishman. But White was merely stating a reality which McGregor – based on his social media musings – is struggling to come to terms with. While once he undoubtedly laid claim to the moniker, McGregor should know as well as anyone that three years without a victory cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, qualify someone as being ‘the man’ in fighting terms.
McGregor’s trip to Moscow will have acted as a timely balm to soothe any bruises to his ego that were left by Dana White’s comments. The Irishman was mobbed by fans wherever he went, feted by members of the local press and found time to make a charismatic appearance on the nation’s leading late-night talk show.
While he veered into toxic territory with some of his comments about Nurmagomedov and his Dagestani homeland – causing one man to direct at bottle at him – McGregor was unstinting in his platitudes and charm offensive towards Russia. Of course he has his whiskey wares to peddle, but it was also an attempt to have a pop at Nurmagomedov, trying to drive an ethnic wedge between him and some Russian fans. “I’ve never seen the man represent Russia in my life,” McGregor proclaimed at one presser. Khabib’s father and trainer Abdulmanap even poured scorn on the Russian press for what he saw as complicity in McGregor’s insults.
McGregor’s remarkable gift in the past was to back up his braggadocio in the octagon. He talked the talk, but he also walked the walk – or rather, strutted the billionaire strut. Even in defeat against Mayweather, he basked in the glory of pulling off an implausible bout and emerging with his reputation enhanced – and no shortage of cash in the bank.
But much changed when he was choked out by Nurmagomedov so comprehensively in that fourth round in Las Vegas. On that occasion, the Dagestani was the one who did exactly what he said he would, putting an exclamation mark against their rivalry. Done and dusted in the Nevada desert.
Nurmagomedov’s star has since risen further. He has attended to business by beating interim title holder Dustin Poirier in their unifier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi, and is next most likely to meet longtime rival Tony Ferguson in March or April of next year, potentially in New York. He is a bona fide global megastar who boasts an appeal to the Muslim world in particular. He is the more reserved yin to McGregor’s brash, trash-talking yang. He can draw the crowds, and has the fighting record and champ status to “call the shots” regarding future opponents, just as Dana White says.
Nurmagomedov has said that from a fighting standpoint, he has proved all he needs to prove against McGregor. But, tantalisingly, he has left the door ajar for a rematch, admitting in St. Petersburg earlier this month that a McGregor re-run would make financial sense. The Eagle has not always risen above McGregor’s social media barbs either, sometimes swooping in to land insults, just as he did when McGregor took issue with Dana White’s comments.
Of course, a lot must happen for a rematch to take place as McGregor wishes. Opponents must be confirmed, victories must be taken, and McGregor must regain the focus and fire that some fear he has lost given the riches he has amassed from his fighting career and his business endeavors. There is also the significant issue of his assault charge for allegedly attacking a man in a Dublin pub earlier this year and, according to reports in The New York Times, two sexual assault cases against him in his Irish homeland.
But for McGregor, Moscow this week was testament that he remains a major draw, even on what should really have been enemy territory. He used his Russian trip to state his intent to restart his career, and he plans for that to come full circle in Russia next year. Big plans, but then again, Conor McGregor is not usually a man who does things by half measures.