UFC 246 debate: Is Conor properly focused on Cowboy? Will fans remain loyal?

MMA

Conor McGregor hasn’t fought in the Octagon since losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov on Oct. 6, 2018, but his layoff has done little to temper speculation and expectations about his return Saturday against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone at UFC 246.

The expectation is McGregor defeats Cerrone, who has been stopped in his last two, and then calls out anyone from Jorge Masvidal to Justin Gaethje to the winner of Nurmagomedov’s lightweight title defense against Tony Ferguson on April 18.

But could McGregor’s focus on a still-dangerous Cerrone be compromised by discussing whom he’ll face next as he hopes to fight — at least — three times in 2020? Some believe Cerrone will surprise the MMA world and upset McGregor despite the odds suggesting otherwise.

If McGregor does win, should he stay at 170 or drop down to lightweight?

And what about McGregor’s rabid fan base that has traveled the globe to support him? Will his layoff and troubles outside of the Octagon take a toll on his following?

UFC president Dana White has said McGregor would be first in line for a lightweight title shot despite not winning a UFC bout in over three years and fighting Cerrone at welterweight. Is that the right call?

ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim addresses these topics as McGregor’s return nears.

Do you expect Conor to maintain the same fan loyalty he enjoyed during his rise to stardom? Will it depend on his performance?

Helwani: If he wins impressively and says something witty on the microphone afterward, the fans will be eating out of his hands again. Make no mistake, he has to win them back. But it won’t take much, in my opinion, because of his charisma. If he loses, and especially if he loses badly, it’ll require a hell of a lot more work.

Okamoto: It will be hard for McGregor’s fandom to reach anything like it was in 2016. I’ve been covering the sport of MMA for more than 10 years now, as well as some of the biggest boxing matches, and I can tell you nothing I’ve ever seen comes close to that. It’s not even about sheer numbers — McGregor’s fan base worldwide is obviously massive, and I don’t see that changing much even if he were to lose to Cerrone. He has a firm grip on people’s interest. But the love people had for him back in 2016, that might be hard to ever replicate.

Wagenheim: Back in 2013, McGregor burst onto the UFC scene buoyed by a deliriously vocal throng of Irishmen who saw, in this former plumber’s apprentice, one of their own making it big. Nowadays, Conor is a rich man of privilege, and both that and the circumstances surrounding his recent legal transgressions — slapping a cellphone out of a fan’s hands, sucker-punching a pub patron — might very well have alienated some of those old fans.

But McGregor’s celebrity has transcended the working-class-hero image. He is charismatic and loquacious and a headliner in the game of life, and there’ll always be acolytes eager to hitch themselves to that wagon. Yes, there’s an ephemeral quality to today’s social media celebrity status. And yes, how Conor conducts himself inside and outside the cage will play a role in how brightly his star continues to shines. But it’d be foolhardy to predict that McGregor is going to dissipate into the vapors anytime soon.

If he wins, should Conor stay at welterweight and call out Masvidal or drop down to fight the Khabib-Ferguson winner?

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Jorge Masvidal states his desire to face Conor McGregor if he wins his fight against Donald Cerrone, but only if McGregor is interested as well.

Helwani: Probably the former. The truth is, the world is his oyster if he wins this fight. He can conceivably call out anyone from 145-170 pounds after this fight and it’ll sort of make sense. How many fighters can claim that? If McGregor wins, Masvidal appears to be the front-runner. If he loses, maybe Nate Diaz? Either way, unless Nurmagomedov or Ferguson gets injured before April 18, I’d be surprised if Conor’s second fight of 2020 is for the belt. Of course, all bets are off when it comes to McGregor and his power, but that’s the hunch right now.

Okamoto: Personally, I would like to see him drop back down and fight Gaethje. Prove he’s the rightful No. 1 contender at 155 pounds. If he beats Gaethje, the sport will be firmly behind him getting another title shot. I feel pretty confident in saying lightweight is McGregor’s ideal weight class. That’s not stepping out on a limb. Of course, I don’t think that’s what will happen. A lot of it will depend on what happens in April, when Nurmagomedov and Ferguson finally meet. Regardless, if it were up to me, I want to see McGregor compete in his best weight class: lightweight.

Wagenheim: McGregor’s career trajectory has always been to seek out the next mountain to climb, retracing his steps only if he was tripped up on his initial ascent. That’s why there was no Jose Aldo rematch but Conor did insist on a second go with Nate Diaz. And by that thinking, there’s just one fight McGregor craves: a Khabib rematch. The only thing that would legitimize that bout being next, though, would be a Nurmagomedov loss to Ferguson, which would take the title belt out of the equation.

The best fight for all involved, really, would be McGregor vs. Masvidal. For Jorge (and the UFC), it’s a pure-gold moneymaker. For Conor, it’s a more winnable fight than one against either Khabib or welterweight champ Kamaru Usman. And if McGregor were to beat the man who holds the make-believe BMF belt, he could spin that win into a narrative in which he declares himself a three-division champ.

There is a lot of talk about what Conor will do after he beats Cowboy. Could lack of focus work against Conor?

Helwani: I don’t think so. McGregor has always talked a big game and dreamed big. None of this is different. In fact, I’d argue he seems more focused this time around — focused to prove the naysayers wrong again — than he has the past couple years. Of course, we’ll only truly find out just how seriously he has taken this comeback fight on Saturday. But of all the things McGregor fans could potentially worry about leading up to UFC 246, I don’t think looking past Cerrone is one of them.

Okamoto: If McGregor truly isn’t focused on Cowboy, then yes, it could absolutely be a problem. But the fact he is — and we are — talking about what’s next, personally, I don’t think it’s a problem because that’s the way McGregor has always been. He’s actually been at his best when he’s been plotting greatness. I would be very surprised if Cowboy doesn’t have McGregor’s attention. He is preparing for this fight and this fight alone. But “Mystic Mac” has never had a problem looking ahead, and frankly, I actually think it might even be a good sign he’s doing it.

Wagenheim: McGregor has several things working against him, actually. Ring rust from having competed in the Octagon just once since 2016. Distractions outside the cage that range from selling whiskey to settling police matters. Weighty expectations stemming from being matched against a faded version of Cerrone. Depleted motivation on mornings when he’s slumbering on silk sheets while the hard-knocks training gym beckons.

Having said all of that, though, I’m not too worried for McGregor’s ability to concentrate on the task at hand. He made it to where he is today not merely on the strength of physical skills. His mental game has always been second to none. If anyone can maintain focus while in the spin cycle of a hullabaloo of wealth and fame, it’s McGregor. If he loses to Cerrone, it’s going to be because Cowboy simply rises to the occasion and is the better man on Saturday.

If Conor wins Saturday, Dana has said he’ll be first in line for a lightweight title shot? Is that the right move?

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UFC president Dana White says Conor McGregor is willing to fight again in April vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov in case Tony Ferguson is unable to fight.

Helwani: This statement reminds me of when White once said Georges St-Pierre was the most famous Canadian athlete ever and everyone in Canada got very upset. It was brilliant promoting because, even if it wasn’t true (see: Gretzky, Wayne), it got people talking, and that’s all a promoter really cares about. Same thing is going on here, because the timeline just doesn’t work out.

McGregor vs. Cerrone is on Saturday. Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson is scheduled for April 18. McGregor has repeatedly said he wants to fight three times in 2020. Nurmagomedov will never fight or seriously train during Ramadan, which is from April 23 to May 23. Meaning, if all goes well for him versus Ferguson, he’ll likely return only in the fall. That timeline doesn’t mesh with McGregor’s timeline. So, if McGregor beats Cerrone, he’ll most likely fight someone else, meaning he won’t be next in line.

See what I mean? Nothing to get all riled up about. So much can happen between now and December, which is when McGregor predicted the rematch would take place.

Okamoto: I don’t agree with it, obviously. From a “sporting” perspective, it’s unjustifiable. McGregor’s fight against Cerrone isn’t even at 155 pounds. If he wins, it would be his first victory in more than three years, and it wouldn’t even be in the weight class he’d be getting a title shot in. It’s the kind of matchmaking we’re used to seeing in boxing, but not as much in MMA (with exceptions, of course). That said, I believe White and the UFC would do it, with little concern over how it affects Gaethje. It’s a business decision, plain and simple. That means I can understand it, but I don’t have to like it.

Wagenheim: My reaction is that Dana says a lot of things, some of them — like this — not remotely rooted in reality. How do you justify giving a lightweight title shot to someone who “earned” it by beating a guy who came in on a two-fight losing streak, and doing so in a different weight class? It makes no sense, especially if that title shot were to come against Nurmagomedov, who dominated McGregor just 15 months ago. But as UFC president, White gets to book whatever fights make sense to him. And to him and his company’s bean counters, this matchup makes sense because it would make cents, as in dollars and cents, piles and piles of them. Still, let’s hope Dana comes to his senses and abandons this cockeyed idea.

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