Okamoto: Can Conor McGregor recapture his MMA brilliance?

In 2017, just before Conor McGregor boxed Floyd Mayweather in “The Money Fight,” I did an interview on a national radio show that I’m reminded of now, one week ahead of McGregor’s fight against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone at UFC 246.

I remember playfully telling the show’s hosts, who were not mixed martial arts enthusiasts, that they represented a general problem. It was their casual interest — shared by millions — in one farcical, circus boxing match that could ruin the best thing going on in combat sports.

Which at the time, of course, was McGregor.

McGregor was dominant at the end of 2016. He was already a champion in two weight classes, but it was conceivable we were only scratching the surface of his potential. McGregor was laying the fabric for one of the most accomplished careers ever.

And as amusing as that Mayweather vs. McGregor match was, there was always a risk that when the party was over, MMA fans would be the ones left with the bill. Mainstream interest would turn back to things like the NFL and NBA, while MMA would be left with a different star than the one it had going in. A less motivated one, spoiled by fame and money.

Well, it’s 2020, and we’re about to find out if the best version of McGregor is gone for good.

MMA has indeed paid for McGregor’s foray into boxing. Its fans haven’t seen him at his best in years. He hasn’t won a fight in the UFC since beating Eddie Alvarez on Nov. 12, 2016, to become the first UFC champion to hold belts in multiple weight classes simultaneously. His lone appearance since then — an October 2018 title fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov — was almost as much of a spectacle as the show with Mayweather, due to an ugly buildup that crossed the lines of religion and culture, and then a post-fight melee.

McGregor said he wasn’t at his best in that loss to Nurmagomedov, and even if you think he’s making excuses, he’s probably right. Consider McGregor’s legal issues over the past three years, as well as his inactivity in the sport. He has admitted his preparations for that fight were “horrendous,” and his coaching staff has echoed that with statements about a sporadic training schedule.

While taking nothing from Nurmagomedov’s performance, McGregor’s showing looked like a cheap knockoff.

But there are signs McGregor has returned to his old form. He is saying all the right things when it comes to his career. He wants to fight three times in 2020. He’s hungry again.

“I’m back in my old frame of mind,” McGregor recently told his website, TheMacLife.com. “I just want consistency, I want competition. It’s what I love to do, to be in that healthy state of mind, and my body also.”

The fire in McGregor’s eyes seems closer to the competitive one we saw in 2016, rather than the anger we saw as he threw a dolly through the window of a bus full of fighters that included Nurmagomedov in April 2018.

And when you hear McGregor talk about possibly adding a welterweight championship to his résumé, you get the sense his flair for chasing the most outlandish challenges is still there. It’s those types of challenges that could really excite the entire MMA world again. While it may sound inadvisable from a competitive standpoint, it’s the old McGregor way. The way that caught the eye of the combat sports world just a few years ago.

This upcoming fight in Las Vegas is not one of the most outlandish challenges out there, but it will tell us a lot about where McGregor stands and where he’s headed. Cerrone holds the most wins in UFC history and is not an easy fight by any definition, but the perception is — and the odds support it — McGregor should beat him. Cerrone is nearing his 37th birthday and has been finished in his past two bouts.

If McGregor wins and goes on to have the kind of 2020 he’s promising, well, it means he will have returned for real, and realized the immense potential he showed in his sensational 2016 campaign.

If he loses and goes into another hiatus, he’ll still be a very, very rich man, with two UFC championship wins that no one can take from him. But we’ll always wonder: What if McGregor had seen through the immeasurable momentum he had in 2016? What might have he accomplished?

And if that question is left unanswered, perhaps this new McGregor won’t mind. But one can’t help but think the old one certainly would have.

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