Connor McGregor is back and better than ever. But has he really changed?

Wild. Such was Connor McGregor’s return to the Octagon which gave him a stunning victory over one of the most revered and seasoned fighters in the history of the UFC. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone lasted a mere 40 seconds against “the Notorious” Connor McGregor at welterweight during UFC 246 on Jan. 18 in Las Vegas. Notably, Cerrone was rocked by a kick about 20 seconds into the fight — a technique used with devastating effectiveness by Cerrone over his career who has recorded seven knockouts by kicking — a UFC record. After the kick, Cerrone backed into the cage and was knocked down after three successive left strikes by McGregor. Fourteen seconds later the fight was over. Despite the contest ending quickly this particular fight had stakes that were arguably the highest of McGregor’s career. This win is a major vindication for him. It is proof that he is still a brilliant fighter. But to a casual fan, it was his reformed demeanor leading up to the fight that most captured my attention. There is no doubt — McGregor will continue to win. But how he conducts himself in front of the media and in interactions with his opponents, especially when he wins, may change going forward and I believe it is an exciting development for UFC and its fans.

Assessing the value of this win is simple. Cerrone is a legend and he was finished off with relative ease by McGregor. The bout proves McGregor trained diligently and had a well-constructed strategy to avoid take downs from Cerrone, do damage to his opponent in the clinch, and ultimately, defeat the winningest UFC fighter in history. 

McGregor was coming off three years without a win and two years without a fight. He noted in the pre-fight press conference that he was coming into the fight with “full preparation, full focus and full confidence” in his “striking abilities.” But deeper than the win, which was significant, McGregor carried himself with a confidence that only comes from humility. He was a different person and it is perplexing but also reassuring to fans who have been disappointed with his past behavior.

The respect and self-restraint McGregor showed leading up to the fight showed signs he may be on a different path toward being a gentleman rather than a hostile, arrogant winner. To his credit, McGregor seemed to be on a different page even before his victory Saturday night. In a moment of self-reflection at the pre-fight press conference, McGregor admitted “sometimes we gotta [sic] go to certain places in our life to realize what we need to do.” 

He appeared to approach his showdown with Cerrone like a man who had done penance through hours in the gym and deep down sensed that a victory in the octagon could absolve him of his past public transgressions and allow him a new lease on life. In the pre-fight press conference, the mood was friendly — unusual for any UFC press conference but particularly so for one involving McGregor. He showed considerable respect towards Ceronne, when he paid him compliments on his career, his style of jacket and noted that “blood will be spilled but it will not be bad blood.” At the weigh in, the spectacle felt energetic but under control. The uncanny scene included McGregor shaking hands with Cerrone before the pictures were taken and bowing slightly at the end of the face off in a sign of respect. This was a departure from McGregor’s usual demeanor. 

To those who aren’t aware, McGregor’s usual press conferences have brought him, well, notoriety as he often trades insults with his opponents, exudes unbridled arrogance and makes extremely egotistical statements. His skill as a showman comes from the comedically prideful stories he weaves and comments he often jabs towards opponents.

In this pre-fight press conference on Jan. 15, he even referred to himself as “a fighter and an entertainer.” Yes, McGregor’s stories can make you laugh but after a while, the act grows old and you just wish he would demonstrate a modicum of class. 

McGregor is clearly one of, if not the best fighter in the UFC — can’t he act like a true champion? Fortunately, last Saturday night was no circus. It was dramatically different. Whether it was the substance of the moment or just an eagerness to be back, McGregor showed class leading up to this latest fight with what appeared to be a reformed demeanor. 

He was more focused on winning — not rabble rousing. All this to say, McGregor might just be warming up for a return to his old ways — insults and antics. Has he fooled us again? Perhaps. But last Saturday night was an opportunity for McGregor to be a magnanimous champion and he rose to the occasion. After knocking Ceronne to the ground McGregor returned to embrace Ceronne while he was still recovering. 

Yes, McGregor is back to chasing excellence again but only time will tell if this new, more amiable, persona deteriorates. Let’s hope McGregor is as ready to write a new chapter in his life as his fans are ready to line up and read it. 

One way or another there is no doubt of this: whichever path McGregor chooses — arrogance or humility — he knows, you will end up watching either way. Such is the way of a showman. But to be respected is one thing. To be admired? 

That’s something else entirely.

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