UFC 246: Is Conor McGregor still 'Notorious' or fighting to stay relevant?

By Ciaran VarleyBBC Three
Conor McGregor touches his spectacles
McGregor has adopted a more reflective tone in recent interviews

"The MMA industry is such a forgetful game. One guy can win and they're top of the world, and then a guy can have a loss and he's at the bottom."

That was Conor McGregor, getting philosophical on his YouTube channel before his first bout since October 2018 - against Donald Cerrone in the welterweight division at UFC 246 in Las Vegas on Sunday.

So is this a fight to stay relevant?

There have been some suggestions McGregor has been losing fans at home in Irelandexternal-link - but ticket sales for this fight show he remains a big draw in the sport.

And considering prices reportedly start at about $300 (£230), it seems the McGregor game is still very lucrative.

Two of those other three top-selling Vegas gates - UFC 229 (v Khabib Nurmagomedov) and UFC 194 (v Jose Aldo) - featured the Irishman at the top of the bill too.

Indeed, it was at the latter, in 2015, that McGregor knocked out his Brazilian opponent in just 13 seconds to become the UFC featherweight champion for the first time - arguably the zenith of his storied career.

Conor McGregor knocks out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds

He has also been involved in the two biggest UFC pay-per-view events by buy-rate according to Statistaexternal-link - UFC 229 and UFC 202, when he fought Nate Diaz.

MMA reporter Simon Head says that McGregor "continues to enjoy huge support among MMA fans," as well as from the UFC itself.

"[The UFC] - along with their broadcast partner ESPN - see him as the biggest pay-per-view draw in the sport," he says.

But a recent survey by advisory firm Teneo Ireland suggested he might have fallen off the map a bit in his homeland.

The top line - that only 2% of the country's population admired McGregor more than any other Irish athlete - was reported in the Irish Mirrorexternal-link under the headline "Notorious' popularity among Irish fans nose-dives".

There are a few theories why McGregor might not be as admired as he was.

First, 15 months is a long time between fights. As Head says: "For all the hype and bombast surrounding his return, the cold hard facts are that the Irishman hasn't tasted success in the UFC for more than three years."

Head says McGregor "desperately needs a win," if he wants to achieve his goal of becoming a UFC champion again. For Head, McGregor faces, "a fight not for relevance, but for legitimacy."

"With his nemesis [Nurmagomedov] at the top of the lightweight division and a host of bigger, stronger, harder-hitting fighters at welterweight, he faces a huge test as he bids to return to the top of the sport."

Secondly, there have been a few incidents outside the octagon that have not helped his standing.

In November 2019, McGregor was convicted of assaulting a man in a Dublin pub, where he had been promoting his own brand of whiskey.

In an interview with ESPNexternal-link last August, he said: "In reality, it doesn't matter what happened there. I was in the wrong. That man deserved to enjoy his time in the pub without it having to end the way it did."

A month prior to that incident, it was alleged McGregor had smashed a fan's phone in Miami, but charges were dropped by Florida prosecutors.

And then there was the build-up to his fight with Nurmagomedov. In July 2018, he avoided jail after pleading guilty in a US court to disorderly conduct after throwing a metal trolley at a bus window at a UFC event.

McGregor thanked the court for allowing him to move on and also thanked his "friends, family and fans".

But that didn't inspire a change if approach before his subsequent bout with Nurmagomedov.

He insulted his Muslim opponent after he refused the offer of an alcoholic drink, and also referred to him as a "smelly Dagestani rat".

At the time, Myles Price - one of McGregor's former team-mates - said in an interview with USA Todayexternal-link that he thought McGregor's behaviour was losing him fans.

"A lot of people think, like me, that he is not really good for Ireland because of the way he goes on and he makes us look bad," he said.

It was nothing new for McGregor, who had attracted allegations of racism before his fight with Floyd Mayweather in 2017external-link when he compared the American boxer's security to "juiced-up monkeys".

In 2015 he called German fighter Dennis Siver a Naziexternal-link and goaded Brazilian fighter Aldo by saying that, in previous times, he would have "invaded his favela on horseback and killed anyone who wasn't fit to work".

If his brash style has always been part of the McGregor persona perhaps, for a lot of people, it has started to pall.

What does McGregor think?

In a recent interview with Severe MMAexternal-link, Sean Sheehan put the question directly to the man himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, McGregor wasn't in any mood to entertain talk of a drop in support.

"It's all baloney, man!" he said, adding: "I wish everyone well trying to spread mad narratives like that."

In the same interview, McGregor said: "I walk in the streets, and there's nothing but love and support. I come to fight, I come to entertain and I come to put on a show for the fans."

His coach, John Kavanagh, concurred in a recent interview on MMA Fighting's podcastexternal-link.

"I'd love for people to spend a little bit of time, like I do, driving through town with Conor or having to call into a shop with Conor, and being mobbed for selfies and people shaking his hand and congratulating him," he said.

Still, McGregor has definitely been striking a more reflective tone recently.

In his recent interview with the Mac Life,external-link he spoke about regaining focus.

"I've not been committed for a while, up until about a year ago," he said. "I'm back in my old frame of mind. I want consistency, competition… I'm going to remind everyone and then continue to climb."

As Head says: "Love him or loathe him, his story will be as compelling as ever as he attempts to prove the doubters wrong and reach the summit once again."