The fighting version of Conor McGregor has returned, and the UFC is better for it

Conor McGregor
Image: Conor McGregor on Instagram

Over six years ago, a 24-year-old Conor McGregor’s roadmap to an MMA takeover dwelled intrinsically. The dogged chase to be the best fighter in the world was truly about the journey of self-actualization.

“Not even martial arts. Life, it’s always you versus you,” McGregor told Fighters Only back in April 2013. “If you’re competing against other people, you’re going to become bitter. Eventually, you’ll become bitter. But if you’re competing against yourself, you’ll become better.”

If only McGregor could go back in time and tell his younger self that journey doesn’t end at the summit.

What can prepare a man with nothing for acquiring the world? As McGregor climbed the snow-covered peaks of the UFC ladder, he peered into the valleys below to see his former workplace as a plumber’s apprentice, where he worked long hours and ran lunch errands for his superiors. It was that view that kept him grounded in reality when he started getting pulled in a million different directions.

But the further he climbed up the mountain, the more it started to shrink from existence. By the time he reached the apex of his journey, that dwindling view had disappeared entirely. A lonely and cold existence awaiting on the mountaintop was the only thing Mystic Mac couldn’t see coming. His meteoric ascension as a two-division champion selling out arenas and breaking UFC pay-per-view records snowballed into a reality show with real lives and real consequences.

In April 2018, a warrant was sent out for his arrest after he was caught on film throwing a metal dolly through the window of a UFC bus in an attempt to confront lightweight star Khabib Nurmagomedov. The incident sent a couple fighters to the hospital with injuries from the shattered glass. Nearly a year later, he was arrested for strong-armed robbery after stealing and smashing a man’s phone in Florida. Then he was charged with assault in Dublin after sucker-punching a middle-aged man in a pub.

McGregor was caught up in a maelstrom of self-destructive behavior that desecrated the original roadmap. Never mind “who the fook” Jeremy Stephens was.

Who was Conor McGregor?

It would take a devastating submission loss to Nurmagomedov to finally put things back into perspective.

McGregor has spent over a year on the sidelines fighting his battles in court, while watching the UFC move on without him. Not even the biggest name in the sport could slow down the UFC machine. It was a stern reminder that The McGregor Show was a luxury, not a necessity.

A close comparison of another fight career that eventually came unhinged was that of legendary boxer Mike Tyson. His unique ability to send souls into orbit with his ferocious punching power helped him ascend to heights that his character couldn’t keep him. When taking some time to engage in self-reflection, McGregor acknowledged his turning point was the realization he was following down the same path.

“Now here’s the thing: Yeah, definitely Mike Tyson has had his ups and his downs, and his money management has kind of led him to be in a position he shouldn’t have really been in. But if you look at Mike now, he’s got his money, he’s got his weed thing going, he’s well for himself. But, yeah, I don’t want to go down that path,” McGregor said in an interview with Severe MMA, via MMAjunkie.com. “I didn’t want to go down that path, and maybe I was heading down that path a little bit, so just listening to myself, listening to the close people around me that I respect, and just making amends with things.

“I know what I need to do. I knew what I needed to do and what I shouldn’t have been doing. I just listened to myself and followed my orders, and it’s just made me a better individual, just a better man. I’m just in a much better place.”

Even McGregor’s biggest critics can acknowledge his completely different, yet familiar, tone heading into his UFC 246 bout with Donald Cerrone. He seems more centered and focused than he’s been in years. The gift of gab clearly hasn’t abandoned the 31-year-old megastar, and he still has that same glint in his eye when dropping playful wisecracks to serve as subtle jabs to present and future opponents.

But the wild and outlandish persona that had emerged in the lead-up to fights against Jose Aldo, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Nurmagomedov have yet to surface.

And it’s a best case scenario for the UFC.

The fight business is better when McGregor is competing inside of the cage instead of the courtroom. One look at the grandiose aura surrounding UFC 246 puts everything into perspective. There have been better all-around fight cards on paper, but they all pale in comparison to a McGregor headliner.

His unwavering confidence, aesthetically pleasing fighting style and copious amounts of charisma command the spotlight in ways that have never been seen in MMA. How else could such a polarizing fighter that hasn’t won a bout in over three years generate this sort of buzz?

The climb starts anew for McGregor on Saturday night. A slight tumble from the top of the mountain has brought the past back into focus.

One peek into the frost-filled abyss reveals a young plumber’s apprentice that desperately wanted more with his life. A self-made millionaire that wasn’t prepared for the pitfalls of being a two-division UFC champion emerged from that situation. The wind still stings with regret, amid the cold opinions of skeptics, waiting to see if experience has taught McGregor any different.

This article first appeared on BJPENN.com on 1/17/2020.