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Conor McGregor's star power hasn't lost its shine despite lingering allegations

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — He’s made upward of $150 million since he last won a fight. He’s hob-knobbed with NFL owners on the sidelines, appeared in a series of commercials pitching his successful brand of whiskey and he’s become a father twice.

On Saturday in the main event of UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena, Conor McGregor will return to mixed martial arts in a familiar position when he meets Donald Cerrone in a five-round non-title welterweight bout.

[Don’t miss Conor vs. Cowboy on Jan. 18: Order UFC 246 on ESPN+ now!]

None of the allegations against him — some proven, others not — has appeared to impact his appeal in the least. The New York Times reported last year that he was under investigation in two separate sexual assault incidents. In an interview with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani on Monday, McGregor denied involvement, though Helwani never directly said the words “sexual assault” in his question.

That allegation is the most heinous against him. He pleaded guilty to punching a man in the face at a pub when the man refused to taste his whiskey. He made a settlement with another fan for smashing the man’s cellphone when the man attempted to take a photo with him at a nightclub.

He attacked a bus at UFC 223 on April 5, 2018, and was eventually convicted of lesser charges. He faces civil lawsuits from fighters he injured when he threw a dolly at the bus, shattering a window and sending shards of glass flying.

There are almost too many traffic allegations against him to count.

Yet, he remains the greatest attraction the UFC has ever had.

Mixed martial arts star Conor McGregor attends a media briefing in central Moscow on Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

The event is sold out, with a paid gate in excess of $10 million. UFC president Dana White said tickets have been so much in demand that he could only give them to champions and that none of the other fighters on the company’s roster received them. He’s had to say no to numerous celebrities who wanted to attend.

White said early indications are that the pay-per-view sales will be massive.

It’s remarkable given the fact that McGregor hasn’t won a fight of any kind since he stopped Eddie Alvarez in the second at Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 12, 2016, in the main event of UFC 205, winning the lightweight title.

He was stopped by Floyd Mayweather in the 10th round of a boxing match on Aug. 26, 2017, and was submitted by Khabib Nurmagomedov in a lightweight title fight on Oct. 6, 2018, in the main event of UFC 229.

In those two events, he sold roughly seven million pay-per-views. And while there is little chance that the Cerrone bout will do as much business, it’s going to be plenty big.

“This fight is already through the roof and it’s not even fight week,” White said 10 days before the bout.

McGregor’s purse for the Mayweather fight alone made him one of the highest-earning combat sports fighters in history, which doesn’t take into account his paydays in MMA. He told Helwani on Monday he made $50 million for fighting Nurmagomedov and expects to make $80 million against Cerrone.

He’s now more than a 3-to-1 favorite to defeat Cerrone, who is coming in off back-to-back losses. 

Getting paid the roughly $100 million he made for fighting Mayweather put him in an entirely different category. And it’s hard to prepare to fight and sacrifice the way fighters must when everything you want is a snap of the fingers away.

And while McGregor’s confidence is legendary, one has to wonder if being pummeled the way he was by a then-40-year-old who hadn’t fought in two years punctured that veneer of invincibility in any way.

He never let up on the trash talking, and it got way too personal and way out of hand in his fight with Nurmagomedov. But Nurmagomedov, who is a grappler and not a striker, dropped McGregor in that fight, while McGregor did not do the same to Nurmagomedov.

The Cerrone fight will tell much about where McGregor stands. He’s saying all the right things and giving the impression that he’s dedicated his life to training yet again. But he’s trained in private and the only ones who know what has actually gone on are those with a vested interest in him doing well.

Cerrone is far from his most difficult challenge, but he has the ability to knock McGregor out or to submit him if McGregor isn’t truly prepared.

He may never be the fighter he once was, but he remains every bit the attraction. Mike Tyson never lost it even after getting stopped multiple times, and it doesn’t seem that McGregor has, either.

If this fight is any indication, he’s going to be a big seller well into the future.

Whether he’ll be a champion again is something we can’t possibly know until late Saturday evening, at the earliest.

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