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Conor McGregor back in title contention after learning to respect 'that liquid'

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — As he prepared to fight his most bitter rival, to regain the belt that had been stripped from him in a bout that would ultimately become the best-selling MMA pay-per-view in history, Conor McGregor lived anything but a spartan lifestyle ahead of challenging Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229.

He was drinking. He was not as committed to his training. 

It makes no sense, but he treated the biggest fight of his life almost like an afterthought. He wound up submitting in the fourth round, got himself suspended for getting involved in a post-fight brawl, then took part in a series of unseemly incidents outside the cage.

With all that was swirling around him, a realization hit him.

“I love that whiskey, but you’ve got to respect it,” McGregor said after he put on one of the best performances in his career while stopping Donald Cerrone in just 40 seconds in the main event of UFC 246 before 19,040 at T-Mobile Arena. “You’ve got to respect that liquid, because if you don’t, it will come and get you.”

Conor McGregor wasted no time climbing back into the title picture. (Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

McGregor went and got Cerrone almost immediately. All the frustration of 15 months away, incidents with the police and courts and having not won in more than three years compelled McGregor to sprint out of his corner and whip a massive left hand at Cerrone. It missed, barely, but Cerrone was hardly out of trouble.

They clinched in the center of the ring and McGregor twice belted Cerrone in the face with his shoulder, making Cerrone see stars. He was clearly damaged and McGregor landed a kick to the jaw that dropped him. McGregor landed a number of ground strikes before referee Herb Dean jumped in to stop it.

There was a cruel irony in the fact that McGregor spent much of his time in camp at the Crumlin Boxing Club in Dublin, working on his boxing skills but essentially won the fight without his hands.

“I spent so much time in my boxing gym,” McGregor said. “I went back to my roots, Crumlin Boxing [Club], where I began. And then what happened tonight? I smacked him with my shoulder and I smacked him with my foot.”

He laughed heartily and took a sip of his Proper 12 Whiskey from a cup. He will have a few drinks over the next few days, and plans to have dinner in Las Vegas on Tuesday with ex-UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta. But he sounded vastly different. He’s in the best shape he’s been in for a long while, perhaps in his career, and he’s not about to lose it.

Conor McGregor punches Donald Cerrone in a welterweight bout during UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena on Jan. 18, 2020 in Las Vegas. McGregor won by first-round TKO. (Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

UFC president attributes McGregor’s turnaround to happiness

This victory was built off the sweat he poured in the gyms in Ireland and then once he finally made his way to the U.S. He admitted his celebrity and fame had caught up with him and he had begun to take shortcuts.

When he signed to fight Cerrone, he knew he couldn’t do that again if he wanted to be able to remain one of the sport’s elite stars.

“I had achieved it all and I broke the game before I was 30 years of age,” McGregor said. “Simple as that. One belt was not enough. … Maybe it was that. John [Kavanaugh], my coach, says it’s the worst nightmare for a coach when his student achieves it all: The money, the fame, the belts. What then to motivate me?”

McGregor, though, is a competitor of the highest order and his taste for winning and doing major things is what motivated him to dedicate himself in training like he hadn’t in a long while.

UFC president Dana White, who said “I did not like Conor” in the last couple of years as he was getting into plenty of trouble with the law and generally acting boorishly, attributed McGregor’s turnaround to happiness. White said the promotion for the Nurmagomedov-McGregor fight was “super dark.” But he noticed a distinct change in McGregor’s persona during fight week for Cerrone.

“What I saw this week was a guy who was happy, reenergized and happy to be here and happy to be back in the Octagon,” White said. “It was good. It was awesome. I loved [his attitude].”

That attitude started to change when he decided to clean up his life and dedicate himself to his work.

There was no magic or things he saw on film. Oh, he studied plenty of film on Cerrone and had a great handle on what Cerrone might try to do in a variety of situations, but the key to the win was far more basic.

“It’s just about commitment,” McGregor said. “That’s it. Just commit and just do what you know you need to do. That’s it. Tonight’s my night, but all I did was put in the work. You just have to put in the work that you know you should do — we all know what we should do — but sometimes you don’t do it.”

He did and it put him right back near the top.

What’s next for McGregor after Cerrone knock out?

White said he wants McGregor to fight the winner of the Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson lightweight title fight, which will be at UFC 249 in April. He said he thought a Nurmagomedov-McGregor rematch could break the pay-per-view record of 4.6 million held by Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.

McGregor said he’s interested in the title, but also said he felt so great at welterweight that he’s interested in fighting for that belt, as well. Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman’s Twitter account was hacked Saturday and his account was posting derogatory comments about McGregor.

White had his staff fix the situation, but McGregor wasn’t buying the notion it was hacked. He was pointing the finger at Usman manager Ali Abdelaziz. He also mentioned potential boxing matches with Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao as possibilities. He said he wants a rematch with Mayweather and said he knows Mayweather will fight again.

“Floyd is going through money fast,” McGregor said. “He’s far from retired. That rematch will happen.”

The tweets from Usman’s account were the only negatives on one of the best nights the UFC’s had in a while. McGregor is back and he did enormous business, with the promise if not the likelihood of as many as three more bouts from him this year.

“That wouldn’t suck,” White said, grinning.

Since McGregor has learned to respect that liquid, nothing should be considered off-limits.

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