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Conor McGregor tones down his act, once again seems likable ahead of UFC 246

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — There is a bettor somewhere holding a ticket who is perplexed, wondering how what seemed to be a sure thing went wrong so badly. The sports book BetOnline put up a proposition bet earlier in the week that asked, “How late will Conor McGregor be to the [the UFC 246] press conference?”

The over/under was 6½ minutes.

If McGregor, the former featherweight and lightweight champion who will fight for the first time in 15 months on Saturday when he meets Donald Cerrone in the main event of UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena, is known for anything other than being a great fighter, it is for being late.

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

McGregor is usually so late so often that he makes former President Bill Clinton look punctual by comparison. But at 5 p.m. sharp Pacific time on Wednesday, UFC president Dana White strode onto the stage at the Pearl Theater at the Palms Casino, followed in short order by Cerrone and McGregor. 

A year ago, expecting McGregor to show up on time for a public appearance was about as likely as the Pittsburgh Pirates ending the 2020 season with the highest payroll in baseball.

This, though, was a throwback McGregor, a glimpse of the guy who MMA fans fell in love with in 2013 and 2014. He was frequently clever and occasionally boastful, apparently sincere and always selling.

At one point, as Cerrone was answering a question, McGregor interrupted to compliment him on his sport coat. When Cerrone told him it was python skin, McGregor said he had python shoes, and then joked that PETA — People for Ethical Treatment of Animals — would be out to get him.

“We don’t want trouble with PETA, though they’re a shady crowd, as well, apparently,” said McGregor as he joked that PETA has been after him also.

Ex-NFL star asks McGregor how to bet on UFC 246

The final “question” of the half-hour or so news conference came from former NFL receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, who said he was attending his first UFC event and planning to bet. He asked McGregor how certain he was that he’d win.

McGregor, who is from Ireland and doesn’t follow the NFL, obviously had no idea who Ochocinco is. 

“This is my first UFC presser,” said Ochocinco, who said he was at the news conference representing Bleacher Report. “Saturday will be my first UFC match. I’m not a gambling man, but if there was an event where I’d bet the house, it would be this Saturday. I want to know, before I bet this money, before I bet this money, how confident are you in Saturday’s fight?”

McGregor beamed and didn’t miss a beat, turning huckster almost instantly. The more pay-per-views that are sold, the more he makes, and was doing his thing almost before Ochocinco had finished.

“Welcome to the best show on Earth, the Ultimate Fighting Championship,” McGregor said. “We’re honored to have you, sir. I’m extremely confident, as you can tell. I’m coming in with full preparation, full commitment and full confidence in my striking abilities and my shots. Maybe [I’ll get] a submission, but I’m going to be going for the knockout.”

Conor McGregor interacts with the crowd during the UFC 246 press conference at Pearl Theater at the Palms Casino Resort on Jan. 15, 2020 in Las Vegas. (Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

McGregor hints he won’t be charged in sexual assault investigation

He hit the perfect note at the perfect time, a far cry from his performance in 2018 at the news conference for his bout at UFC 229 against Khabib Nurmagomedov. Trash talk is one thing, but insulting a person’s religion and his family is entirely another. 

That was a difficult McGregor to like, and it was made worse by a string of by now well-reported events that followed: He slugged a man in a pub; he crushed the phone of a fan who tried to take a picture of him leaving a club; he had scores of traffic violations and, far worse, the New York Times reported last year he was under investigation for multiple sexual assault allegations.

This was after he tried to enact vigilante justice and attacked a bus and flung a dolly threw a window, shattering the glass and injuring several passengers.

White defends his fighters at every turn, but when he was asked after that incident if he still wanted to be in business with McGregor, he looked glumly at the report and asked, “Would you?”

On Wednesday, he was the antithesis of that out-of-control hoodlum who lost control of his emotions in the bowels of the Barclays Center when he attacked the bus.

He reiterated that there are no legal obstacles in his path, which would indicate he knows he’s not going to be charged in the sexual assault cases. It’s been more than a year since he’s been questioned by police and no charges have been filed.

A reporter prefaced his questions by saying he wanted to ask McGregor about his legal issues. The pro-McGregor crowd booed lustily, so long and so loud that the question never got to McGregor. Cerrone chided the reporter, saying, “We’re here to talk about a fight, not what he does outside of fighting. Why do you keep going there?”

White played a little interference, as well, noting that McGregor answered the questions.

McGregor remained cool and quiet and the moment passed.

McGregor: ‘I’m still the same, the same young kid I always was’

Cerrone was a bit player throughout, though he got the largest ovation as he was talking about whether McGregor was overlooking him. They’d had sharp words in the past, but they showed the utmost respect for each other Wednesday.

He said McGregor knows the kind of fighter he’s facing.

“I’m coming. He’s coming. We’re going to blow the [expletive] roof off this place, you guys,” Cerrone said, standing up and patting the table in front of him for emphasis. “You don’t understand. I’m so excited. So excited.”

The place erupted and McGregor applauded heartily.

This was a guy in his element, who was getting to do what he loves and who seemed at some level to understand how close he’d come to losing it all.

“I’m certainly more grounded and more experienced and I’ve been through some things that have helped shape me as a man like us all on this journey of life,” McGregor said. “But if you ask my family and the people who know me, I am no different. I’m certainly more focused this camp, and a bit more aware. … But my internal, I’m still the same, the same young kid I always was. I’m still a passionate young man and I’m still reaching for the stars.”

He’s a guy who had literally nothing, who in less than two years went from being on public assistance to being one of the richest and most recognizable athletes in the world.

He didn’t always handle the fame and the attention that goes with it perfectly and he did and said things he probably wishes he hadn’t done or said. 

It’s dangerous to make too much of a half-hour answering questions. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that the media and the public never sees and rarely hears about. But this version of McGregor looked and sounded a lot like the guy who stole so many hearts when he was on his way to the top.

If that’s who he really is, that only bodes well for him, his family and, most of all, this sport.

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