UFC 246: Five Questions For Conor McGregor's Return to the Octagon

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Conor McGregor makes his heralded return to the Octagon this Saturday at UFC 246, facing legendary fighter Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.

This is not the deepest or most exciting UFC card, but it certainly offers a phenomenal main event. McGregor is set to return to the Octagon for the first time since the fall of 2018, in Las Vegas at the site of his last fight, while Cerrone looks to enhance his legacy with what would instantly become the most notable win of his career.

Historically, big fights have not ended in Cerrone’s favor. But this matchup is one Cerrone has been seeking for so long, and now he finally has the opportunity to defeat one of the biggest names in MMA. A critical key to the fight is whether Cerrone’s chin holds up. If Cerrone can work his strengths, taking advantage of his size and durability, then this immediately becomes an uphill battle for McGregor.

McGregor will undoubtedly be looking for the first-round knockout, and he needs it. Otherwise, Cerrone is going to win this fight.

The card also includes standout fights in Holly Holm-Raquel Pennington and Anthony Pettis-Carlos Diego Ferreira, but the focus is on the headliner—and what comes next following the outcome.

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Here are the top five questions entering UFC 246:

1. How will Conor McGregor look in his first fight since October 2018?

McGregor last exited the Octagon after losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229, so the big question at play against Cerrone is how he will look in his return.

There will be rust on McGregor (21-4), so a quick finish obviously works to his advantage. If the fight extends into later rounds—this is a five-round fight—and stamina becomes a factor, then Cerrone (36-13-1) will have a decisive advantage. Cerrone needs to wear McGregor down in the first round, using his size advantage to tire him out, in order to put him away in the ensuing rounds.

Ultimately, this fight is a reminder that McGregor and Cerrone are tigers who cannot change their stripes.

McGregor is viewed as a traditional boxer, and he has a left hand that can put anyone on earth to sleep at any time. But Cerrone has more tools. His Muay Thai makes him extremely dangerous, his head kick has produced seven knockouts–and he also has incredible jiu jitsu and is great at the grappling game.

If Cerrone pieces all of his arsenal together, and McGregor starts to wear down, then Cerrone will pull off the upset.

2. What is the likelihood that Cerrone wins?

Fight fans may not be shocked if Cerrone wins this fight, but when you consider McGregor’s wide fan base, people at T-Mobile Arena will certainly be stunned if Cerrone wins.

The best case for Cerrone is that this fight goes one of two ways. The first scenario is a head kick knockout, similar to his victory against Matt Brown at UFC 206 in 2016. The second follows a blueprint from the first McGregor-Nate Diaz from UFC 196, where McGregor started to realize he was outmatched and started shooting. If that happens in this fight, it would open up an opportunity for Cerrone to choke McGregor out.

Cerrone has dropped his past two fights and, on paper, this is a perfect matchup for McGregor. Cerrone remains a marquee name, but there are more frightening opponents with less name recognition, like Justin Gaethje (who defeated Cerrone via TKO last September) and Dustin Poirier (who McGregor defeated six years ago at UFC 178).

Cerrone brings an element to this fight which neither Gaethje nor Poirier possess. And if McGregor were to lose to Gaethje or Poirier, that would be a harder loss from which to rebound. A loss to Cerrone is not ideal, but Cerrone is a legend of the sport and an instant Hall of Famer the moment he retires.

McGregor could absolutely knock Cerrone out in the first round, but Cerrone’s durability is going to be the deciding factor. And if Cerrone gets his hand raised, then that will be a special moment for fight fans.

My prediction? Cerrone withstands the initial onslaught, wears down McGregor, and pulls off the upset.

3. What stands out about the rest of the main card?

Carlos Diego Ferreira will take a significant stride in the lightweight division with a victory against Anthony Pettis.

Pettis (22-9) has experienced so many ups and downs over the past couple years, getting hot and looking like his old self—the one that invented the Showtime kick—but then following up those fights with losses in unspectacular fashion. Ferreira (16-2), who carries a five-fight winning streak into this matchup, is a tough fight for Pettis. I cannot envision a scenario where this is not going to be an overwhelming difficult fight for Pettis, and this is a night in Vegas that should extend Ferreira’s hot streak.

Another compelling element to the card is the women’s bantamweight fight is Raquel Pennington looking to avenge her 2015 loss to Holly Holm.

Holm (12-5) defeated Pennington (10-7) by split decision at UFC 184, but there were a lot of people watching that were not overly impressed by Holm’s performance. Then Holm went on to enjoy incredible success following that win, including a career-defining victory against Ronda Rousey, while Pennington never reached that same elite tier. With that history, it is especially interesting to rebook this fight now. Pennington looks better today than she has at any point in her career, and she even caused some headaches for Amanda Nunes in their UFC 224 fight that went into the fifth round in May 2018. With a win, UFC 246 will serve as retribution for Pennington.

A women’s strawweight fight between Claudia Gadelha and Alexa Grasso is a very tough one to predict, as both fighters have a lot to prove.

Following losses in two of her last four fights, Gadelha (17-4) needs to show that she can still compete in the high levels of the UFC. Grasso (11-3) originally came into the UFC with hype similar to what we are currently seeing with emerging star Maycee Barber, but she ultimately came up short in some key fights.

Both need this win in a big way. Ultimately, Gadelha has too much experience for Grasso–and she is also a more well-rounded fighter, which should lead to a victory.

Aleksei Oleinik and Maurice Greene will also fight in a battle of heavyweights. It is not unreasonable to envision the 42-year-old Oleinik (57-13-1) being outmatched by Greene (8-3), a dangerous opponent nine years his junior. But Oleinik is the master of pulling off that choke out of nowhere. Greene needs this win to rebound from a first-round loss this past October to Sergei Pavlovich. Greene winning is the safe bet, but if there is any certainty in the heavyweight division, it is that you cannot count out Oleinik.

4. What is of note on the prelims?

Bringing excitement to the ESPN prelims is Sodiq Yusuff against Andre Fili in featherweight action.

Yusuff (10-1) has won five in a row, but he has never encountered an opponent as tough as Fili (20-6). In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Yusuff stressed that he needs to be patient and wait for his shots.

“Andre is a game opponent, but I know as long as I’m patient and I wait for it, I’m going to find my right opportunity and land what I need to,” said Yusuff, who will jump up the featherweight division rankings with a victory against Fili. “A win puts me in the top 15, and the battle then is being able to get a top 10 opponent. But I’ll definitely be ranked in the top 15 after Saturday.”

Fili fought Yair Rodriguez in 2016 at UFC 197, and it was a wild brawl that ended when Rodriguez found the shot that finished Fili in the second round with a jumping roundhouse kick. This fight should be similar, offering a fast pace with Yusuff likely getting the finish, potentially as early as the opening round.

“I’m going to chase that bonus,” said Yusuff. “I’m looking for a ‘Performance of the Night’ finish or I’m going for that ‘Fight of the Night.’”

5. What happens next for Cowboy and McGregor?

If McGregor wins on Saturday, a lot of options are at play. So let’s start with Cerrone. With a victory, he should get booked in a marquee matchup against Jorge Masvidal with the added caveat of the BMF title also being at stake.

A win for McGregor opens the door to a number of compelling possibilities. A fight against Masvidal for the BMF belt would sell itself. If that were to happen, and McGregor defeated Cerrone and then Masvidal, it would add two big-name wins for McGregor in his return to fighting regularly.

But McGregor wants another fight against lightweight champion Nurmagomedov, despite the fact it is an unfavorable matchup for him. If McGregor wins at UFC 246, he should look toward fights against Masvidal or Diaz as a necessary step before he returns to fighting Nurmagomedov.

UFC 246 is all about the main event, and this is a fight that should exceed the hype.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

Fantasy and Gambling: UFC 246: McGregor vs. Cerrone Betting and DFS Tips