LAS VEGAS — A seven-foot unicorn, an Avenger, an Oscar winner and a Super Bowl champion were all in attendance to watch Conor McGregor fight for the first time in well over a year Saturday. Whether they got their money’s worth is actually somewhat up for debate, considering the duel they came to see lasted less than a minute. McGregor—who announced his retirement from MMA last March—quickly, easily, ruthlessly won his comeback fight against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone via TKO only 40 seconds into the first round of their bout at UFC 246. McGregor, stepping into the octagon for the first time since his October 2018 loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov, looked every bit like the champion he was during the height of his powers, dispatching Cerrone and vowing to get back in the gym during his post-fight interview.
“I let that left hand go from the chamber...15 months outside the octagon [I was] a little eager,” McGregor said during his post-fight press conference. He credited his win to a commitment to his training, which he says wasn’t as focused before the Khabib loss. The victory gave McGregor a knockout in his third different weight class.
On Saturday, the celebs sitting octagon-side (which included Kristaps Porzingis, Jeremy Renner, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Brady) and the fans waving Ireland flags in the upper deck all shared a common curiosity, not only in how McGregor would fight, but how he would behave. The man nicknamed Notorious acted as if he was trying to shed that moniker in the leadup to his faceoff with Cerrone. There were no mind games or trash talk after the bout was announced. In the week of the fight, McGregor sheepishly apologized if he showed up a few minutes late to an event. And after the TKO, McGregor even hugged Cerrone’s grandmother.
“I think he was a lot happier,” UFC president Dana White said when asked about McGregor’s attitude compared to the Khabib run-up, which he described as “dark.” “What I saw this week was a guy who was happy and re-energized. It was awesome, I loved it...I like Conor McGregor. How do you not like this kid?”
Well, there are reasons. While McGregor’s star is clearly magnetic to many—famous people are still showing up to watch him, and the crowd shook the building when he landed a kick on Cerrone—he’s never lacked for controversy. Of course, McGregor’s last fight at UFC 229 ended with a post-match brawl between his and Nurmagomedov’s camps. This came after McGregor attempted to confront Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 media day, which ended up with him throwing a metal cart at a bus full of fighters. In 2019, McGregor was arrested in both Miami and Dublin, for robbery and assault, respectively. Meanwhile, The New York Times reported last year McGregor was the subject of multiple sexual assault allegations in Ireland. (McGregor was asked directly about those allegations Wednesday, but did not answer the questions. He has denied all accusations.)
After the fight, White was nearly salivating at the future with McGregor. He described a potential rematch with Khabib as a “massive fight with a global audience,” comparing it to Haggler-Hearns and Ali-Foreman. Meanwhile, Floyd Mayweather Jr. teased a boxing rematch with McGregor on Instagram after the TKO of Cerrone. (White said something is coming between Mayweather and UFC. McGregor also said this week he would be interested in a fight against Manny Pacquaio.)
The question now for McGregor moving forward is not whether he can still fight, but whether he can put aside his personal issues. The MMA-loving public is seemingly eager to forgive. The building was sold out for UFC 246, and the roars were deafening when McGregor was landing punches on Cerrone’s head. (The ticket sales broke the $11 million mark, the fourth-highest in the sport’s history.) UFC, which thrives on the controversial image of its stars, wove McGregor’s troubles into the narrative of his comeback. The pre-fight hype video featured footage of both the Dublin and bus assaults, setting the stage for the return of the sport’s most unpredictable superstar. If anyone leaned away from that characterization ahead of the fight, it was McGregor, who White firmly believes is in a better place after the Khabib incident.
“I don’t know if anyone can change significantly in 15 months,” White said. “There was something wrong with him leading up to those other fights. He was always pissed off. This fight did a lot of good things for Conor McGregor. Especially in the fight business, people forget easily and people are forgiving.”
It appeared to take only 40 seconds for a crowd in Las Vegas to forget about McGregor’s rocky 15 months and forgive his hurtful actions. Especially in the fight business, which doesn’t exactly thrive on innocence, winning trumps all.