Conor McGregor is a man who loves to look ahead ... in a sport that loves to look ahead. It's one reason the two have always been a perfect match.
McGregor, 31, will return to the Octagon at UFC 246 on Saturday in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, order here on pay-per-view), opposite the winningest fighter in the promotion's history, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. And although McGregor hasn't won a mixed martial arts contest in more than three years -- and he's only even participated in one during that time -- both he and the sport are already looking ahead.
The Irish superstar is referring to 2020 as a "season." Welterweights such as Jorge Masvidal and champion Kamaru Usman, both of whom will be in attendance on Saturday, are salivating at the idea of facing McGregor this year. McGregor has been asked about lightweight contender Justin Gaethje as well as the 155-pound champ, his old rival Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The MMA world has embraced this talk of what's next with open arms because it's fun to discuss the possibilities of an active McGregor. Three years ago, he proved that when he is active, there is nothing else like it in the game. The thought of that kind of excitement returning to MMA is impossible to ignore.
Of course, all those plans, all those options, are contingent on one thing: a win. McGregor has to beat Cerrone on Saturday. It's the closest thing to a must-win situation he's faced in his entire career.
But to take it one step further, McGregor's big plans are contingent on him being the guy he once was. It's not enough for him to say he wants to be active, hang a win over Cerrone, who is coming into this bout on a two-fight skid, and disappear again. McGregor has to win and stay engaged, as he's said he will. He claims he'll be back in the gym just days after UFC 246.
That's what this week is really about. Sure, it's about a fun, fan-friendly fight. It's about Cerrone's head kicks and his opportunity to put on a show against the most popular fighter in the world. It's about McGregor's notorious left hand, his ability (or lack thereof) to go five rounds and whether he'll be able to stop a Cerrone takedown if it comes to that.
But what it's really about is the sport of MMA finding out whether it truly has its biggest star back. Everyone is already talking like he is. But Saturday, and the immediate aftermath, will tell us for sure.
By the numbers
1,163: Days it will have been, when he steps in the cage on Saturday, since McGregor won a fight. His most recent appearance: 470 days ago.
23: UFC victories for Cerrone, the most in promotion history. Cowboy also owns the records for finishes (16), knockdowns (20) and postfight bonuses (33). Thirty-three is his number of UFC fights as well, tying him with Jim Miller for the most.
7-0: McGregor's record in UFC fights in which he doesn't get taken down. He is 2-2 when his opponent scores at least one takedown.
2-5: Cerrone's record against fighters who have been UFC champions sometime in their careers. He is 18-8 against those who have not won a UFC title.
17: Wins by Cerrone via submission (eight by triangle choke, five by rear-naked choke and four by armbar). McGregor has lost four MMA fights, all by sub.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
A look back
Five vs. five
Conor McGregor's most recent results
Loss: Khabib Nurmagomedov (SUB4, Oct. 6, 2018, Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Eddie Alvarez (TKO2, Nov. 12, 2016, Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Nate Diaz (MD, Aug. 20, 2016, Watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Nate Diaz (SUB2, March 5, 2016, Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jose Aldo (KO1, Dec. 12, 2015, Watch on ESPN+)
Donald Cerrone's most recent results
Loss: Justin Gaethje (TKO1, Sept. 14, 2019, Watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Tony Ferguson (TKO2, June 8, 2019, Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Al Iaquinta (UD, May 4, 2019, Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Alexander Hernandez (TKO2, Jan. 19, 2019, Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Mike Perry (SUB1, Nov. 10, 2018)
Back on Sept. 4, 2015, the UFC held a news conference to hype several upcoming fights, including McGregor challenging Jose Aldo for the featherweight title and Cerrone taking on Rafael Dos Anjos for the lightweight belt. But McGregor switched things up onstage by suggesting that he, not Cowboy, should be fighting RDA at 155 pounds. Much verbal sparring ensued -- years before Conor and Cerrone would be booked to meet in the Octagon:
Cerrone: "Conor has no right coming up to '55. There's no way. He doesn't stand a chance. We're too big for him, too strong. So you can take your little English ass and --"
McGregor: "You're too slow and too stiff. You're stiff as a board. I'd snap you in half, and that's it. I see stiffness when I look in that 155-pound division. Slow. Stiff. I feel like they're stuck in the mud almost. The featherweights, they hit like flyweights. So it's nice down there just destroying them and killing that whole division. But I have my eye on that 155-pound division, and I see them all stuck in the mud in there. So we'll see over time. But guess what: Have I been wrong yet? Have I been wrong yet? No."
Cerrone: "You have a monster right here at '45, Aldo, about to beat your ass. You beat nobody. You think you're gonna come to 155 and make a statement? C'mon, man. Sit the f--- down."
Dom & Gil's film study
Dominick Cruz looks at the big McGregor left hand:
Cruz breaks down how McGregor lands his left
Dominick Cruz displays how Conor McGregor opens up ways to land his powerful left hand. Watch the full episode of Unlocking Victory here, https://t.co/HLmMVfmk6V.
Gilbert Melendez offers grounds for faith in Cerrone:
Cerrone's ways to win on the ground
Gilbert Melendez breaks down ways Donald Cerrone can control his fight vs. Conor McGregor on the ground. Watch the full episode of Unlocking Victory here, https://t.co/HLmMVfmk6V.
Since Conor McGregor last won a fight ...
Donald Cerrone has fought 11 times, the most of any UFC fighter during this period. He won five and lost six.
There have been 14 UFC title changes (not counting fights for vacant belts), starting with Cody Garbrandt taking the men's bantamweight belt away from Dominick Cruz in December 2016 and most recently Volkanovski seizing the men's featherweight strap away from Max Holloway last month.
There have been 128 UFC fight cards.
Lionel Messi has scored 161 goals for FC Barcelona.
Marc-Andre Fleury has had 15 shutouts, one for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the rest for the Vegas Golden Knights. (Oh yeah, the hometown of the UFC didn't have an NHL team the last time McGregor won in the Octagon.)
Brett Okamoto's prediction
It's a hard one to predict, because Cerrone does have multiple ways to win. He's said flat-out that he doesn't think he'll take McGregor down. If he were to change his mind on that, I believe he'd have success with it. McGregor is not easy to take down, but Cerrone has underrated wrestling and he's taken down opponents bigger and more physical than McGregor. McGregor has a distinct speed advantage and probably the better chin at this point in their respective careers. Speed and durability are big advantages, if you're anticipating a stand-up fight. I'm right down the middle on this one, but I have to go with someone, so ... Cerrone by submission, second round.
Waiting in the wings
Not too long ago, McGregor was insisting that this fight was his steppingstone to a second dance with Khabib Nurmagomedov, and UFC president Dana White was all-in, already counting the big money the bad-blood rematch would generate. But McGregor has since spread out all sorts of opportunities in front of himself -- from welterweight champion Kamaru Usman to BMF belt holder Jorge Masvidal. Lightweight Justin Gaethje is out there, as is Nate Diaz. It's pretty crowded over in the wings -- and if Cerrone wins, some of those possibilities could be his.
What else to look for ... beyond the main event
The rest of the card, co-main event down:
PPV (via ESPN+), 10 p.m. ET
Holly Holm vs. Raquel Pennington | Women's bantamweight
Aleksei Oleinik vs. Maurice Greene | Heavyweight
Brian Kelleher vs. Ode Osbourne | Men's bantamweight
Anthony Pettis vs. Diego Ferreira | Lightweight
ESPN, 8 p.m.
Roxanne Modafferi vs. Maycee Barber | Women's flyweight
Andre Fili vs. Sodiq Yusuff | Men's featherweight
Tim Elliott vs. Askar Askarov | Men's flyweight
Drew Dober vs. Nasrat Haqparast | Lightweight
ESPN+, 7 p.m.
Aleksa Camur vs. Justin Ledet | Light heavyweight
Sabina Mazo vs. JJ Aldrich | Women's flyweight
Full circle for Holly Holm, Raquel Pennington
The hype was palpable back on Feb. 28, 2015. Holly Holm, who had been a three-division boxing world champion during a 33-2-3 professional career, was making her UFC debut in the co-main event right before a Ronda Rousey title defense. The optics were not subtle: Holm, 7-0 in her young MMA run, was being showcased as the next challenge for "Rowdy Ronda."
Holm's opponent that night was Raquel Pennington, and Pennington might have done "The Preacher's Daughter" -- and MMA history -- a favor by pushing Holm to a tough split decision. That slowed the hype just enough for Holm to get in one more tuneup fight before stepping in with Rousey at historic UFC 193 and landing the kick heard round the world.
Now Holm (12-5) and Pennington (10-8) are set for a rematch in Saturday's co-main. Career circumstances are different.
Holm, 38, is 2-5 since beating Rousey and is coming off her only knockout loss in MMA, a first-round head-kick TKO in her July challenge of bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
Pennington challenged Nunes in May 2018 and lost by fifth-round KO, then fell to former featherweight champ Germaine de Randamie later in the year. But "Rocky," 31, rebounded with a split-decision win over Irene Aldana in July.
And just prior to the two losses, Pennington had won four in a row, including victories over former champions Jessica Andrade and Miesha Tate. Here's an opportunity for her to avenge a slim defeat while adding another ex-champ to her résumé.
Maycee Barber vs. Roxanne Modafferi is one for the ages
It's been well-documented that Maycee Barber's goal is to become the youngest champion in UFC history. That distinction is owned by Jon Jones, who when he first became light heavyweight champ back in 2011 was 23 years, 8 months and 1 day old.
On Saturday, Barber (8-0) will be 21 years, 8 months old. That gives her two years to jump ahead of "Bones."
Barber's opponent, Roxanne Modafferi (23-16), is a onetime title challenger in the UFC as well as Invicta FC and Strikeforce. She's No. 10 in the ESPN women's flyweight rankings. Modafferi is skilled on the canvas but has difficulty taking her fights there, and though she's durable, in the stand-up she is stiff and hittable. All of this makes Barber's first top-10 foe a perfect supporting actor for The Maycee Showcase.
Oh, and Modafferi is 37. To be precise, her age is 37 years, 3 months and 25 days. That's quite an age gap between her and Barber -- 5,716 days.
The largest age gap overall? That goes all the way back to UFC 4 in 1994, when 51-year-old former karate world champion Ron Van Clief took on a fellow named Royce Gracie, 28. Their births were 8,723 days apart.
Odds 'n' ends
Some undercard tidbits from ESPN Stats & Information:
Aleksei Oleinik will be in his 72nd professional MMA fight, the most of anyone on the active UFC roster, when he takes on heavyweight Maurice Greene. The 42-year-old Oleinik is 57-13-1; Greene is 8-4.
The main card opener features the return of Anthony Pettis (22-9) to lightweight, where he reigned as champion in both the UFC and WEC. Since dropping the belt in 2015 and losing his next two as well, the 32-year-old has had stints at both featherweight and welterweight. He faces Diego Ferreira (16-2), who has won five straight.
Nasrat Haqparast, who was tied at No. 4 in ESPN's ranking of 25 top fighters under age 25, takes on veteran Drew Dober (21-9, 1 NC) in a lightweight prelim. Haqparast (11-2), who is on a three-fight winning streak, has outlanded all four of his UFC opponents, according to UFC Stats (+103 significant strike differential). Nine of his 11 career wins have been by KO/TKO.
Dana White's Contender Series alum Aleksa Camur (5-0) makes his UFC debut in a light heavyweight prelim against Justin Ledet (9-2, 1 NC). All five of Camur's wins have come by KO/TKO. Ledet has had finishes in seven of his nine wins but is coming off a 15-second loss to a Johnny Walker spinning back fist last February.
The lone men's flyweight bout on the card pits onetime title challenger Tim Elliott (16-9-1) against unbeaten Askar Askarov (10-0-1), who is -- get this -- one of 17 fighters to start a UFC career with a draw.