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Ariel Helwani's MMA thoughts: Could UFC 248 be Conor McGregor's next card? 'Yes'

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McGregor expects to make $80M vs. Cerrone (1:19)

Conor McGregor says he's signed a new deal with the UFC and estimates how much he'll make to fight Donald Cerrone. Order UFC 246 here on ESPN https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv. (1:19)

Editor's note: This was updated after Wednesday's news conference during which Conor McGregor said UFC 248 could be his next card, depending on what happens Saturday.

"I just want to be kept busy. Competition keeps me focused. Anytime I don't have competition ahead of me, I just seem to drift. So I want to be kept busy. That's it."

Quick quiz: When do you think Conor McGregor said this?

Before his return fight against Donald Cerrone, right? I mean, that's been part of the narrative leading up to Saturday's fight, right? The season. The activity. Keeping busy.

Actually, wrong.

McGregor said it on April 6, 2013, the night of his successful UFC debut in Stockholm. He beat Marcus Brimage that night in 67 seconds. It was as perfect a debut as a fighter could dream of.

Flawless.

Afterward, on the mic, he uttered the now-famous, "60 G's, baby!" line to UFC president Dana White, referring to a bonus for his performance.

But it was at the postfight news conference seven years ago that McGregor foreshadowed his 2020 mood.

So it should come as no surprise, if you have been paying attention, that the key to McGregor's return doesn't just rest on this Cerrone fight. No, it hinges on how this entire year goes. If he wins on Saturday and for whatever reason doesn't fight again this year, I'd say 2020 would be a failure by his own standards.

And if you recall, early in his career he never cared about who was next. It was only after the win over Dustin Poirier that he started zeroing in on Jose Aldo.

In 2020, what's old is new again, because McGregor is saying a lot of the same things: He wants to fight three (maybe four?) times this year, and he doesn't really care whom he fights along the way (as long as Khabib Nurmagomedov is one of the opponents).

So while I usually hate when those in the media -- and I'm often guilty of this too -- look past an upcoming fight and start analyzing who could be next, I can't help but do that with McGregor this week because that has been a major theme going into this fight.

And chill out before you get all crazy and scream, "He's looking past Cerrone!" He isn't. This is just the mindset that has served McGregor well since the beginning of this journey.

So if all goes well Saturday night, how soon can we see McGregor again?

This exchange from our conversation last week really stuck with me:

So you're viewing this season, as you've said, hoping for three fights, right?

"Possibly more."

Can you lay it out perfectly for us? That's what everyone wants to know. We're all speculating.

"It's hard to do that. Just know that there's activity. Well, if I go in here and put Donald away in a couple of seconds, which very well could happen, I could probably do the next event. That's the type of mindset I'm at. "

Wow. OK. So this is, I mean -- we haven't seen you active like this in a very long time. So if I asked you, do you even have the opponents in mind?

"It does not matter. There's so many of them. Justin [Gaethje is] there. Jorge [Masvidal is] there. Kamaru [Usman is] there."

Now, if he wins unscathed Saturday night, I don't think McGregor will be fighting on next month's pay-per-view in Houston because that card is already set. But hey, what about March 7?

As of right now, that card doesn't have an official main event. I know Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jędrzejczyk for the UFC strawweight title is already booked -- and what a tremendous fight that is -- but is it a main event? The UFC doesn't seem to think so, because it has been actively trying to book Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero for the middleweight title in that main event spot.

Romero is in, sources say, but Adesanya isn't. And it isn't because Adesanya doesn't want to fight Romero. Remember, Adesanya essentially called out Romero when Paulo Costa had biceps surgery.

This is what Adesanya's head coach, Eugene Bareman, told me last week about the status of the fight:

"There are some small particulars that have to be worked out," said Bareman, who coaches Adesanya at City Kickboxing in Auckland, New Zealand. "But we are staying positive. ... We expect to be walking down murderers' row again come March."

We all know what "small particulars" means, right? That means contract talks. Adesanya is a star. This is his first official title defense. Things should change after you win the belt, and he wants to be compensated. That's what Bareman is referring to, and Adesanya has every right to get his. That's what every new champion has done in the past.

But that show is in less than two months. By now, the UFC usually has the main event locked up.

Could it be the UFC is now pausing talks with Adesanya in order to wait and see what happens with McGregor this weekend? If McGregor leaves uninjured, would it ask him to save the day and fight Masvidal or Gaethje (the two front-runners to fight McGregor on such a short turnaround)? I can definitely see that happening.

I know Masvidal can, as well, because according to sources, he is training for a fight now. To steal a famous McGregor line, Masvidal is staying ready so he doesn't have to get ready. And Masvidal also will be in Las Vegas this week to get a good look at McGregor. I heard Masvidal will even be hosting his own news conference on Thursday. Is he going to announce some fight news? No. But he wants his presence to be felt. And I bet he brings that shiny new BMF belt too.

Where this theory gets tricky is that both McGregor and Adesanya are represented by the same management team, Paradigm Sports Management. Paradigm is considered one of the top managerial firms in MMA for a reason. It most likely won't want to pit two of its biggest clients against each other in negotiations -- and who could blame them -- but it definitely is something to keep in mind on Saturday while you're watching the main event.

McGregor's days of averaging one fight or less a year (since 2017) might be coming to an abrupt end sooner than we think.

When asked Wednesday if UFC 248 could be a possiblity, McGregor didn't even wait for the question to be finished before answering: "Yes. God willing, we come out safe from this bout here Saturday night. Most certainly, March would be well attainable."

White also left the door open.

"Anything is possible," he said.

Welcome back

We're three days away from what is really starting to feel like a big fight -- the kind of atmosphere few not named McGregor can generate. And there are some other things on my mind heading into the first UFC card of the decade, such as:

The most recent UFC event was three weeks ago. The last time the UFC took three or more weeks off between events was Aug. 5 to Sept. 2, 2017. However, Floyd Mayweather vs. McGregor was during that stretch, so it didn't feel like a true break. Prior to that, the last break of this length was Oct. 8 to Nov. 5, 2016.

That feels like a lifetime ago.

The point is, this three-week break, as short as it really has been, has felt like an NFL offseason, and UFC 246 really feels like an opening day of sorts. I have long been a proponent of "less is more" when it comes to MMA events, and I think it's great that the stars aligned to give us a chance to really digest this fight over the past few weeks with nothing in between.

All eyes on Donald

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Helwani: Cerrone is not being disrespected before fight vs. McGregor

Ariel Helwani contends that Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone is not being disrespected before he fights Conor McGregor at UFC 246. Order UFC 246 here on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.

I don't feel like this storyline is being talked about enough going into this fight: Cerrone is on a two-fight losing streak. He also was stopped in both of those defeats. In his 25-fight career, McGregor has never fought anyone on a losing streak. Usually, it's the contrary. Usually, he is fighting guys on long winning streaks and feeling very confident. You need to be supremely confident when you are fighting on a stage like this. So how confident is Cerrone considering he was stopped in his previous two fights over the past seven months? And when you consider the fact that Cerrone has a reputation for not rising to the occasion in the big spots, is he going to be even more stiff this time around because of the losing streak?

Turning back the clock

One of my favorite under-the-radar storylines going into this fight is McGregor reuniting with his old Crumlin Boxing Club coach, Phil Sutcliffe. It was Sutcliffe who first introduced McGregor to combat sports when he was around 12 years old. This will mark the first time in McGregor's UFC career that Sutcliffe will be in his corner, and I think there is great symbolism in that for McGregor. Back to the basics. Back to a simpler time, surrounded by the people who helped make him the fighter he is today.

I asked Sutcliffe if McGregor has always been the way he is today, and he confirmed that to be true. A member of McGregor's team then chimed in and said Sutcliffe even used to call him "through the cracks McGregor," because when it was time to pay gym fees, McGregor would have a knack for sliding through the cracks.

And before you think Sutcliffe is some token old boxing coach who will add no value to the camp, consider that he is a two-time Olympian (1980 and 1984) and won four national boxing titles in Ireland.

Nevertheless, McGregor seems delighted to have his old coach by his side again, and Sutcliffe seems honored to be there too.

New year, new Conor?

It has been fascinating to see the response to my chat with McGregor. When we spoke in August, I said my biggest takeaway was the fans' response. It seemed like either no one believed what he was saying or wanted to believe it. It felt like he had lost so many of his loyal fans. This time around, I've noticed the complete opposite. The response to his demeanor and answers has been overwhelmingly positive, and it seems like his fan base, for the most part, is itching to get behind him again. But he has to win. If he wins, and he says something -- anything -- witty on the mic afterward, they'll be back. I have no doubt about this. If he loses, all bets are off.

While I believed he was sincere in August, I will admit this was a much different person I was talking to last week. He seemed happy, relaxed, at peace, even Zen-like. I don't recall him ever being like that, and especially not prior to his last fight versus Nurmagomedov. He was way too mad, aggressive and intense that time around. And in August, he seemed nervous, confused and a little unsure of himself. As Poirier put it, he went from apologizing to absolutely nobody to apologizing to absolutely everybody. We had never seen McGregor like this before.

What does this mean for Saturday night? No one knows for sure. But if I'm a McGregor supporter, I'm much more confident in the outcome of this fight after seeing him in that interview than I would have been prior to UFC 229.

Closing thoughts

Fun tidbit: This is the first time since McGregor's January 2015 fight versus Dennis Siver that he is not fighting for the belt or as a champion. But do the stakes seem smaller? No. This is a must-win because of how the past two years have gone. Belts be damned.

Naturally, all the attention has been on McGregor and Cerrone leading up to 246, but there are some other intriguing storylines on this card. While it's certainly not the deepest card ever, there is a nice blend of young and old, which I like.

Good to see young fighters such as Maycee Barber, Sodiq Yusuff, Nasrat Haqparast and Alexa Grasso on this card. They are four of the UFC's brightest prospects getting a chance to compete on a massive stage. I like that.

In addition to those fighters, we have veterans such as Anthony Pettis, Holly Holm, Aleksei Oleinik and Roxanne Modafferi getting some shine. Mix in Andre Fili, Claudia Gadelha and the streaking Diego Ferreira -- who has won five in a row, which is the longest winning streak on the card -- and, well, roll on Saturday night.

Enjoy the fights.