A little over two months ago, we began to get the first whispers that Conor McGregor was headed back to a UFC ring. Now, we know that it’s happening for real. Just one short month from now, the fighting pride of Ireland will compete inside a cage for the first time in over a year, and for a lot of MMA fans, all will feel right with the world again.

McGregor’s return isn’t a massive surprise to most people who follow MMA with any regularity. While it’s true that he’d claimed to be retired from the sport, such claims are nothing new for him. McGregor retirements have become like birthdays and Christmasses – an annual event which seems all-important at the time but is soon forgotten by the time the next one comes around. In practice, all of his retirements to date have lasted only as long as it’s taken Dana White to dance to his tune and come up with an enormous sum of money to tempt him back. Now it appears that he’s done so again – although that pot of money may not be for his return fight.

On January 18th, 2020, Conor McGregor will fight against Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone in a fight that should tell us how serious the Irishman is about resuming his fighting career. Cerrone is not a box office name, but nor is he a slouch. He’s a tough, capable man who won’t show up to the event with the intention of doing nothing more than taking part and picking up a paycheck. Cerrone knows that if he beats McGregor, his star rises. He’s dangerous, and won’t be a pushover. If McGregor turns up firing on all cylinders, McGregor should win. If he shows up at anything less than his best, there’s every chance that Cerrone’s hand will be the one raised at the end of the night, and McGregor’s comeback will be over before it’s really got started.

Should McGregor lose this fight, it will be bad news for more people than just his entourage and supporters. It would be terrible news for McGregor, and it would likely be even worse than that for Dana White because we suspect that this isn’t the fight that McGregor has been brought back for. This is his warm-up fight. Based on reading between the lines, we have every reason to believe that the real ‘money’ fight that Conor is back in the cage for is a second bout with boxing legend Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather,’ this time inside the octagon instead of the squared circle. We know that Mayweather’s team has been in talks and negotiations with Dana White – they’ve admitted as much. Similarly, White has confirmed that he’s been talking extensively to Mayweather. White is unlikely to have decided to pursue a new career promoting boxing matches, and so that means that they can only have been talking about MMA fights. If Mayweather is to end his retirement for an MMA fight, it’s impossible to believe that he’s doing so for anyone other than McGregor.

There will doubtless be people who want to see that fight, just as there were millions of people who paid big money to watch the Mayweather-McGregor spectacle when it happened in a boxing ring. That doesn’t change the fact that now, as it was then, it would be little more than a circus. McGregor lost to Mayweather at boxing, just as was always inevitable. It’s equally inevitable that McGregor will defeat Mayweather at MMA. We’ll learn nothing from the exchange, and the result will leave them tied at 1-1. What happens then? Do they have a third fight in which a round of boxing is followed by a round of MMA until there’s a clear victor?

To talk about the potential of a Mayweather-McGregor MMA match now, though, is to overlook the fact that McGregor has to get past Cerrone first. If he fails to do so, the Mayweather contest is unlikely to happen. That will almost certainly leave everyone involved in the potential McGregor-Mayweather contest out of pocket, including both fighters and Dana White. The question of whether the erratic McGregor is still worth the money and the risk at this stage of his career surely has to be asked at some point?

Nobody can deny that McGregor is box office when he’s on his game. He always has a quote for the media, he usually backs his mouth up in the ring, and he can turn any press conference into headline news. At the same time, though, nobody would be able to deny that McGregor is a lot like a casino slots. Nobody knows what they’re going to get out of a visit to an online slots website until they’ve put money into a game and given it a spin, and McGregor is every bit as risky and exciting as that. Sometimes he’ll deliver huge PPV buys and make you a large profit. Other times, he’ll get himself arrested and drag you and your entire organization into disrepute. Crucially, as an online slots player knows, sometimes you pay your money, and you get nothing at all. The money is lost. If McGregor loses to Cerrone, he’s a losing bet in general.

Nobody can say for sure how much losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov took out of McGregor, but fifteen months away from combat sports is a long time, and there are some types of ring rust that can only be shaken off by climbing into a ring. Prior to the Nurmagomedov fight, McGregor has fought only three times in the UFC since December 2015. He’s no longer a fighter who battles like he’s trying to prove a point or because he wants to be the best. He’s a fighter who turns up when the money is right. There’s a huge difference between those two mentalities, and if McGregor shows up for the Cerrone fight as a rusty competitor with one eye on a summer showdown with Mayweather, the likelihood is that he’s going to lose.

We suspect that in the short term, the boost in PPV sales that comes with McGregor’s return to the sport will make his comeback worthwhile to UFC. Using him as a figurehead for the longer term, though – as we fear White may be attempting to do – is a risky strategy, and it’s far from clear that it holds water.

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