Conor McGregor returns this Saturday to face Donald Cerrone. Has the Irishman rediscovered his love of UFC and is he on his way back to the top? John Balfe previews the fight and picks his bet.
"Cerrone counts a robust submission game among his arsenal but has indicated that he intends to keep the fight on the feet, in part to excite the fans and in part to ‘test’ himself against the sport’s most famous knockout artist."
Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder, but whether that's a truism for Conor McGregor - a man who has latterly been testing the limits of his 'Notorious' moniker - remains to be seen.
Fifteen months on from a bad-tempered blood feud with UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, which reached its unsatisfying conclusion inside (and outside) of the cage in Las Vegas, McGregor returns to his day job this weekend where he will be seeking his first victory of any kind since the tail-end of 2016.
Fortunately for McGregor, as well as his legions of supporters, this is a tailor-made match-up for the Dubliner.
McGregor's route back to the top
Witnesses to McGregor's fourth-round submission defeat to Nurmagomeodv at UFC 229 will attest that the normally fleet-footed Irishman looked incredibly out of sorts in that performance. That's particularly true when compared to his previous MMA fight against Eddie Alvarez, which longtime mixed martial arts analysts hail as one of the finest athletic displays in the history of the sport.
But was the turgid performance against Nurmagomedov an outlier, or was it the new norm? Word filtering from McGregor's camp suggests that their fighter has rediscovered his motivation.
Training, which was once a chore, is again enjoyable, they say. There is a well-worn cliche about happy fighters being dangerous fighters which we won't repeat here, but in McGregor's case it seems as though the haze of animosity for his previous opponent has lifted. In its stead? A calm, clear and motivated McGregor.
High noon with Cowboy Cerrone
Of course, McGregor won't be the only fighter in the cage on Saturday with a feeling of nervous energy coursing through his veins. Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone, owner of a litany of all-time UFC records, will be confident of adding the biggest scalp he will have collected over the course of his 51 fights.
No man has won more UFC fights than Donald Cerrone. No man has earned more finishes before the distance, nor has anyone ever scored more successful headkick KO's than the UFC's very own version of Evel Knievel but even with those statistics proving that Cerrone should be considered a very live underdog in this contest, his makeup as a fighter may well work against him.
The first round of this fight will be crucial and may well tell the story of the rest of it. Cerrone is a notoriously slow starter and conventional wisdom suggests that this is anything but an advantage against McGregor, a fighter who counts 13 first round knockouts among his 21 wins.
The American counts a robust submission game among his arsenal but has indicated in the pre-fight interviews that he intends to keep the fight on the feet, in part to excite the fans and in part to 'test' himself against the sport's most famous knockout artist. But the wisdom of such a call may well be questioned in the aftermath, especially when you consider that each of McGregor's career defeats have come via tapout.
Back McGregor to win inside two rounds
If the fight was taking place at lightweight instead of in the welterweight frame, McGregor's innate power would likely end the fight very expeditiously. However, Cerrone will outweigh McGregor by around five kilos on the night. Whether this impacts McGregor's ability to finish the fight early has been debated all through fight week but it is making this writer lean towards a second round finish via a KO/TKO.
Cerrone won't present the same type of resistance offered by Nate Diaz in his two fights against McGregor, but he will be more dangerous for as long as the fight lasts. 'Cowboy' has long had issues when fighting southpaws - see his shellacking at the hands of Darren Till in 2017 for evidence of this.
On that night, Till's laser-sighted left hand was the difference maker. Donald Cerrone faces an upgrade of this late on Saturday and unless he has addressed his frailties in dealing with aggressive left-handed strikers, you can expect a similar result.