Is Conor McGregor's return a rebirth… or death of a salesman?

Plenty has changed even since the Dubliner was most recently in the desert, a chastening night 15 months back when he was sent scurrying across the sands by Khabib Nurmagomedov, writes Joe Callaghan.

Is Conor McGregor's return a rebirth… or death of a salesman?

No place to run the risk of dehydration, Las Vegas likes to keep you well oiled from the get go.

Behind the glass window of one of the liquor stores in McCarran Airport’s arrivals area, Conor McGregor smiles and stares out at the newcomers. A cardboard version of course, with a box of Proper 12 whiskey under one arm and the other cradling a bottle of the stuff.

According to those on the ground, both the imitation and the real-life McGregor will have laid eyes on far fewer Irish arrivals than had so quickly become a new Las Vegas custom during the Dubliner’s rise to the top of the fight game and gatecrashing of the cultural mainstream.

A lot has changed since those fevered days and nights of four and five years ago. Plenty has changed even since the Dubliner was most recently in the desert, a chastening night 15 months back when he was sent scurrying across the sands by Khabib Nurmagomedov, McGregor humbled during the night’s sanctioned combat and faring little better during a riotous outbreak in the aftermath.

And yet in spite of all that has changed — that aura-stripping loss, the fake retirements, the very real, almost unceasing legal troubles — Conor McGregor is back. Back headlining a UFC pay-per-view card, back selling out a cavernous arena on the Strip. The gate for his meeting with Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone at UFC 246 surpassed $10 million (€9m) once tickets sold out in the space of three minutes.

So for the thousands who have flown in, and for the millions who — whether paying or pirated — will switch on, what have they come to see? A rebirth … or the death of a salesman?

Perhaps those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps the latter is a crucial piece of the process of the former. Or perhaps the sins of recent years are just too great for Conor McGregor to be born again.

As ever with McGregor, defining the current step, never mind predicting the next, remains a vexing proposition.

His star may well rise again. Saturday night’s showdown with the journeyman Cerrone offers a pretty perfect launchpad for that. But there can be no doubt that it has waned.

That chaotic spell in 2015 and 2016 when McGregor fought four times in the space of 13 months in Las Vegas can already be looked back upon through nostalgic eyes. A time that was once but is not now. Each fight week seemed to outdo the previous as an Italia ’90 fever dream for a new generation of Irish men and women, those on the junction of millennial and Gen-Z. J1 students and credit union-rich weekend-trippers traipsing tricoloured through casinos at all hours, high on that potent mix of Vegas… and victory.

Four years on, the desert isn’t so much quiet (an impossible feat) as quieter. But so too is McGregor.

The salesman may not be dealing with something terminal but the early test results couldn’t be described as positive. Given his myriad legal issues, McGregor has no doubt intentionally toned things, everything really, down in the build-up to this second comeback. A one-man marketing department not that long ago, the best trash talk the 31-year-old version of the Dubliner could seem to come up with was that he could beat Cerrone even if he had the flu, an offering that is likely very true but is highly unlikely to make the final cut of a hype video.

Wednesday’s pre-fight press conference was a marked departure from the old scripts. McGregor was on time, he entered the stage from the same side as Cerrone, shook his opponent’s hand before taking a seat and proceeded to exchange pleasantries with the 36-year-old Colorado native, the UFC’s all-time wins leader. At one early stage, McGregor even appeared to glance up to the organisation’s chief, Dana White, for approval after a tepid answer.

Things only really got heated when a reporter asked McGregor directly about his legal issues and was showered in boos and jeers from those Notorious footsoldiers who will likely never switch off. All in all, it was almost boring.

Whatever about the salesman, McGregor the fighter cannot afford for Saturday night to be highlight-free. He insists UFC 246 is just the start of a huge 12 months to follow, with at least another two fights to come. If that is to be the case, then things need to get off on the right note inside the octagon.

Cerrone is the most journeyed of journeymen, his all-time wins mark the result of longevity and bravery rather than brilliance. Yes, he is a welterweight and McGregor’s best nights have come 15 and 25lbs further down the ladder. But he doesn’t like being pressured and isn’t fond of left-handers either, which means he shapes as the most promising of prospects for a fallen fighter looking for that relaunch, particularly a left-handed one who lives to pressure opponents.

“I have not changed too much,” McGregor said this week. “I am who I am. I’m in a position where I’m very eager to perform for the fans. Although there will be blood spilled…it will not be bad blood.”

The salesman has given way... perhaps to the fighter. McGregor’s next act awaits.

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