The UFC's first event of 2020 sees the world-famous octagon return to Las Vegas for UFC 246, as the biggest star in the sport makes his long-awaited return to the cage.
Irish superstar Conor McGregor has fought just once in the UFC since 2016 – a fourth-round submission loss to reigning UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in October 2018 – but now he plans on kicking off a "season" of fights in the octagon as he bids to return to the top of the sport once again.
McGregor (21-4) takes on American fan-favourite Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone (36-13), a stetson-wearing, tobacco-chewing fighter who owns a plethora of UFC records, including the most fights, most wins, most finishes and most post-fight bonuses in UFC history. When Cerrone fights, he's a near-guarantee of an exciting matchup. Throw McGregor into the mix and the recipe looks good for a thrilling main event on January 18.
The former two-division world champion has made no secret of his wish to land a rematch with rival Nurmagomedov but, with no victories in the UFC since he captured the lightweight crown back in November 2016, the Irishman knows he needs at least one big win to catapult himself back into the title mix. And although a rematch with the Russian remains at the top of his list, the shrewd Irishman is keeping his options open.
McGregor will face Cerrone in the UFC's 170-pound welterweight division, the weight class above Nurmagomedov. On the face of it, it offers both him and Cerrone the opportunity to fight without the additional stress of a weight cut. But it also means the door could be open to future matches in the weight class moving forward.
If McGregor defeats Cerrone – who has campaigned with success at both lightweight and welterweight – he may well find himself on the radar of UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, or the one-off 'BMF' champion and top welterweight contender Jorge Masvidal. If the Nurmagomedov rematch doesn't materialise, a big-time bout at 170 pounds could well be on the cards.
But all of these options will be for nought if McGregor cannot back up his pre-fight confidence on fight night at T-Mobile Arena. Victory over Cerrone would open up options galore, but a defeat – or, worse still, a stoppage defeat – could leave him as a big box office draw, but not one who could justifiably call for a title shot.
Speaking to ESPN ahead of the fight, McGregor cut a fresh, composed and confident figure as he laid out his thoughts on a possible run at welterweight.
"170 is an exciting one for me,” he explained. “I like 170. I like what’s going on in the 170 division at the minute. You’ve got Jorge (Masvidal) with that (‘BMF’) belt, you’ve got the other guys fighting for the belt. I like all of what’s going on at 170, and I feel good at 170. I feel energetic – it’s what I weigh, and that’s it. It opens up so many more options, right?”
And, despite not tasting victory inside the octagon for more than three years, McGregor has lost none of the bulletproof self-confidence that powered him to the UFC featherweight and lightweight titles in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Explaining why he agreed to face Cerrone at 170 pounds, McGregor said: “I just don’t think he looks well at 155. He’s a 170 fighter. I’d beat him at any weight. I’d beat him if I had the flu!"
McGregor's matchup with Cerrone is unlikely to produce a repeat of the over-the-top trash-talking and personal insults we witnessed ahead of his last outing against Nurmagomedov. Cerrone's laid-back personality, coupled with the universal respect he holds within the sport, should ensure that.
And with McGregor taking a positive, upbeat approach to the matchup this coming weekend, the Irishman predicted fireworks when he and Cerrone finally face off inside the octagon on fight night.
“I’m happy to come back and have my comeback fight in the beginning of my season against Donald, and I look forward to it,” he said.
“It’s going to be a good night, and I’m going to shine here on January 18. I’m going to create magic inside the octagon, like I have done many times before. But this time it’s going to be something special.”