'The Notorious' v2.0 is poised to retake his crown as the king of UFC
Published 20/08/2016 | 02:30
Do not be fooled by Conor McGregor's brash and cocky demeanour during this week's promotional tour for UFC 202: McGregor v Diaz.
Do not allow his usual curse-riddled, bottle-throwing press conference and headline-grabbing, antagonistic trash-talking give you the impression for one second that tonight is just another night in the life and times of Conor McGregor. It is not.
No one, not even his coach John Kavanagh or his extensive entourage, has ever seen tonight's version of Conor McGregor.
While everything on the outside seems to be exactly as you would expect from the former plumber, albeit with a lot more bottle and can-throwing than we are used to, there is no denying that the version of the Dubliner who steps into the octagon at approximately 5am Irish time, is a completely different fighter to the one we last saw at UFC 196 back in March.
Not to dwell too much on what has gone on since the last time the fighter went to work, but in brief . . . he lost, he was (surprisingly) magnanimous in defeat, he trained and then secured the rematch he wanted at the much-hyped UFC200.
Then he was cage side when Joao Carvalho tragically died in Dublin. McGregor moved his training camp to Iceland; he refused to fly to Vegas to promote UFC200; he retired for a day; he blew up Twitter with one 13-word tweet; he sent the UFC into freefall; he (again surprisingly) got the backing of fellow fighters; he was persuaded to come back in; he respectfully kept his mouth shut for a while; then he did Wednesday's infamous press conference . . . and now, in less than 24 hours, he will finally be back doing what he does best.
With a 24-week training camp spanning at least three countries on two different continents and costing in the region of €300,000, tonight's McGregor will be supremely confident of victory. However, history suggests he shouldn't be as confident as he is, but his demeanour, his obvious meticulous planning and the various additions to his arsenal quite simply mean that he is a new fighter.
Tonight he will carry the burden of defeat on his shoulders for the first time in five-and-a-half years. Tonight, he fights in honour of the late Joao Carvalho. And tonight, when his walk-in music sounds out around the spellbinding T-Mobile Arena and the unmistakable figure of the Featherweight champion is blasted on each of the stadium's colossal screens - he will not be greeted by the usual tidal wave of cheers and screams from loyal and loud Irish fans.
Tonight, he effectively walks into enemy territory for the first time in his three-year UFC career, where every single fan who does not have a $15-Bud-Light-stained tricolour draped around his or her shoulders will be shouting for Nate Diaz.
If he loses again the naysayers and begrudgers will channel their naïve hatred of the sport at us fans over the coming days but the loss will NOT define him.
It will be a huge blow to him, his team and his fans. But he will scrape himself back up off the blood-soaked canvas and get back training for the defence of the Featherweight belt against José Aldo. But in victory, the self-proclaimed king of the UFC will be back where fans want him. He will cement his place as the UFC's biggest draw. He will be allowed to name his opponent, his location and his fee for the next fight.
By the time most Irish people wake up tomorrow morning and discover the Straight Blast Gym fighter's fate, he will have earned somewhere between €7m and €10m, regardless of the result.
Ironically enough, I believe McGregor's intelligent response in defeat back in March won over many non-believers.
While they may not have subscribed to the diehard fans' way of thinking just yet, there was certainly a shift in opinion when those willing to hear him out heard his balanced reaction to one of the biggest shocks of the year.
But there is a long way to go before MMA becomes a mainstream sport here in Ireland. In the cold dark hours of tomorrow morning, there is a chance it will take a big step towards change. We have waited 24 weeks for this and it could well be over in the blink of an eye - but if the fighter known as 'The Notorious' secures revenge, then the whole country will have no option but to stand up and take notice.