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UFC 246: McGregor strikes a different pose

Mixed martial arts star Conor McGregor of Ireland attends a media briefing in central Moscow on Oct. 24, 2019 to announce his next MMA combat schedule on Jan. 18, 2020 in Las-Vegas. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)
Mixed martial arts star Conor McGregor of Ireland attends a media briefing in central Moscow on Oct. 24, 2019 to announce his next MMA combat schedule on Jan. 18, 2020 in Las-Vegas. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – Even the UFC’s official promotional videos acknowledge that Conor McGregor has had a troubling couple of years.

That’s all part of a redemption story that McGregor, his team, and his promoters at the UFC are insisting has begun in the build-up to UFC 246 on Saturday night, when he’ll fight Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

McGregor has presented himself as more calm and controlled during his limited media appearances over the past week. He’s spoken about staying sober during training camp and has avoided the pointed, sometimes troublesome trash talk that defined the pre-fight build-up prior to his last match, against lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

In an interview with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, he even addressed the reports of two sexual assault allegations against him, although the Irishman’s response mostly amounted to him saying he couldn’t say anything about them but “time will reveal all.”

Those allegations are by far the most disturbing of the baggage that McGregor is carrying with him and they were obviously not included in official promotional materials. Fans also booed a reporter who tried to ask about McGregor’s “legal issues” and UFC president Dana White repeated that McGregor had answered questions about them the day before.

But the videos that played at the Palms Casino and Resort prior to Wednesday afternoon’s press conference with McGregor and Cerrone included footage from his infamous “metal dolly” attack on a UFC bus in April 2018, as well as – maybe surprisingly – the punch he threw at an elderly Irishman in a pub last year. Those are the two most prominent issues he is trying to publicly put behind him.

For much of the past couple years, those have been the main images of McGregor that fans have had the chance to see. He hasn’t fought since losing to Nurmagomedov in October 2018, and there’s been a lot of negativity surrounding him in the time since.

As much as Saturday’s fight offers an opportunity for McGregor to get his in-octagon career back on track, this week is also a chance for the UFC’s most famous and lucrative fighter to start changing the narrative that surrounds him as a man.

At Wednesday’s press conference, he insisted he was the same person he’s always been, but acknowledged that he has grown.

“I’m certainly more grounded and more experienced and I’ve been through certain things that have helped shape me as a man, like us all on this journey of life,” McGregor said. “But if you ask my family and my people that know who I am (they’d say) I’m no different. I’m certainly more focused this camp and more aware.”

Whatever McGregor says, it’s impossible not to notice a difference in the way he’s carried himself this week compared to the lead-up to previous fights, particularly his bout with Nurmagomedov.

A cynic would say that McGregor has no choice and that he needs to improve his image so that he can continue growing his personal brand – and reaping the benefits that come along with it.

Conversely, maybe McGregor has learned from his mistakes and has grown up a little bit in his 15 months from the octagon and has returned to the UFC as a calmer, more mature person. Maybe a better one, too.

Whether this “new” McGregor connects with fans the way he did when he was ascending the UFC’s ranks en route to becoming both lightweight and featherweight champion remains to be seen.

The crowd at Wednesday’s press conference was smaller than he used to pull back in 2015 and ’16, but it’s also the first day of a fight week and it’s entirely possible that legions upon legions of young Irish fans will descend on Las Vegas in the coming days.

Or maybe he has to win them back over.

If that’s the case, McGregor’s attitude so far this fight week is likely to go a lot further towards winning people back than what we got from him over the past couple of years.

The question now is whether that will be enough? A lack of animosity with Cerrone and a new positive attitude may only take him so far.

“I am as real as it gets, like the company slogan,” McGregor said. “I react to how the situation is, that’s it. The situations happened a certain way for some time, and this situation seems to be a little different, so I react accordingly.

“There’s nothing false, nothing fake. It’s just me being real and who I am, and that’s it.”

No bad blood

LAS VEGAS – The footage of Conor McGregor and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone trash talking one another back in 2015 has been played over and over again for the last month to help promote their fight at UFC 246.

Then, they got onstage on Wednesday afternoon in Las Vegas and did their very best to prove that they’d moved on.

That’s not exactly following the usual roadmap for promoting a fight, but here we are.

“I’ve had my back and forth with Donald throughout the years, but the last time we spoke to each other or even saw each other was at that press conference many years ago,” McGregor said. “So much has changed since then.

“As time has gone on, he’s become a family man and I’ve seen him compete so many times. He has my respect. Although there will be blood spilled on Jan. 18, it will not be bad blood.

Cerrone, for his part, seemed to completely agree. To be fair, their trash talk in 2015 was mostly harmless, but it definitely hasn’t weighed on Cerrone in the years since.

“He did everything he said he was going to do,” Cerrone said. “Any feelings? Yeah, he’s f—ing great.”

daustin@postmedia.com

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