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The Conor McGregor Comeback Tour Will Define the UFC in 2020

McGregor knocked out Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone less than a minute into Saturday night’s fight. Just like that, McGregor is back in control of the sport he once ruled, whether you like it or not.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Irishman was back in the spotlight on Saturday night, except this version took just 40 seconds to watch. And unlike Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece, the kicks in this one were a hell of a lot more believable.

There’s a reason people see green when they see Conor McGregor. Maybe it’s the Irish flag that’s draped around his body in his most iconic moments. Or maybe it’s the fact that the 31-year-old is a walking payday. McGregor secures the bag like a guillotine choke around an opponent’s neck. He’s the most popular fighter in UFC history, and his biggest purse came in a sport that he’d never fought in professionally before. But there are also reasons McGregor has been absent from the Octagon for so long. In 2019 he was named in two accounts of sexual assault and pleaded guilty to punching a man in a Dublin pub. He was also arrested in Miami Beach and charged with strong-armed robbery and criminal mischief. (In 2018, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.) He was banned by the Nevada Athletic Commission for six months, and many felt it should have been longer. It wasn’t clear if or when McGregor would headline another UFC bout.

If you were hoping to have seen the last of McGregor, though, then Saturday was quite a setback. In his first fight since losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov in November 2018, the loud-mouthed, Notorious, former two-division UFC champ didn’t come close to sweating, let alone bleeding. In UFC 246’s main event, he knocked out Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in less than a minute. McGregor used his shoulder and collarbone to deliver a series of blows in the clinch before unleashing a humanity-changing left kick that caught Cerrone flush across the face. McGregor threw 20 strikes in all; 19 of them landed. Referee Herb Dean gave Cowboy the chance to recover on the mat, but McGregor finished him to earn the TKO and a whole lot of money.

After the fight, McGregor, who moved up from about 145 pounds to 170 pounds to fight Cowboy, was quick to point out that he is now the first fighter in UFC history to earn stoppages as featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight. Just as quickly, McGregor announced his big plans for 2020, hoping to fight as many as three times and calling out some of the biggest names in MMA and boxing. After such a long layoff (he hadn’t won since beating Eddie Alvarez in 2016), McGregor needed to prove he still packed the same punch in order for those plans to come to fruition. If so, his list of options and big-money fights would be longer than a Proper Twelve hangover.

Everyone from Khabib to Manny Pacquiao to Floyd Mayweather has been—and will be—mentioned as a potential fight now that McGregor is back in the winner’s circle. They too probably see green when looking at McGregor. But the most obvious opponent was already sitting Octagon-side in Las Vegas on Saturday, draped in a plush, message-sending Versace robe, which is exactly what the Baddest Motherfucker Alive would wear to a fight that could make him a very rich man without having to lift a finger.

While McGregor is undeniably the UFC’s biggest star, Jorge Masvidal seized that title in his absence, becoming an overnight celebrity with his flying-knee KO of Ben Askren and then a certified legend when he outlasted Nate Diaz to capture the BMF title. Like McGregor, Masvidal boasts that indescribable combination of talent and swagger, making him irresistible as a fighter and a personality—the type people are willing to stay up to watch on pay-per-view.

Masvidal is only the third-ranked fighter in the UFC’s welterweight division, but he’s unmistakably the organization’s most valuable fighter not named Conor McGregor. Rather than chase the belt in his division and challenge the champ, Kamaru Usman, Masvidal says there’s something else he wants. When interviewed on Saturday’s broadcast before McGregor’s fight, Masvidal offered a two-word explanation for why he wants a crack at McGregor: “The money.”

McGregor claimed earlier this week that he expected to make $80 million from fighting Cerrone, but his guaranteed pay from the UFC was only $3 million. McGregor-Masvidal would go way beyond that, with a purse that would get both fighters out of bed (although, apparently, not out of their robes). It’d be the biggest fight of 2020 and provide the UFC with a dream main event to build a loaded card around. We’re not talking Mayweather moola (McGregor was rumored to take home $100 million in the 2017 clash), but this would be the closest thing the UFC has to offer. That is, unless McGregor could also defeat Masvidal.

After recording the second-fastest win of his career, McGregor indicated that he’s happy to stay at welterweight, although he’s still not sure where he’d like to be physically. It’s hard to argue with him—there wasn’t much to take away from Saturday’s fight, which was almost disappointingly quick for those eager to see how much McGregor still has in the tank. But if McGregor has another gear, so will the UFC. If McGregor could defeat Masvidal, the organization could orchestrate a rematch with Khabib, who has fought only once since his win over McGregor at UFC 229 and their infamous post-fight melee.

Or McGregor could zag completely, something he mentioned as a possibility several times during the leadup to UFC 246. If Mayweather is serious about coming out of retirement (again) and putting his perfect record on the line (again), then the two could get ludicrously rich (again) by putting on an exhibition that’d draw in hordes of fans and dollars. Whether in a ring or the Octagon, people would watch. Mayweather wasted no time testing the waters and throwing out the idea on Instagram, while UFC president Dana White could hardly contain his excitement during his post-fight presser. “Floyd is in our plans and we’re in Floyd’s plans,” White said. “We’ll be doing something with Floyd this year.”

Whether it’s Mayweather, Masvidal, Tony Ferugson, Paul Felder, or pretty much anyone else, McGregor’s next fight will draw a lot of eyeballs. And it doesn’t matter if a belt is on the line anymore. McGregor’s name and talent brings the type of cache and attention that both the UFC and its fans crave. And given the payout, every fighter in the world wants to go against him.

McGregor was emotional after winning his first UFC fight in three-plus years, but not wobbly enough to miss an opportunity to plug his trademark whiskey while holding Joe Rogan’s microphone hostage in his post-fight interview. That’s part of what makes McGregor such a phenomenon. He’s always selling. Selling liquor. Selling fights. Selling himself. When Rogan asked McGregor who he might want to face next, McGregor looked into the cageside seats filled with his fellow fighters and crowed: “Anyone of these mouthy fools can get it.”

And they would love to, because when other fighters look at McGregor, they see money. And when McGregor sees money, he also sees red.