As the former two-weight UFC champion steamrolled Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone in just forty seconds in the main event at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, it was hard not to be transported back to McGregor’s seminal surge between 2013 and 2016, the run that took him to the promotion’s featherweight and lightweight titles.
The performance, which was classic McGregor, followed a lead-up that had been somewhat damp compared to what followers of the sport have come to expect from one involving ‘Notorious’, with the Irishman, 31, and Cerrone, 36, remaining cordial all the way up to the first buzzer on Saturday night.
If you were wondering where all the venom was, it turns out McGregor (22-4) was storing it in his left shoulder – we’ll get to that. See, ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone may be the UFC’s resident gunslinger, but McGregor was quicker to draw in Las Vegas.
In just forty seconds, he exhibited an exhilarating variety of skills. He opened by swinging that trusty left hand of his, with Cerrone (36-14) ducking under and immediately seeking a takedown – turns out ‘Cowboy’ had been bluffing in his claims that he would aim to stand and trade with McGregor, whose underrated grappling skills were employed at once to stuff the takedown with ease.
The pair then stood in the clinch, with McGregor repeatedly ramming his shoulder upwards into the face of Cerrone, an unusual attack that detonated his opponent’s nose on impact.
‘Cowboy’ shuddered backwards before attempting a head kick – among Cerrone’s multiple UFC records is the one for most head kick knockouts in company history. McGregor swatted the effort away with apathy, then propelled his own foot into Cerrone’s already blood-smeared jaw.
‘Cowboy’s composure was rapidly deserting him, as was his balance, and a flying knee against the cage by McGregor almost put the American down. The shot that actually floored Cerrone was – of course – a piston left hand, and the perfect comeback was nearing completion. Referee Herb Dean gave ‘Cowboy’ every chance to recover, but the reality was there was no chance.
Let’s be clear, Cerrone is an all-time great. A versatile, experienced fighter who embodies the principle of fighting anybody, anywhere, anytime. He has more fights, wins and finishes than any man in UFC history. But in all of his years, in all of his bouts – against the likes of Jorge Masvidal, Nate Diaz, Justin Gaethje, Tony Ferguson, Rafael dos Anjos, Darren Till, Robbie Lawler, Edson Barboza, Eddie Alvarez and Anthony Pettis (many of them former champions, who make up just a percentage of the overall list) – never has ‘Cowboy’ faced a fighter like McGregor.
The hype around the Irishman often skews perception, but the truth is that McGregor is not just an enigma as a character but as a mixed martial artist, too. One who knows no pressure, even when the stakes are highest, as they were on Saturday with his career conceivably on the line. McGregor was in dire need of a win, his inactivity in the cage and activity outside of it over the last two years seeing a large chunk of his fanbase fall away like the featherweights he used to drop at will.
With one of the best performances of his career, he will have regained some of those supporters, while others will prove harder to win round after numerous brushes with the law.
And although extraneous factors could not penetrate McGregor’s mindset up until and during the fight, he displayed evident relief upon sealing victory.
After taking a moment with his team, ‘Notorious’ crouched down to console Cerrone and explain exactly how he had eviscerated him. ‘Cowboy’ – who did not land a single blow to McGregor, something even Jose Aldo managed in his 13-second starching by the Irishman – was soon transported to hospital, his role in proceedings complete.
McGregor, meanwhile, retreated to his locker room to relax with friends and family. But for a man whose success was in part built upon a clear, self-devised path forward, it must have been difficult not to let his mind drift to potential foes for the rest of what he has labelled his “2020 season”.
The biggest money fight would undoubtedly be a clash with the UFC's 'BMF', Masvidal, who watched on in delight, but – if it were ever in any doubt – McGregor once again holds all the cards.
And pretty soon we will see which hand he plays. Normally, it’s his left, but Saturday night showed that the UFC’s elite have a lot more to worry about than just that.