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Conor McGregor vs. Cowboy Cerrone -- Insider predictions, analysis

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Can Conor McGregor return to his former glory? (4:05)

Brett Okamoto looks back at Conor McGregor's complicated journey, becoming the first double champion inside the UFC's Octagon and having multiple transgressions outside of it. (4:05)

Conor McGregor is back.

After what seemed like endless speculation, hints and callouts, the announcement was made on Thursday: McGregor will face Donald Cerrone on Jan. 18 in Las Vegas.

This will be McGregor's first fight since he lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov in a lightweight title fight at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018. He hasn't won a fight since he beat Eddie Alvarez on Nov. 12, 2016.

During this layoff, he has faced several legal issues, including a second allegation of sexual assault, according to the New York Times. A publicist for McGregor has denied the allegation.

McGregor remains the UFC's biggest star and the biggest moneymaking draw in the history of MMA. All eyes will be on him when he makes his return.

Below, ESPN's MMA insiders break down McGregor vs. Cerrone, its relevance and what to expect.

-- Marc Raimondi


Is this the right fight for McGregor's return?

Ariel Helwani: I like this fight for him a lot. I didn't like the idea of an immediate rematch versus Nurmagomedov. It was too soon for that. Bottom line is, he needs a win. He needs to get his mojo back. He needs to get the fans on his side again. This is a winnable fight against a popular fighter. You see, I'm a big fan of tune-up fights. Now, I'm not saying Cerrone is a tune-up. Far from it. But he's not the champion nor the No. 1 contender, and that's who McGregor was talking about facing. Forget that for now. Slow and steady.

Brett Okamoto: During McGregor's best years, the ones that really made him the superstar we think of today, he always had incredible timing. One thing led to the next. It was always growing, always trending upward. I like this matchup with Cowboy -- but I have to say, the timing isn't perfect. It would have been perfect earlier this year, when Cerrone knocked out Alexander Hernandez in January and then beat Al Iaquinta in May. But since then, he's lost two in a row. If McGregor is serious about wanting to challenge for the lightweight championship again, a better fight would have been Justin Gaethje, who, right now, is behind only Tony Ferguson for a title shot. Again, I like McGregor vs. Cerrone, but would it have been my first choice? No.

Marc Raimondi: McGregor is the biggest draw in the history of the promotion, and Cerrone has the most wins (23) and finishes (16) ever in the UFC. Cerrone also has a huge fan following and name value among casual observers of MMA. But all of the momentum that Cerrone had earlier this year -- and he had a ton with a three-fight win streak -- is gone after two consecutive losses. So while McGregor vs. "Cowboy" should still be an incredibly exciting fight and one that will undoubtedly sell well, it seems the timing is a tad off. But Cerrone is definitely the right opponent for McGregor's return due to his popularity and striking style.

Jeff Wagenheim: If you're McGregor's management and the either/or presented to you by the UFC was Cerrone or Gaethje, "Cowboy" is by far the safer option. But when has McGregor ever opted for the safe route? He always has looked for the next treacherous mountain to climb. So it would have seemed to be in McGregor's nature to go after the biggest challenge he can find. The one he covets, a rematch with Nurmagomedov, is not in the offing, so the next-best thing would have been Gaethje, winner of three in a row, all by KO. "The Highlight" is the hottest thing at lightweight outside the Dagestan border. A win over Cerrone would get Conor back on track, but it wouldn't produce the "Wow!" that it once would have. On the other hand, McGregor could have made the MMA world truly sit up and take notice by stepping in with Gaethje and being the last man standing.


How do you expect McGregor to look?

Helwani: This is the big question. Not only is he coming off a layoff, he's also coming off a tumultuous 2019. He is saying all the right things and the fact that he is talking about staying active next year makes me think he is dedicated to getting back on track, but we'll only be able to truly answer this question when we see him in there.

Okamoto: That's the $1 million question. And I don't know how anyone could provide an answer that is not almost purely speculation. McGregor is a competitor, and he knows what it takes to prepare for a fight. Exactly what has the fame and fortune done to his work ethic? I don't know. He appears to have remained in shape the past three years, even though he's fought only twice. If I had to guess, and that's what this is, McGregor will look good, but not the best we've ever seen him. Ring rust is real. And is there a chance we never see him at his absolute best again? I do think there is a chance of that. Hope not.

Raimondi: The biggest question going into this fight is what version of McGregor are we getting? Is it the incredibly sharp version that fought and destroyed Alvarez? Or is it the guy who admittedly was not ultra-motivated against Nurmagomedov? If it's the latter, Cerrone is the kind of guy who can very easily play spoiler. McGregor is not in his 20s anymore. He's certainly not past his athletic prime, but will it all come together in terms of rhythm after only one fight in three years? A lot of what McGregor does in the cage is predicated on his timing. You just can't keep that fully in sync with these long layoffs.

Wagenheim: McGregor is a fit 31, young enough to dust off and polish his fistic skills if he's willing to climb out of that silk-sheeted bed and get down to the gym. The concern is not for his physical fitness. It has to do with where his head is. Between selling whiskey and handling his legal issues, McGregor has a lot on his mind that has nothing to do with fighting.


How much does McGregor stand to lose?

Helwani: A lot. The fans are starting to turn on him. The company is starting to turn on him. It hasn't been a good year. A win can help remedy all of that, but a loss would be a massive step back. Fans are more inclined to ignore the controversies if you're active and winning. McGregor hasn't been active nor has he been winning for a long time. The best thing he can do next year is fight often, win and stay out of trouble. One year of that would go a long, long way. Obviously a lot easier said than done, but that has to be the mindset.

Okamoto: I would say a lot. I wouldn't characterize it as devastating, but his brand would take a significant hit. And you know, with Cowboy, as much as it might be nice to take a "step down" in competition (and I say that respectfully, Cerrone is still an incredible fighter, but he's not Nurmagomedov), there's also some risk in that. Expectations will be high for McGregor in a fight against Cowboy. He lost to Nurmagomedov but who cares, right? Everyone loses to Nurmagomedov. Losing to a 36-year-old Cowboy? That would be interpreted differently.

Raimondi: A win would put McGregor right back in the title discussion and make his next fight even more massive. A loss would definitely deal a blow to his drawing power, and more than anything, the leverage he has with the UFC. Can McGregor still dictate all the things he has been able to in the past? That's already starting to fade. Just listen to that news conference in Ukraine where McGregor said the UFC was turning down his propositions for opponents and fight dates. Even with a loss, McGregor is still the biggest star in the UFC by a wide margin. But there's no doubt it would be damaging to his ability to make demands.

Wagenheim: The loss to Nurmagomedov was ugly, but who has stepped in the cage with that bear-wrestling beast and not suffered an ugly obliteration? A loss in this one, against a seemingly fading Cerrone, would be more difficult to shrug off, especially with some fans seeming to turn against Conor amid the deluge of negative headlines swirling around him.


Bold prediction

Helwani: In their primes, McGregor was the better fighter. Does that mean anything in 2020? Probably not, but it's all to say McGregor can win this fight. McGregor wants to fight three times next year. He wants Nate Diaz or Jorge Masvidal after this one and then the winner of Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson. A lot needs to go his way in 2020 for this to come fruition, obviously.

Okamoto: Cerrone is hittable, and he's at the point in his career when you start to wonder about his durability. The wild card is Cerrone's wrestling. I feel as if I've been saying this for years but it's still the truth, Cerrone's wrestling and jiu-jitsu are underrated. And if he were to get McGregor down, it could be a wrap. But the prediction is McGregor wins and demands a title shot, but he ends up fighting Diaz for the third time instead.

Raimondi: It's impossible to know how McGregor will perform after another long layoff, but this is a favorable matchup for him against a fellow striker who doesn't mind taking one to give one. Cerrone could tenderize McGregor's legs and land a head kick if the fight stays in kickboxing range. But if McGregor can get in closer and land that left hand, it could be a short night. Gaethje finished Cerrone in the first round, and McGregor could, too. If Cerrone decides to use his wrestling and grappling, it could be a surprise, though. Loose pick here: McGregor, potentially by finish.

Wagenheim: "Precision beats power," McGregor used to say, "and timing beats speed." That was the maxim that carried Conor to the top of the sport. But that seems like a lifetime ago. How dulled is his razor's edge on the heels of a three-year span in which he entered the Octagon only once and got mauled? If the Irishman is even reasonably sharp on his feet, he has what it takes to knock out today's version of Cerrone, just as the 36-year-old's past two opponents have done. One note of caution for the Irishman: Remember what happened when the first Diaz fight went to the canvas? Well, "Cowboy" has produced nearly half of his 36 wins by tapout. He is capable of cutting off the air supply of McGregor's comeback. But I'll go ahead and predict that Conor gets it done -- barely and not so impressively. I wouldn't be surprised if he looks almost as faded as Cerrone.