UFC superstar Conor McGregor makes his first trip to the octagon in a year on Saturday when he takes on American Dustin Poirier in Abu Dhabi.
The Irishman, 32, was last in action when he beat Donald Cerrone inside 40 seconds last January.
The former two-weight world champion announced his retirement in June, saying he was „bored of the game“, but now he’s back – and according to reports from his camp „the Notorious“ is more focused than ever.
BBC Sport talks to coach Owen Roddy to find out how has McGregor been preparing, and what the prospects are of a rematch with Khabib Nurmagomedov.
From PPE back to UFC
McGregor has often been at the centre of controversy for his behaviour but won plaudits for his philanthropic work in 2020.
In March, he pledged to buy over one million euros worth of personal protective equipment for hospitals in Ireland fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, showcasing a far more positive public persona than had been put forth over the previous three years.
Three months later his fans were baffled by his third retirement from the sport in four years. In an interview with ESPN, he explained that his decision to hang up his gloves was born out of frustration at not being able to book a fight.
Despite feeling „shelved“ by the UFC top brass, McGregor continued to work out.
He kicked his training into a higher gear a couple of weeks before his rematch with Poirier was announced, moving his entire camp to Lagos in Portugal after the lockdown in Ireland forced the closure of gyms nationwide.
Breaking up the camp for two weeks over Christmas, McGregor stayed on top of his conditioning in a purpose-built facility on his property – including a full-sized octagon – before spending the last two weeks of the camp in Dubai.
‘He’s a much scarier beast now’
Last January, McGregor’s dynamic 40-second stoppage of Cerrone proved that he could get back to peak condition after a long absence from the sport, and that at 32 he still boasts his signature stopping power.
According to his striking coach Roddy – a man who has worked with McGregor since his first days in an MMA gym – the successful outing against „Cowboy“ laid the foundation for what would turn out to be a year of preparation for his return.
„The camp just seemed to keep rolling because there was so much talk of him fighting a couple of months after Cerrone, then in the summer and then again in September,“ Roddy told BBC Sport.
„He never stopped putting the hours in. He’s a much scarier beast now because he’s been training solidly for a year. He’s been wanting to fight, he hasn’t been able to, and now we get to let him off the leash.“
The Dubliner’s physical condition has been highlighted as the biggest indicator of how seriously he is taking his second date with Poirier.
The first time they met in 2014, McGregor won the contest within two minutes of the opening bell. Now, with the benefit of three years of boxing-focused training, he believes he can finish the job inside 60 seconds.
‘His boxing is better than ever’
McGregor was forced to cram a lot of pugilistic preparation into a very short amount of time before his boxing clash with Floyd Mayweather in 2017. Interestingly, the sharpest boxing mind in his camp was added after that loss, in the shape of two-time Olympian and celebrated coach, Phil Sutcliffe.
Sutcliffe was McGregor’s first combat sports coach. The relationship began when „The Notorious“ was just 10 years old, the first time he walked through the doors of Crumlin Boxing Club in Dublin.
Over 18 months the veteran coach brought several boxers into the camp to allow McGregor to gain a greater understanding of the sport.
Already famed for his punching power, Roddy is adamant the Irish knockout artist is packing an even heavier punch.
„When Conor focuses on a certain skill set, he becomes a master at it,“ Roddy said.
„He’s been doing a lot of boxing and you definitely see his hands have become a lot sharper and he’s hitting a lot harder.
„It’s all about his mindset, he’s completely obsessed and that’s how he continues to get better. It might sound crazy, but his boxing is better than ever.“
‘Even if Khabib comes back, this is a different Conor’
When Nurmagomedov announced his retirement in October, the booking of McGregor v Poirier 2 presented a stellar opportunity for a vacant lightweight title match.
Last weekend, the Russian champion told UFC president Dana White that he could come out of retirement should something spectacular transpire between McGregor and Poirier, or Michael Chandler and Dan Hooker in the co-main event.
The Irishman’s team is confident that even if Nurmagomedov does entertain the idea of a rematch, the latest version of „The Notorious“ would pose an entirely different challenge from the fighter beaten by „the Eagle“ in 2018.
With or without Nurmagomedov, Roddy does not see anyone on the UFC’s roster who can stop McGregor from reclaiming the division’s title.
„I think Conor is the best lightweight out of the current crop in the title conversation,“ claimed Roddy.
„I look at every challenger in that division and I think it’s a very winnable fight for him. Even if Khabib comes back, this is a different Conor. He’s more motivated than ever, he is a better athlete than he’s ever been and he has never been more focused.
„Whoever it might be that he fights for the title… Conor’s got the ability to beat them all. This is his division. We’re going to focus on this fight, then take whoever is next out of the equation until he gets that gold back.“