UFC

UFC 246: Conor McGregor v Donald Cerrone - The big questions answered as 'The Notorious' returns

By Sports Desk January 16, 2020

Love him or hate him there is no way you can ignore Conor McGregor and Saturday marks his long-awaited return to the octagon at UFC 246.

It has been 15 months since McGregor's last bout ended in a submission defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov in a contest marred by an ugly post-fight brawl between the warring camps.

The charismatic Irishman, the first UFC fighter to hold belts in two divisions at the same time, is back, though, with veteran Donald Cerrone the opponent in Las Vegas.

Much has happened since McGregor's defeat to Khabib and below we take a look at the big questions ahead of his comeback.

 

What happened at UFC 229?

Oh boy…where do you start with this one? The build-up to this was fight was, let's dilute this a little, ugly. Back in April 2018, McGregor was involved in an attack on a bus carrying Nurmagomedov and other fighters. McGregor would eventually be forced to undertake community service and an anger management programme over the incident. So, naturally the scene was set for a red-hot build-up that had many barbs that crossed the line. After Nurmagomedov submitted McGregor in the fourth round the bad blood spilled over, with the Russian launching himself over the cage to fight members of his rival's team, leading to a mass melee. It was all rather unpleasant, unsavoury and unnecessary, and in truth not a great look for UFC.

What's happened since?

Well there was a retirement, a reversal on that decision, injury and an impressive body transformation. Not to mention plenty of sales of his Proper No. Twelve whiskey. And, unfortunately, there has been no escape from controversy. In March 2019, McGregor was arrested and charged with strong-armed robbery and criminal mischief after it was alleged he took a man's phone and smashed it on the ground in Miami – the charges were later dropped over inconsistencies in the victim's testimony. In November, McGregor was fined €1,000 after pleading guilty to an assault of a man at a pub in Dublin.

Will he fight Khabib again?

The jury remains very much out on this one. McGregor, who slipped to a 21-4-0 MMA record after the defeat, tweeted "book my rematch for Moscow" after Khabib's successful return against Dustin Poirier last September. The big-talking Irishman set himself a lofty ambition of fighting three times in 2020 and McGregor previously stated he wanted to face the winner of the bout between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz, before going on to once again take on Khabib. Masvidal certainly looks a viable option following his victory over Diaz, whether the Khabib rematch gets sanctioned is another argument.

What is his style?

Lightning quick with ferocious power and incredible athleticism – McGregor is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats. A southpaw with awesome striking skills, one of McGregor's greatest traits is a unique fighting stance that suits both front-foot tactics and counter punching. He is not known for his ground game, which many pundits noted was crucial in his defeat to Khabib. 

Who is his opponent Cerrone?

Put simply, 'Cowboy' is a legend in MMA circles. No one boasts more UFC wins than Cerrone, who has earned legions of fans for his ability to thrill in the octagon. Never one to shirk a challenge, Cerrone has been in with the best of the best. But, 37 in March and coming into this fight on the back of consecutive defeats to Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, it will be a tall order to overcome McGregor.

Why is the fight taking place at welterweight?

There was little shock when news broke McGregor was to fight Cerrone, though the fact the bout was to be contested in the 170lb division did raise some eyebrows – particularly given McGregor's stated desire for a rematch with lightweight king Khabib. UFC president Dana White explained McGregor's target for another dance with Khabib meant he was not keen on cutting to 155 twice. Both fighters are not particularly big welterweights, so it makes sense not to have go through the weight cut.

Is this fight make or break for McGregor?

When you bring the number of eyes, publicity and money as McGregor does no fight is ever make or break. But there is a feeling after several years of limited activity – since beating Eddie Alvarez in 2016 he has only fought Floyd Mayweather Jr in a lucrative boxing bout and Khabib – he needs to rediscover the fire that made him one of the UFC's greatest competitors. Win, lose or draw, McGregor will go again.

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    Over the past nine years or so under Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid had become that team "no one wants to play" in a knockout clash.

    Their resilience, work ethic and downright dirtiness made them arguably the toughest team to play against in Europe – not because of any particular brilliance, but because they were the embodiment of their coach on the pitch.

    That aura has somewhat diminished over the past 18 months or so, and there's no getting away from the fact this has been a testing season for Atletico and Simeone, with few giving them a chance against European champions Liverpool in the Champions League last 16.

    After finally getting past the Antoine Griezmann saga in pre-season, there had been a feeling Atletico could hit the reset button and begin a process of reinvention following signs of stagnation.

    They've done anything but. While they remain shrewd defensively, in attack Atletico are as toothless as they have ever been under Simeone, having only scored more than one other side in LaLiga's top 10.

    An anxiousness seems to have engulfed Atletico at times this term, their new-look team appearing uneasy with the pressure that accompanies their established status as favourites in almost any match.

    But on Tuesday they were transformed. For a night, the real Atletico were back, and they beat Liverpool 1-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano.

    Their start was as good as anything Atletico have produced all season. Whether they were spurred on by the raucous atmosphere inside the Wanda or some feisty pre-match words from Simeone, it's unclear.

    However, Atletico were sharper than the European champions everywhere, snapping into tackles, getting the ball forward quickly and directly, and their intensity off the ball was like the classic Atleti sides of the previous decade.

    Atletico used to be the ultimate underdog, their tirelessness, tenacity and voracious nature mirroring the ideals and mannerisms of Simeone, who prowled the touchline throughout. They were never afraid of the big occasion, and all that came flooding back even when Liverpool were on the front foot.

    A fortuitous touch off Fabinho allowed Saul Niguez to put Atletico in front after just four minutes.

    An early goal from a corner, allowing them to absorb pressure and play on the counter or wait for errors – it was about as quintessential Atletico as it gets.

    This situation should've seen them get a second goal in the 26th minute, as Virgil van Dijk's woeful defensive header was pounced on by Alvaro Morata, but after cutting inside Fabinho he could only shoot straight at Alisson from close range.

    Liverpool were short of ideas in response, their first shot coming in the 29th minute – a rather hopeless long-range effort from the right foot of Andy Robertson, and Fabinho followed suit with a similarly harmless attempt soon after.

    A Mohamed Salah shot that was crucially blocked by Felipe was the best the Reds could muster in the first half, and they fared little better after the interval and ended without a single shot on target, with Atleti's back four and hard-working front six doing a commendable job of limiting space for Liverpool to exploit.

    "The people of Atletico always wanted a competitive team, a team that was strong in defence, a team that would play on the counter-attack and be a nuisance for the super-powerful sides," Simeone once wrote in the Coaches' Voice. They certainly delivered on that against Liverpool, with Atletico's coach spending virtually the entire match on his feet, playing the role of chief cheerleader.

    Another opportunity fell to Morata on the break deep into the second half, but the much-maligned striker lost his footing at the crucial moment and he was withdrawn soon after.

    And therein lies Atletico's biggest problem – with just seven goals, Morata is their most prolific scorer in LaLiga this season and there's every chance Liverpool will make him pay for wasting his two glorious opportunities when they resume hostilities at Anfield.

    But on a night that Atletico once again reminded Europe of their status as masters of the mundane, Morata shouldn't be the focus.

    No, at a time when many have suggested change is needed at the Wanda Metropolitano, Simeone showed evidence his dynasty's destructive powers are still capable of upsetting the elite.

  • Atletico Madrid v Liverpool: How have Simeone's side toiled since Champions League challenges? Atletico Madrid v Liverpool: How have Simeone's side toiled since Champions League challenges?

    Atletico Madrid appear clear underdogs as they welcome European and world champions Liverpool to the Wanda Metropolitano this week.

    Liverpool have reached consecutive Champions League finals, winning the decider at Atleti's home last season, and are on course for a stunning record-breaking first Premier League triumph.

    Diego Simeone's Atleti have similarly been counted among Europe's elite in years past, winning LaLiga in 2013-14 as they lost the Champions League final, a continental feat that was repeated two years later.

    But the Spanish side are facing a battle just to finish in the top four in their domestic league this season.

    They face Liverpool in the Champions League last 16, hosting the first leg on Tuesday, and we use Opta data to assess just where they have fallen away ahead of this mammoth task.

     

    Steadily slowing since 2014

    Simeone has long had a reputation for setting up his side to stifle the best in Spain and across Europe, but in 2013-14 – the greatest season in their modern history – Atleti packed a punch in attack.

    The LaLiga champions scored 116 goals in their 61 matches in all competitions – 1.9 per game.

    As they returned to the Champions League final in 2015-16, Atleti netted 89 times in 57 matches (1.6 per game), while they average just 1.1 per game this term.

    Diego Costa alone scored 35 in 2013-14, and Atleti clearly lack a similarly prolific marksman right now, but their style of play in attack has also changed considerably.

    Atleti still have a similar portion of possession – 46.8 per cent in 2013-14 to 47.5 per cent this campaign – yet they were previously far more effective at launching attacks from their low block.

    A total of 108 fast breaks across their 61 matches in their best season works out at 1.8 per game. That was down to 0.4 fast breaks per game in 2015-16, and 0.5 per game in 2019-20.

    Atleti have simply become far slower and therefore easier to defend against.

     

    Alvaro Morata no marksman

    Atleti's issues would still not be quite so grave if they were taking chances with the same regularity as previously, but a study of Expected Goals (xG) provides cause for concern.

    Costa could have been expected to score 31.85 times across the 2013-14 season but instead beat that xG figure with his tally of 35.

    The ability of Simeone's side to compete again two years later was largely due to the talents of Antoine Griezmann, meanwhile, signed after the LaLiga title success.

    The France striker outperformed his xG of 18.84 by some distance with a total of 24 goals in all competitions, taking several chances he would not have been expected to score from.

    This season, Alvaro Morata is Atleti's top scorer with just eight. Worryingly, he would have been expected to score 12.85 times already.

    Joao Felix (three goals, 5.87 xG), Costa (two goals, 2.92 xG) and Vitolo (no goals, 1.62 xG) have all toiled in the final third, too, explaining Atleti's poor goals return.

     

    Defensive standards slipping

    And Atleti's problems are not just at one end of the field. Jan Oblak remains one of Europe's finest goalkeepers, but even he cannot match previous standards behind a much-changed defence.

    The Slovenia star was outstanding in 2015-16, conceding just 26 times across 51 matches, keeping 32 clean sheets and saving 82.67 per cent of shots faced on target.

    This term, Oblak has already let in 22 goals in just 31 games, with his save percentage 76.84

    Where Atleti could have expected to concede 45.31 goals four seasons ago and allowed just 31, the margins have slimmed considerably: 27.5 xG conceded versus 24 conceded in 2019-20.

    Just as Atleti have not effectively replaced Griezmann in attack, they look to be feeling the losses of Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez and Filipe Luis in defence, with Oblak unable to stem the tide.

    Liverpool's all-star attack can now fancy their chances against a previously stingy back line.

  • Hazard bolsters Zidane's old guard but Madrid stumble Hazard bolsters Zidane's old guard but Madrid stumble

    Real Madrid's most memorable attacking moment during the first half of their title-race twisting 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo was Sergio Ramos launching into one of his driving runs in search of a goal, only to volley the ball into his own face when it arrived.

    This botched attack had a claim beyond slapstick, given Zinedine Zidane's LaLiga leaders failed to muster a single shot on target before the break.

    Indeed, there was nothing remotely as incisive from an forward line featuring Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale as the move Celta produced for their seventh-minute opener – Iago Aspas shifting smoothly into a pocket of space in front of a ramshackle Madrid defence and threading a perfect pass for Fedor Smolov to coolly slot home.

    Hazard was making his first appearance since suffering a fractured ankle in November and, shortly after Ramos' party piece, showed signs of starting to shift through the gears.

    In the 40th minute, Karim Benzema pulled out to the left channel and Hazard scampered around the outside, pulling the ball back from the byline for the on-rushing Bale to fire narrowly over.

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    On this evidence, however, Hazard and Bale are playing for one spot. The ever-dependable Benzema is a guaranteed starter, fitness permitting, and Los Blancos missed the benched Vinicius Jr's dynamism for much of Sunday's contest.

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    Toni Kroos' midfield scheming is not annotated with goals too frequently, but he dispatched Marcelo's pass to score for the sixth time against Celta. He has 14 LaLiga goals overall since joining Madrid from Bayern Munich in 2014.

    Ramos is, by comparison, somewhat more prolific from centre-back. A smart finish from an offside position showed his radar to be back in order following the earlier mishap and there was little doubt about the outcome when he stepped up for a 65th-minute penalty.

    Ruben Blanco erred badly when Benzema and Hazard repeated their first-half link, with the Celta goalkeeper darting from his ground to needlessly bring the Belgium star down.

    Blanco guessed correctly but Ramos' sprung from his staggered run-up to dispatch an unerring strike.

    Hazard made way for Vinicius in the 73rd minute and enjoyed a warm ovation from the Bernabeu faithful – the sort of reception that sadly only seems to exist in the past tense for Bale nowadays.

    As for the other grizzled survivors of Zidane's three consecutive Champions League final triumphs from 2016 through to 2018, they remain his dependables.

    They will be asked to go to the well once more the next time Madrid emerge at their famous home ground, faced with a formidable but flawed City in a competition they know like the back of their hand.

    It would be a brave person who backs against them but the sight of Celta producing a sting in the tail suggested the years could be taking a toll.

    Substitutes Denis Suarez and Santi Mina combined as Aspas and Smolov had before for the latter to score – the lines of communication between Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane in the backline again appearing unhelpfully clogged.

    The lead at the top of LaLiga from Barcelona was only a point at full-time, a situation roughly as comfortable as booting a football into your own face.

    Of course, Ramos tumbled theatrically in stoppage time to try and win another penalty and Madrid will strain and scrap for everything until the end of the season. With 46 goals from 24 LaLiga games, don't expect them to blow too many teams away either. The Galactico grind is on.

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