Once upon a time, to consider an MMA ecology that did not revolve around Conor McGregor seemed unfathomable.
The Irishman’s meteoric ascent through the UFC ranks climaxed in his crowning as the promotion’s first ever reigning two-belt world champion in 2016 as he stopped Eddie Alvarez in style at UFC 205 to add the lightweight strap to his featherweight title.
But since then, ‘The Notorious’ has fought once.
A bitter feud with lightweight rival Khabib Nurmagomedov ended in McGregor’s emphatic defeat as he was submitted in the fourth round during a doomed attempt to reclaim his lightweight throne at UFC 229.
Another lengthy hiatus has since followed and, when he does step foot in the Octagon once again, it will mark only his second appearance in 1,152 days; a period of three years, one month and 27 days to be exact.
In his absence, UFC fans have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of superstars; fighters like Nurmagomedov, pound-for-pound king Jon Jones and middleweight champion Israel Adesanya have filled the void left behind by the charismatic Dubliner.
Adesanya made his debut in the promotion just eight months before McGregor’s loss to Khabib and since then, the Nigerian-born New Zealander has conquered a stacked middleweight division and sold out Australia’s Marvel Stadium to break the UFC’s four-year old attendance record.
A charismatic personality with an aura of affable arrogance, Adesanya’s growth in particular appears to have helped fans move on from McGregor-mania – but Conor has done himself no favours on that front either.
The 31-year-old has repeatedly made headlines for his behaviour outside the Octagon; from bar brawls to bus attacks and all manner of unsavoury allegations beyond that, even the staunchest McGregor supporters have been forced to reckon with their hero’s fall from grace.
In nearly seven years on the UFC roster, it is hard to imagine a point at which his stock has fallen as low – which is exactly why the stage is so perfectly set for a comeback.
The noises coming from McGregor’s training camp should be music to the ears of his remaining fans with both striking coach Owen Roddy and head coach John Kavanagh teasing a refreshed and revitalised version of their long-time pupil.
“The last camp was just a bit sporadic,” Roddy admitted recently during an appearance on MMA Fighting’s Eurobash podcast.
“We didn’t know what time we were training at. Sometimes it was very late at night, sometimes it was early in the morning and nobody really knew. Even though we were making all of these sessions, I don’t think that’s good for you when he doesn’t even know what time he’s going to train at, just doing it off feel. For the past couple of months it’s been very regimented.
“We’re training at 11 and 7 every day. We’re doing strength and conditioning, whether it’s in the morning or evening, and then doing a technical session and it’s perfect. And you can see that’s reaping the benefits and rewards already from that.
“As I said, he’s been working on his strength and conditioning for a while before he even came into this camp, so now we’re not spending half the camp trying to get in shape or anything like that. Now, he’s in tip-top shape and now we’re just focusing on the game plan – coming up with a good game plan and going in and executing it.”
Kavanagh echoed his words at the turn of the year, writing on Twitter: “Jan 1st, last heavy spar today before going to Vegas.
“Can honestly say this is the best I’ve seen him and I wasn't sure that was possible to do 6 months ago.
“You guys are in for a real treat, I’m just glad to have a good seat!”
While you’d be hard-pressed to find a coach who would say anything different in the build-up to such a critical fight, a selfie shared by McGregor on Instagram earlier this month showed evidence of his renewed dedication in the gym.
It showed the former featherweight king sporting a long beard looking every inch a welterweight with a suitably imposing torso proudly on show.
Discussing his decision to return at 170lb rather than his native lightweight, McGregor revealed he was looking to avoid draining his body needlessly with one eye on the upcoming 155lb title fight between Khabib and Tony Ferguson in April.
If victorious McGregor will be on standby to slot in should either fighter be forced to withdraw from the scheduled contest at UFC 249.
“The lightweight title fight is in April or March, likely something will happen there and I will be ready to slot in for that bout,” he told The Mac Life.
“I’ll just have a fight, a good solid camp at 170lbs with no weight cut. A good fight. I know Donald is a good fighter; great records.
“The most knockdowns, the most head kicks, the most fights, the most rounds. He’s got a lot of UFC records under his belt. I’ll get a great camp, a great name and it’ll take me into the year.
“I’m looking at this as a season. This is the beginning of the season. Donald is the first I agreed to have a bout with and here we are.”
If Khabib proved to be Conor’s kryptonite at UFC 229, he might well be matched with the perfect dance partner in Cowboy Cerrone at UFC 246.
The beloved veteran has endeared himself to MMA fans over the past decade thanks to his allergy to inactivity – at times, even to his own detriment – and his devil-may-care demeanour.
At 36, Cowboy is approaching the twilight of a storied career that has seen him compete among the elite in both the lightweight and welterweight divisions.
However he remains a worthy opponent to McGregor and holds countless records that attest to his fabled striking ability.
He comes into the bout on the back of successive losses but as McGregor alluded, to write the Denver native off would be a fatal mistake.
There are lessons McGregor could learn from his rival.
Cowboy’s insatiable desire to compete should be an inspiration to McGregor who, if he is serious about returning to re-establish his place among the promotion’s elite, must stop wasting the peak years of his physical ability.
Another loss on the Irishman’s record however, and inactivity might be the only palatable option left on the table.
Can Cowboy Cerrone inflict a shock in Las Vegas – or will Conor McGregor deliver a timely reminder of his once-mythical talent?
Watch UFC 246: Cowboy v McGregor at 1am on Saturday 18 January, exclusively live on BT Sport Box Office HD. Click here for more details.