When is Conor McGregor coming back? UFC return date as ‘The Notorious’ plots next fight

For a man who is as obsessed with attention as money, MMA megastar Conor McGregor must be thrilled with the evident anticipation surrounding his potential UFC comeback.

McGregor remains the greatest would-be ticket-seller for the sport’s most high-profile promotion despite a hiatus from the cage that has now lasted more than 17 months.

Rumors have repeatedly been rife about the 34-year-old’s plans, driven by McGregor’s prolific and provocative approach to his hugely popular social media channels.

What’s the latest on the two-weight champion’s future? Why has he been out for so long and what does he need to do to be able to fight again? Here’s what we know.

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What happened to Conor McGregor?

Few MMA fans will need reintroducing to McGregor’s record. Having been featherweight and lightweight champion for the Cage Warriors banner as he made his name in the professional ranks, McGregor repeated the two-weight feat in the UFC, where his rise to become the world’s best-known MMA fighter owed as much to his wild antics away from the canvas as he did his achievements under the lights.

McGregor switched to boxing to face Floyd Mayweather in August 2017, losing in the 10th round of one of the most lucrative fights and savage displays of smack-talking of all time.

An incendiary defeat to modern great Khabib Nurmagomedov followed on his UFC return, as well as a first-round knockout of Donald Cerrone in January 2020 before McGregor spent more than a year away from the sport.

Dustin Poirier, who McGregor had comfortably beaten at the start of his UFC career, surprisingly avenged his knockout defeat to the Irishman in January 2021, but it was McGregor’s own shot at revenge that led to his current inertia.

When the pair met again that July, McGregor agonizingly broke his left tibia and fibular in the first round and needed to be carried from the cage on a stretcher. It was a spectacular end to the latest unpredictable chapter in his career — just not in the way McGregor might have expected.

Has Conor McGregor retired from MMA?

In a series of posts on Twitter in August 2022, McGregor teased his official absence from the octagon by saying: “MMA, I’ll never forget you! Easy work.”

That tweet came after McGregor secured a role in the modern remake of the film ‘Road House’ alongside Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

A few hours later, McGregor quoted the film ‘Titanic’ by saying “I’ll never let go, Jack!” — a likely reference to MMA.

Sharing photos of himself with Arnold Schwarzenegger, McGregor later tweeted: “I’ll be back! For the sake of mankind! I must return! Happy birthday my man, Schwarzenegger! Hope you… are proud of my recovery and work and my latest move on the board. Fun times ahead — bring it.”

This was not the first time McGregor had teased his departure from MMA. In 2016, McGregor announced his retirement before a rematch with Nate Diaz, having been in trouble with the UFC after no-showing a media event.

That retirement would only last one day, but McGregor threatened to quit again in March 2019 when he responded to action taken over a massive brawl that broke out inside and outside the octagon following his submission loss to Nurmagomedov.

McGregor was suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for his part in the wild situation. At the time, UFC president Dana White indicated McGregor’s retirement was a result of him wanting to secure an ownership stake in the UFC. McGregor was also dealing with multiple legal issues at the time.

McGregor once again stole the spotlight when he made another retirement post following UFC 250 in 2020, having just beaten Cerrone to start the year.

At the time, McGregor wanted to wait to see how a fight between Nurmagomedov and then-interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje went. Negotiations fell flat.

After private messages between McGregor and White were shared on social media, McGregor decided to use an all-too-familiar tactic: fake retirement.

Conor McGregor’s recovery from injury

Since sustaining his gruesome injury against Poirier, McGregor has repeatedly portrayed himself carrying out rehabilitation work in the gym.

At the end of 2022, McGregor seemed characteristically keen to show off his hulking physique to his Instagram following of more than 46 million, accompanying one shirtless photo by bragging: “If Schwarzenegger and Bruce Lee had a mad Irish baby.”

One sparring clip showed McGregor being attacked by an opponent to the left leg that had been so badly damaged during the debacle of his previous fight.

“S*** hot everywhere,” McGregor added by way of analysis of his abilities. “The real [greatest of all time]. There’s not a place I’m not great. Some of yours [best ever fighters] can’t even kick.”

McGregor pronounced himself as “back”. As well as his move into acting, however, McGregor has spent much of his time building his brand as a businessman during his time out of competitive action, rarely missing an opportunity to promote the Proper Twelve whiskey brand, which is thought to have made him worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

When is Conor McGregor coming back?

White spoke in June 2022 of his hope that his most marketable fighter might return by the end of that year or early 2023.

With that timeframe shelved, another potential issue was the requirement for UFC athletes to be enrolled in the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) drug testing program for at least six months before fighting.

When it materialized that McGregor had withdrawn from the program as part of his recovery and had been the only UFC fighter not to have been tested in 2022, light-heavyweight contestant Anthony Smith said the issue “bothered the f***” out of him .

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“There’s only one reason you would do that,” Smith told MMA Junkie about McGregor’s withdrawal. “He’s looking jacked as s***.

“You keep seeing videos of him flexing in front of mirrors and screaming and he’s huge. He healed really fast. Like, really fast.”

McGregor responded fiercely to Smith, insisting that withdrawing had been a necessary “allowance” for him to recover from his “horrific” injuries.

“He, like many other rats in my game, would be happier if I wasn’t able to play with my children the same again,” said McGregor. “I am the most tested fighter [of] all time in combat sports. I give everything to this game.”

In December 2022, USADA clarified their position following TJ Dillashaw’s withdrawal from the program as the fighter recovered from a shoulder injury.

“In the event of an athlete’s return to the UFC from retirement, they are required to remain in the USADA testing pool for six months before they are permitted to compete,” USADA said.

That would rule McGregor out of competing until July — but there appears to be a loophole.

“The UFC may grant exemption to the six-month written notice rule in exceptional circumstances or where the strict application of that rule would manifestly (be) unfair to the athlete,” USADA added.

“But in both cases, the athlete must provide at least two negative samples before returning to competition.

“Upon being added to the UFC Anti-Doping Program, athletes are also required to declare prohibited substances they have used in the previous 12 months, prior to being in USADA’s testing program.

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“An athlete who makes such a declaration, depending on the substance, will be required to refrain from competition for a period of at least six months and provide at least two negative samples to ensure that they do not compete in a UFC bout with a performance advantage.”

In a swiftly deleted tweet — one of the ploys McGregor enjoys using to fuel controversy — the fighter known as ‘The Notorious’ said the following day: “I changed the game once again — hahaha.”

That was interpreted by some as a reaction to USADA’s apparent rule amendment. It appears to mean that McGregor’s return is at the UFC’s discretion, as long as he can return two negative drug test samples.

Conor McGregor next fight

Assuming that McGregor resurfaces in the UFC in 2023, the identity of his next opponent will be a curiosity for fans.

Former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler has previously been named by White as an option for McGregor.

American Chandler has had a mixed run since joining the UFC in January 2021, with his three defeats in five fights comprising losses to Charles Oliveira — whom he challenged for the interim lightweight title — Justin Gaethje, and Poirier.

Islam Makhachev is the new lightweight champion after dethroning Oliveira in October 2022, and an unlikely fight against the stablemate and friend of the retired Nurmagomedov would be a huge risk for McGregor.

A bout with Oliveira would be more plausible, and a trilogy scrap against Diaz, with whom McGregor traded wins in 2016, could also make sense.

Diaz and McGregor attempted to antagonize each other to fan-pleasing effect in the build-up to their first two fights and, at 37 and without a ranking inside the top 15, McGregor may see Diaz as a more beatable opponent on his return.

There will be a question about the weight at which McGregor will compete. The ‘champ-champ’ made a recent post alluding to his ability to operate at lightweight or welterweight, and he would probably compete in the latter class if he faced Diaz.

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