Conor McGregor doesn't owe anybody anything.
He doesn't owe the UFC. The promotion has earned quite a few dollars on McGregor's back. Ditto the sport itself, which sees vertical spikes in its trend lines every time he competes.
He doesn't owe you or me. There's a good chance we will be entertained regardless.
And he certainly doesn't owe his bank accounts, which are bursting at the seams like Derrick Lewis' shorts on the Sunday after a loss or something. I don't know.
He may, however, owe his legacy. That's not a small thing. And it's not something an athlete has infinite chances to shape or revise. He's not the first great fighter to expend substantial chunks of his prime chasing butterflies instead of tilling a straight furrow through his fields. He won't be the last, either.
Would you rather knuckle down in training or create your own brand of whiskey?
Nevertheless, McGregor has a passionate devotion to his fighting legacy. All the things he is engaged in, including two recent splashy social media salvos, are steering him away from that legacy. If he wants to steer back toward it—and toward those things that made him famous in the first place—he has one option: run headlong toward the rematch with Khabib Nurmagomedov.
As everyone knows, in October, McGregor lost a drama-filled grudge match with the Dagestani. The Nevada State Athletic Commission's suspensions, stemming from the post-fight crowd brawl, are still in force; the tentative hearing date, which has been delayed before, is January 29.
In early January, UFC honcho Dana White told TMZ Sports the McGregor-Nurmagomedov rematch could happen this year, assuming the fighters can resolve their disciplinary issues, stay healthy and what have you (h/t The Independent).
But there's a catch here. A couple of catches.
First, it's not a slam dunk that UFC officials will book an immediate rematch. Either McGregor or Nurmagomedov, the UFC lightweight champion, could be paired with a few worthy challengers, including Tony Ferguson, Dustin Poirier or Max Holloway, the featherweight champ who could move up to 155 pounds for a McGregor rematch (Conor won that bout back in 2013).
Second, McGregor is bent on getting what he believes is fair compensation—and, by extension, respect—from the UFC, which he has indicated is difficult to come by, even for him. Given the UFC's well-known hesitance to pay fighters what would generally be considered wages commensurate with their earning power, call this one a push, but it could be thorny.
McGregor doesn't seem like a particularly patient person, especially these days. He doesn't exactly fit the profile of a "let's sit back and let this thing play out" kind of guy. Being made to wait may be giving him a little case of the wandering MMA eye, pulling him away from the process he would need to work in order to make the big rematch materialize.
Case in point was his social media challenge Monday to Japanese kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa. You may remember Nasukawa as the charismatic and talented young kickboxer who got himself washed by Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a special exhibition on New Year's Eve.
McGregor decided he wanted a piece of that action too, calling for his own exhibition with the 20-year-old. This comes, as everyone knows, after a hugely hyped boxing match between McGregor and Mayweather that ate up all of McGregor's 2017 before ending in a TKO loss and a speculated payday north of $100 million.
Fast forward one whole day, when McGregor went in on superstar trainer Firas Zahabi for having the temerity to predict Holloway would defeat McGregor were they to fight again.
It is unclear whether Holloway would leave the 145-pound division and his championship there, and it's unlikely McGregor would go back to featherweight. As great of a rematch as this would be, it would have the feeling of a one-off or superfight and may not be the springboard to Nurmagomedov that McGregor might need.
Now take into account Proper No. Twelve, and it's clear McGregor is a pretty distracted guy, at least in the context of his MMA career.
It's not unreasonable to think McGregor could compel the UFC into a quicker Nurmagomedov rematch if it was something he was focused on. He's a powerful guy. Remember that loss to Nate Diaz? McGregor was so laser-focused on avenging the defeat that the UFC turned it around in five months.
Avenge the loss he did. Perhaps that's another part of this too. There are no deeper waters than Nurmagomedov's wrestling, no ground-and-pound more sadistic. McGregor is a brilliant striker and not a terrible grappler, but his technical blueprint to defeat Nurmagomedov is more challenging than ever and absolutely a taller task than what he faced in Diaz.
It's unrealistic, even unwise, to suggest that McGregor could or should abandon the carnival atmosphere that surrounds his life. It's his charisma. It's what makes him fun. But if he wants to continue building his legacy in MMA, that thing that allowed him to set the foundations for his success in the first place, he should channel all that energy and brilliance into doing whatever it takes to put himself back in the cage with the real foil of his fight career.
To be frank, the sport and the fans need him. MMA is becoming a slog to follow, with the ever-quickening barrage of nondescript cards demanding an endless sacrifice of Saturday nights. McGregor owes us nothing. But that doesn't make the need any less true.
When it's time to hang it up, many athletes in MMA and elsewhere—but it seems especially in MMA—mention the cheer of the crowds when asked what they will miss most. It may be the hardest thing to get back once it's gone.
McGregor's decision to hurl himself toward the biggest challenge he's likely to ever face, with all that candor and humor and determination and visualization and marvelous Conor McGregorness we all know so well, would be the best thing for us and the for him, and it would leave people cheering for a long time to come.
Scott Harris covers combat sports and other things for Bleacher Report.