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Just like that, Conor McGregor is back in control

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McGregor breaks down TKO win over Cerrone (2:07)

Conor McGregor tells Ariel Helwani that his hard work paid off against Donald Cerrone, then breaks down the wild start to the fight. (2:07)

When Conor McGregor stepped into the Octagon on Saturday night, it had been 1,163 days since he had last felt the exhilaration of having his arm raised in victory.

Add just 40 seconds to that, and the dry spell was over.

McGregor has always operated in style, from his callouts, to his fights, to even his walkouts. That did not change on this night, but this time he did all of it joyfully. Fist-bumping with Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone upon entering the cage. Kissing him on the forehead when the fighting was over.

In between were just those few seconds of combat, enough time for Cerrone to be bloodied by a succession of shoulder strikes and staggered by a head kick. When Cowboy collapsed against the cage and covered up, half a minute in, the UFC 246 main event was essentially over. Referee Herb Dean could have jumped in right there, but he gave the 36-year-old a few seconds to see if he could recover. He couldn't.

Conor McGregor had his first victory since Nov. 12, 2016, the night he became the first fighter in UFC history to own championships in two divisions simultaneously.

Since then, he had fought just twice: a TKO loss in a boxing ring to Floyd Mayweather in 2017 and, the following year, a tapout to lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov.

But this 40-second TKO got McGregor back on course for what by the end of the night felt kind of like a three-fight winning streak.

Let's jump right to what we'll call the second of those victories, because if that one didn't come to be, nothing else would matter. His quick finish of Cerrone was efficient, even if he missed the big left hand he launched right off the bat. Cerrone ducked under that one and locked up a clinch, but he immediately paid for it with four shoulder strikes to the face. A little innovation from McGregor.

"I changed levels with it and come up into it," he said. "So it's a good shot."

When the fighters broke apart, Cerrone unleashed one of the head kicks he's long been known for. He has the most head-kick KOs in UFC history. McGregor was very much aware of that -- he mentioned the record in his postfight interview -- and that had him prepared to dodge what was thrown his way. Immediately McGregor sent back a head kick of his own. His did not miss.

Once he had Cerrone hurt with his vaunted power, McGregor's no-less-vaunted precision took over to finish the job.

It was a short night's work by all appearances, but it really started long before this night had even begun. The first victory in McGregor's comeback was his devotion to preparing for this fight. Throughout training camp as well as fight week in Las Vegas, McGregor put in hard work, resuscitating his career and public persona.

This was essential. His combat losses were understandable -- who beats Floyd (50-0) or Khabib (28-0) anyway? But outside of competition, the Irishman had been on a downward spiral of ugly incidents: lashing out at fighters on a bus, a fan snapping a picture, even a guy in a Dublin pub just trying to enjoy a pint. More serious than all of those, there have been two reports of sexual assault allegations.

But in the lead-up to UFC 246, McGregor was rejuvenated and upbeat. He approached his fight with Cerrone like an athletic contest, not a war, as he had with Nurmagomedov and Jose Aldo before him.

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1:43

White compares a potential McGregor-Khabib 2 to Ali-Frazier

Dana White gives his assurance that Conor McGregor will get a rematch against Khabib Nurmagomedov following McGregor's TKO over Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

McGregor's refreshing new approach, in itself, was a victory. And a big one if he can sustain it moving forward.

Then, after the fight went about as well as it possibly could have for him, McGregor scored another win by going to work in the place where he shines like no one else: at the microphone.

"We made history here tonight," he said. "I set another record. I'm the first fighter in UFC history to secure knockout victories at featherweight, at lightweight and now at welterweight. First at three weight divisions. So I'm very, very proud of that."

McGregor sounded almost humbled, lauding his team and thanking the fans for their support. When he got around to talking about his future, he didn't make a specific callout, though he said he feels good at welterweight. He then digressed to make a disparaging reference to the BMF belt the UFC awarded 170-pounder Jorge Masvidal in November.

"The UFC, they can strip fighters and give other fighters make-believe belts in order to replicate my champ-champ status," said McGregor, who was stripped of both his 145-pound and 155-pound belts for not defending either. "But they can't give knockout victories across multiple weight divisions. So there you go again. Making history one more time."

It was about as venomous as McGregor would get on this night -- far milder than what fans became used to from him in the past few years. The same was true when he put every lightweight and middleweight on blast.

"And every one of these mouthy fools can get it, even the fool at the desk," he said, presumably referring to lightweight Paul Felder, who was working the broadcast.

When he's ready to make his next move, McGregor will get the fight he wants. The UFC doesn't hate money.

Masvidal got the closest thing to a callout, and maybe he'll be next, but ultimately all roads will lead to Nurmagomedov. It's in McGregor's nature to crave the rematch. When he tapped out to a Nate Diaz rear-naked choke in 2016, McGregor graciously accepted defeat without humiliation or excuses. Immediately, he put all of his leverage with the UFC -- and there was plenty, with him being the promotion's top money-maker -- toward booking a rematch. He didn't just want it. He needed it.

One might think McGregor would have less leverage in this instance, with Nurmagomedov being the champion and their first meeting being such a beatdown. But UFC president Dana White has gone on record saying a victory over Cerrone would make McGregor the next challenger for the belt.

Wouldn't it be better, though, if McGregor earned the title shot? He seems willing to put in the work, saying in the lead-up to Saturday's fight that he's approaching 2020 as "a season." Another win, particularly at lightweight, would put him in position for his coveted second challenge of Nurmagomedov.

Then again, come April 18, should Tony Ferguson wrest the belt away from Nurmagomedov, that would change the whole 155-pound scenario. But given the choice between a belt-wearing Ferguson and a dethroned Nurmagomedov, I believe McGregor would still opt for a meeting with the Dagestani fighter. That mauling defeat in 2018 still irks him, and his drive to get that one back is powerful.

Should McGregor, 31, get that second dance, it will be a test for the Irishman that extends beyond the cage. Early in his career, McGregor elevated his game on the strength of discipline and poise. He's lost touch with those traits in the past few years. But the traits do remain inside him. We saw them during the lead-up to UFC 246, ahead of his bout with his handpicked opponent.

This was a matchup the old Conor surely would not have stood for. It was not the audacious opponent choice we once came to expect. During McGregor's rise, he was forever pointing to the biggest and baddest fighters he saw, viewing them as the express lane to where he wanted to be. This time he chose Cerrone, who was coming off two straight knockout losses and is pushing 37. Had McGregor continued to follow his old path, he would have spent Saturday in the cage with Justin Gaethje, last seen destroying Cowboy in the first round.

It wasn't that McGregor was afraid of Gaethje, who has notched three consecutive first-round finishes. His reasoning for picking Cerrone was simple: Conor liked how Cowboy campaigned for the fight. Whereas Gaethje had gone on attack on social media, Cerrone had playfully tweeted out a photo of a bottle of McGregor's whiskey brand next to a bottle of Cowboy's beer of choice. McGregor took notice.

"To have a bit of respect," he said during an ESPN interview, "I appreciate that."

Saturday showed how special McGregor can be when he's not entrenched in acrimony. If this win leads to a showdown with Gaethje or Masvidal or even Nurmagomedov, none of whom will play nice like Cowboy did, we'll see if McGregor can maintain the poise that allows him to perform at his best. He admitted in a recent interview that some of his prefight taunting of Nurmagomedov in 2018 maybe crossed the line of decency, and he said he learned from the experience and is more mature now. Nice words. Can he live them?

McGregor need not always shake hands and exchange compliments with his opponent during fight week, as he did with Cerrone. It's OK for him to unleash a barb or two, à la the "Who the f--- is that guy?" that made Jeremy Stephens a meme. McGregor is a master of the mental game, defeating some opponents before the first punch is thrown. But he has to have the discipline to know not to unleash a low blow.

The guy we saw on Saturday night appears ready to make a run back toward the top of the sport. He also appears ready to take on the inner fight. He might not be the old McGregor or a new Conor, but will he prove to be the real Conor McGregor? There's no guarantee that a McGregor who adheres to standards of decency in his actions will have what it takes to reach the heights he once achieved. But it's worth finding out, for the good of the man, his family and the sport he has helped build.