UFC

McGregor wants Sanchez in return

Diego Sanchez and Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor wants a piece of Diego Sanchez in his next UFC fight.
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Mike Chiappetta

Mike Chiappetta has documented the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts since 2006 for news organizations including SB Nation, NBCSports.com, FIGHT! Magazine, AOL and ESPN. He appears regularly as an analyst on countless television shows and radio programs, including CBS Radio and MMA Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

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MANCHESTER, ENGLAND

One-and-a-half months after surgery to address a torn ACL and meniscus tear in his left knee, Conor McGregor comes bounding into a room awaiting his arrival. He has no limp, no brace, no noticeable sign that he is nursing an injury that sidetracks most athletes for up to a year. He is wearing a blue suit with a blue and red checkerboard shirt, a polka-dot tie and pocket square. His mustache is upturned into a handlebar. His beard is full. It is 11 am and he must be the most energetic man in the country.

He takes his place at the front of the room, and takes a picture of the assembled media before he seizes control of the proceedings.

For the next 25 minutes, he will hold court, answering questions about his knee, his return and the attention that seems to follow his every move. Some can't get enough. Others already complain of overexposure. This for a man who has fought all of two times in the UFC octagon.

First things first. His knee is doing well. He's far ahead of schedule in his recovery. He spends five hours a day, 5-6 days a week on rehab. He can cycle, half-squat, even balance on one leg. Within days, he'll start using elliptical equipment. A week after that, he'll be running on an anti-gravity treadmill. He's measuring his return against the 11-month timeline set by UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who had the same procedure and rehabbed at the same facilities. To him, it's a contest, and one he plans to win.

If all goes well, he'd like to fight in April or May, just eight months after going under the knife. After all, there’s work to be done.

"There’s a lot of ass whuppings to be handed out. There’s a lot of people talking some stuff. It’s great,” he said. “That’s the beautiful thing about this game. We can say whatever we want but at the end of the day we have to fight, and that's a beautiful thing. Who would I like on my way back? I think I'd like Diego Sanchez at 155. I think I want a 155er. I was talking to [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby last night. He wants me to focus on 145, but Diego Sanchez keeps talking s---. And plus, it’s an easy fight. I like easy money. It’s my favorite."

Diego Sanchez? The guy who just fought in a match that many, perhaps most, consider the fight of the year? The guy who has only been stopped once in 30 fights, and only due to a cut? An easy fight?

"I’m too defensively intelligent," he said. "I’m too smooth. I’ll tell you right now he wouldn’t hit me once. I wouldn’t allow him one shot. Gil made him miss and capitalized, but I’m a little more clinical. He would hit air and hit the floor, trust me on that. Plus, the guy’s about two punches away from ... He’s slurring his speech. I’m worried about the guy. Before I fight the guy I want to see his medical reports. I don’t want to be the guy leaving him getting fed to a tube and wearing a nappy for the rest of his life. Like I said, it’s easy money, and money’s my favorite."

These are the kinds of words that have made McGregor such a polarizing figure. On one hand, he's bold enough to say what he really thinks, damn the critics. On the other, there's little question that his words can be seen as disrespectful to a fellow fighter, let alone one who helped pave the path for UFC’s success. But that's the world he's living in now, where everything he says is scrutinized and analyzed.

He learned that recently when a sexually explicit tweet that involved Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate drew fire and eventually led him to issue an apology, saying he meant it as a joke.

He admits that he is still adjusting to all of the newfound fame and attention, and that it's the one part of life he couldn't quite prepare for.

"It's a little bit scary that people look at me like a role model," he said. "I don't think I'm that kind of guy. I sit back and think to myself, like with all that stuff on Twitter, I have to realize that there are a lot of kids looking up to me from my nation. I need to handle myself a little bit better. But sometimes that spooks me out. I'm only 25. I'm only a little kid from Crumlin in Dublin. A little small estate in Crumlin and so to be here and all this kind of going on, sometimes it’s a little bit overwhelming. But even though this is overwhelming, shut the door, ring the bell and no one does it better than me. No one is more calm, composed, collected than me."

And that's the day he's waiting for again. All that time between now and then? That's the hard part. McGregor admits he's "probably fighting depression" daily when watching fights or reading up on the latest news. He wants to get back in. He needs to get back in.

Even though he's in a hurry to return, he's emphasizes that he’s not going to rush. He is listening to the people directing his rehabilitation, and pushing himself just as far as they'll let him go. But he can visualize the day when he makes the walk back to the UFC cage. That's what's always pushed him, making the improbable a reality.

That mindset was pushed forward by a recent, chance meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose story McGregor has long admired.

"Came over, couldn’t speak a lick of English and ended up running the town. Same as me," he said. "A lot of people can’t understand what I’m about, but I’m going to run this town."

A few moments later, he was done. He adjusted his tie and sport coat, shook hands with his interviewers, and bounded out with the same energy he’d walked in with. You could hear his voice bouncing off walls as he left, announcing his exit to some, his arrival to everyone else in England.

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