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How defeat has changed UFC's Conor McGregor ... or has it

Last March, he laughed at his opponent and ordered him to get coffee.

He dressed like a dandy in a colorful suit and bow tie. Conor McGregor was the heavy favorite to beat Nate Diaz at UFC 196, even though he gained 25 pounds to move up from featherweight to welterweight.

Instead, he submitted to Diaz in the second round. It was a stunning defeat.

Five months later, McGregor was back in Las Vegas doing interviews, but this time he spoke quietly and wore a polo shirt. He appeared humble and seething at the same time. "I'm simply relaxed, calm, focused," he told CNBC. "I'm looking forward to going in and fighting this man and putting this right."

Conor McGregor arrives at a UFC 202 mixed martial arts news conference, Thursday, July 7, 2016, in Las Vegas. McGregor is scheduled to fight Nate Diaz at UFC 202 in Las Vegas.
John Locher | AP
Conor McGregor arrives at a UFC 202 mixed martial arts news conference, Thursday, July 7, 2016, in Las Vegas. McGregor is scheduled to fight Nate Diaz at UFC 202 in Las Vegas.

McGregor is still the favorite in Saturday's rematch at UFC 202, but only by a slim margin, and for all his new-found calm, tempers flared again this week in Sin City. McGregor showed up a half hour late to a news conference Wednesday, and Diaz stormed out. F-bombs flew between the two opponents, and soon bottles and cans were flying.

But a lot has changed for the UFC since March. Last month, talent agency WME-IMG bought the league for an astounding $4 billion, the most ever paid for any sports franchise. There were weeks of drama after McGregor tweeted he was retiring, then he made up with UFC President Dana White only to be abruptly pulled from a rematch with Diaz at UFC 200 for refusing the rigorous media obligations.

"They were trying to drag me left and right, and I simply wanted to train," he said. "I felt like I'd earned the right."

The 28-year-old Irishman blames the fallout with White on "a lack of communication," and said that now "I'm very happy, it's been perfect." GQ reports McGregor has spent weeks at a self-funded $300,000 training camp in Vegas with several sparring partners. "We've prepared for war," he told CNBC.

He also said the new management team at the UFC has pretty much left him alone. "In 2015, it's me bringing all these numbers, breaking all these records, and then early 2016, it sold for $4 billion. You've got to understand that I had a big role in that price tag." Have the new owners shown their appreciation? "They most certainly will."

How much will he be paid this time? In March, McGregor famously revealed to CNBC he would "breeze past" $10 million once he got his cut of pay-per-view revenues. The league is hoping UFC 202 will bring in even more PPV money, even as ESPN reports some tickets to the actual event are going unsold inside the new T-Mobile Arena. "I don't show up for a fight for a reduction, so most certainly I will make more money for this fight," he told us.

At the same time, McGregor suspects the crowd in Vegas will be hostile. Fewer fans from Ireland are making the trip. "There are many reasons why a lot of the Irish couldn't make it this time," McGregor said. "I mean, the (UFC) 200 debacle, when I was pulled from the card at the last minute when many of my fans back home had purchased tickets. Then the European championships, then the Olympics. It's been a busy summer."

McGregor said losing to Diaz has not injured him financially outside the Octagon. His image still pops up on advertisements around Dublin. "As long as you show up, fight, compete, perform, bring in the numbers, the fans respect that, everyone respects that."

Whatever happens Saturday, McGregor stands out as a success story in a sport where he admitted, "It's very hard to get out of this game alive. Nobody exits the game unscathed."

So when asked about a new effort to unionize UFC fighters, McGregor said he might consider getting involved. "If it is presented correctly to me, maybe I will help spearhead something like that, but right now I'm focused on the McGregor business, and that is UFC 202 this Saturday."