Dana White says he's trying to lock Conor McGregor in for his UFC return ... THIS YEAR ... telling TMZ Sports both sides are trying to make it work.
The UFC honcho was out in NYC promoting UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden when we asked about the return of the biggest MMA star on the planet.
Dana says his camp is talking with Conor and they want to make a fight before Dec. 31 -- which would be AWESOME.
What's not awesome ... Conor used a homophobic slur during a UFC event last month -- referring to a fighter as the homophobic F-word.
Conor has since apologized -- and White told us the use of the word is a problem in his sport that he wants to address and correct, ASAP.