From dole queue to prime time, a lot of Irish twentysomethings can relate to the former if not the latter. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) sensation Conor McGregor explains the fairytale transition from one to the other.
A giddy, teenage voice crackles and is blown out across the car park.
“Ma, ma, that’s your man from the telly isn’t it?” Conor McGregor turns, momentarily dazed, looking for someone else to take those words on the chin before he remembers his appearance on The Late Late Show and the world he’s now moved in to. Yet his initial reaction is completely understandable. After all, as recently as last month the only strangers who bellowed out at him were those behind the counter in the Clondalkin social welfare office as they called “next” in his direction.
So this is the guy everyone is talking about. The fighter. The hipster. The philosopher. The dreamer. Two weeks on from becoming the first ever Irishman to win a fight in UFC, and picking up a €60,000 knockout bonus on that Stockholm night in the process, McGregor is heading for McDonald’s. That’s where he always treated himself to a coffee long before he made it and while so much has suddenly changed, he’s determined to limit how much he will allow himself to change. The 24-year-old even calls his girlfriend in the hope she might swing by and save him the walk home when he’s done chattering away.
“I told everyone I’d do it but they never believed me,” he laughs. “Now look at me. But people say be careful of the money, don’t blow it. If the money becomes a problem, I’ll get rid of it. I’ve been planning to get to this stage for a long, long time and I won’t let anything stop me. Honestly. And there’s so much going on and so many people trying to get in touch, I just go to the gym. It’s the place I can forget everything.
“Even before this, all the problems I’d have in life, when I’d go to the gym they were gone. I used it as an escape, that’s why I was there eight hours a day. It’s the way it’s always been and that’s why I do it, I can escape from everything. It’s hard to explain.”
The gym he refers to is the Straight Blast, situated on the Long Mile Road. A windowless bunker hidden at the back of an industrial estate, large bins lie in front of the thick metal door while heavy-duty waste is washed up against the bottom of the walls by puddles of water. It doesn’t look much but fight sports have always been about spirit over style and looking inwards rather than outwards. Indeed one glance at McGregor and you realise the best are formed from circumstance and not from equipment.
“The reason people take up combat sport is self-defence,” he continues. “It’s not just to get fit and make friends — they’re a byproduct of getting into combat sport. But young men go into this to be confident and know they can defend themselves in any situation.”
As hard as it is to gulp down now, never mind digest, as a kid Conor McGregor couldn’t. Growing up in a small housing estate in Crumlin, he was fine within those confines but in his teenage years his boundaries widened and so did the scope for trouble. Of that, he has endless tales. He took a hiding over a girl one evening. Took a bad beating from a gang of 10 another afternoon as his so-called friends ran for cover, all because it was wrongly alleged he’d muttered that someone was a bottler. It got to the stage where he took the ends off a barbell, emptied the books from his school bag and left the metal rod hanging out the top of it, in open view, as he strolled from class to class. All in all, he was screaming without raising his voice.
“I could give you another 50 stories of walking down the street and someone trying to start a fight. I don’t know what it was, I was a quiet child. I know this sounds stupid, we were kids, but at the time you were petrified and it played a part in the path I chose.
“The fact I’m such a believer in your thoughts becoming reality now, it makes me realise that back in the day I was always thinking about danger and I ended up bringing it. They were my first lessons in the law of attraction.”
What we’ve seen from McGregor’s fleeting visits to the spotlight thus far is a warm and amusing man. Already he’s been asked to play up to it but too often there isn’t space to show the flipside and the intelligence because there are times when he goes deep. That law of attraction is one of those as he studies a school of thought that suggests like follows like, and positive or negative thinking results in a similar outcome. But perhaps there’s a sense of destiny behind him too, like when he switched schools to Lucan around the time the UFC pioneers began to crop up on television screens.
Back in the early 2000s, each school morning he and Tommy Egan would talk about the matches they’d seen. McGregor had taken up boxing and kick boxing, Egan was studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a lowly white belt, so the former suggested coming over to stay in the latter’s house one weekend and they ended up retreating to a cramped shed for days, practicing what they didn’t yet know. Not long after, Egan mentioned he’d a friend who worked in Setanta and the two of them somehow got tickets for UFC 75 in 2007 and headed to London to witness their new obsession.
“It was my first time seeing all the celebrity fighters, the president Dana [White], I was blown away. Bruce Buffer, the announcer, was there. I said ‘Will you say my name?’ ‘Now entering the octagon,’ he roared, ‘Colin…’ and he trailed off. Even the referee, a famous one, I said, ‘You’ll be rescuing guys from me one day’. I was a kid, loving all of it.”
It had a huge impact. McGregor came home and put up a clip of knockouts on his Bebo page, typing underneath, Check this UFC out, my future job… Please God. The responses varied from cruel to ridicule but while Egan went on to be the first Irish man on a UFC card, losing at the Point Depot in 2009, McGregor is now easily the best.
Yet every story has its early chapters, and his first time in the ring suggested this would be a hobby at most.
“My first fight?” he says. “A dingy hall, in a boxing ring. I was supposed to be the first fight so I showed up 20 minutes before. On a boxing bill that’s how we did it. It was laid back. I approached the MMA similar but John Kavanagh, the guy who taught me so much in the gym, ran over. ‘You’re late, you’ve to get medicals done’. They moved me from first fight to third, threw me in the back, got the medicals, and threw me in the ring. It didn’t register until I was standing across from this big, tough Nordie, and I thought ‘What the fuck have I got myself into?’
“I was barefoot, tiny gloves that barely covered the knuckles, bare shin, no head guard. I was in a pair of surf-dude shorts that a friend had left in my suitcase after a holiday.”
He knocked the big, tough Nordie out in two rounds but if that was the first fight, it wasn’t the only fight. Back at home his parents were wondering what he was doing with his life. He’d done his Leaving Cert but after that all he did was train. His Dad loved to watch war documentaries on the Discovery Channel so he tried to convince him that while he was into armed combat, his own fascination with unarmed combat was similar. That didn’t work. He then told his old man he’d be a millionaire by the time he was 25 if he was just left to his own devices.
“They were always onto me. ‘You aren’t doing anything productive with your life, you need to go and get a job’. I had some tough times with my Da. ‘Get your arse into a fucking job. What are you doing? You are doing nothing with your life’. I had to listen to it all the time, right up to two months ago. But in Ireland, it’s a rush to work, that’s the wrong way.
“I was thrown into a plumbing apprenticeship and I hated it. 15-hour days, just getting bossed around. I just decided fuck this. I’d have a go at MMA. Honestly, I’d rather be poor. I’d rather have no money and just be training than in a job I don’t love. I don’t get that. If someone asked me advice about work, if you’re in a job you don’t love, just quit. You only live once and you want to chase what you want to chase.”
McGregor is easy to like. His smile is addictive, his dedication honourable and his outlook fascinating. In another life he could have been anything from a Buddhist monk to a Hell’s Angel but there was another side to him for a while. Ask his trainer John Kavanagh to show you his phone and McGregor is in it simply as ‘Trouble’. He’s working hard to erase that but even the feats of recent weeks haven’t cleansed the past quite yet. Take McGregor’s first loss on the same night he first topped an MMA bill. Worse again, it was just up the road in Drimnagh.
“All my friends and family heard I was doing this crazy thing where you can kick and wrestle and all this mad stuff. Then I go out and lose, submission. ‘Fuck this crap,’ I thought, I just drifted away.”
What about the money though, you mention?
“I was only a kid and people were handing me €30 for a ticket. I’d go to the shop, dip into it. Then sell another ticket. Over the course of six weeks €600 was gone. I didn’t have anything to pay John with. I don’t know where this is going, it’s going weird now. Look, I spent all the money, lost that fight, legged it, didn’t answer my phone to him because he was looking for the money. I just disappeared. These kind of things happened a couple of times. But through all of that John kept taking me back in. I don’t like even thinking or talking about all that because them days are over.”
With that he’s back to his positive thinking and visualisation that battles with MMA for room in his head all day. And night. He says he can’t sleep because of the adrenaline and because there is too much to learn and take in between boxing, jiu-jitsu, freestyle wrestling and Thai boxing. He’s even started dabbling in capoeira — a Brazilian fight dance that originated with African slaves who didn’t want their masters to know they were in training so disguised it with rhythmic movement. When he gets home in the evening he shadow boxes to wind down and there are marks on his bedroom wall from where he got up many times to practice his kicks in the wee hours when he couldn’t wait for the sun.
“If you dedicate yourself to one style, you best believe you are weak at another discipline. I like to be able to move every way. There’s a time and place for all disciplines. I study all different styles and there’s no limit to where the human body can move to attack and defend. The more movements your body can make in a combat situation, the more your opponent is put on the back foot and is reacting to your movements rather than creating his own movements. I learn from anything. I saw two guerrillas on TV play fighting, crazy stuff. It’s like freestyle wrestling, they are arm dragging and their posture is so solid and posture for combat is so vital. I even take from them.
“But you have to be obsessed. If you talk to me about football, I wouldn’t have a clue what you’re on about. If you’re talking to me about energy efficiency from the bottom position, we can talk into next week. I don’t know what’s what, but I know how to break down the human frame no matter what the size. And I know how positive thinking matters.
“People in Ireland, all over the world, have that negative mindset. They focus on what if something bad happens. That’s not the way to live. Think what happens when it goes right. Why worry, it’ll only bring more worry. When you focus on the positive, negative shrinks away. What you think about, it’ll happen. You are never wrong and that’s just what I believe in.”
Earlier this year, McGregor went for a part-time job in Boylesports and was rejected but after his win in Sweden, they called looking to sponsor him. The father is now a huge fan of the sport and while McGregor will hardly make millionaire by 25, his dad whispered as he left the octagon a fortnight ago that he was right all along. Dana White, the UFC president that caused his young jaw to drop all those years ago, called him into his office and told him he’d be part of the pay-per-view event in Boston come August and was going to be big. Beverly Knight has even been in touch by Twitter saying she loves the style that has seen him go to 13-2 via 12 knockouts and a submission.
“When things were bad, I didn’t have a pot to piss in,” he recalls. “Really, nothing. I’m not a stupid guy and it was hard standing in a dole queue and I’m not looking for pity, that is just a normal life in Ireland at the moment. I think that’s why my name is blown up, people can relate to my story.
“If that inspires them, then that fills me with energy. Times are tough for everyone, my family too, and them seeing me doing what I said I would and seeing me achieve that, looking at them I can see a new lease of life in them. I’m seeing energy in them, lifting them and to me that’s brilliant. You just have to believe, focus, stay positive and don’t let negative energy anywhere near you.”
And if you do all that, you wonder, what then? He smiles and his eyes open wide at the possibilities. “In the octagon, out of the octagon,” he says, “do all that and you’ll become untouchable”.
20 April, 2013