Success Story: Conor McGregor

There’s a story that Conor McGregor’s childhood friend, Tom Egan, likes to tell, about back when dreams were just dreams and McGregor was just a pimply-faced, clean-shaven 19-year-old.

The pair was hanging out at the mall in Dublin, Ireland. They grabbed some food, then stopped at a bookstore to browse through the mixed martial arts magazines.

They were in the infancy of their MMA careers and hoped a few seconds spent gazing through the pages might confer on them some new skill. As they were leaving, McGregor spotted Floyd Mayweather on the cover of The Ring, two fists up, a toothy grin, his eyes gazing back, too.

“Wow,” McGregor said. “Look at him. He is the face of boxing. He’s on top of the world.”

Egan continued for the door. “C’mon,” he called out. But it was futile. McGregor wouldn’t budge. He was holding the magazine with both hands, transfixed.

“He was visualizing himself,” McGregor’s best friend says now, “in that position—on the cover.”

After the first stop of a four-leg, around-the-world, around-the-Twittersphere-and-back-again promotional tour, McGregor—the slightly more grown-up, pushing 30-year-old version—took time to answer a few questions in a corner of Staples Center in Los Angeles. His light brown hair parted neatly to the side, his beard delicately manicured, McGregor wore a navy suit with two words stitched vertically over and over again into makeshift pinstripes, small enough for only a squinting observer—or a camera—to make out: FUCK YOU.

With a mic in hand, McGregor is a supernova, an all-world shit-talker.

“On August 26,” he began, referring to the date of his boxing debut against Mayweather, “this man will be unconscious. He’s too small. He’s too frail.”

Floyd Mayweather Sr., the father and trainer of Floyd Jr., was just to the Irishman’s left. He stared down at McGregor, then interjected. “You’re gonna get killed,” he yelled.

McGregor laughed it off. Then Mayweather Sr. asked him the question many people have wondered about since this fight was announced before a summer of bluster began.

“How the fuck you going to outbox him?” he asked, referring to his son. He pointed his finger at McGregor and added, with this fight’s trademark over-the-top shade: “All the same fighters he beat would beat your ass.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Oscar De La Hoya, a former boxing champion turned successful promoter, who called Mayweather-McGregor a “farce” in a Facebook post. Former Canadian cruiserweight Troy Ross agrees.

“McGregor has never had a boxing match in his life,” he says. “How can he be in a ring with Floyd?”

Fans, however, want to believe the impossible. They want to believe the MMA fighter with an anesthetizing left hook—a man who calls himself Notorious and is notoriously just seven years removed from a job as a plumber’s assistant and a monthly welfare check—can knock off arguably the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of any era. It is this belief in which Conor McGregor traffics—turning skepticism into certainty.

It’s the Mystic Mac effect. He predicted he’d be the best MMA fighter in Europe, then he said he’d beat the unbeatable Jose Aldo. Then he said he’d win two UFC championship belts. All came true.

In the weeks leading up to next Saturday’s bout in Vegas, fans have lined up to place their bets on McGregor. One sportsbook recorded 15 bets for McGregor to win for every wager for Mayweather. Indeed, many see McGregor’s crossover as little more than a money grab, a potential nine-figure payday for both fighters and untold millions for the UFC and various boxing federations. Pundits, not to mention tweeters and everyday sports fans, have called the fight a disgrace and a race-baiting spectacle.

But inside the ring, when the two men stare into each other’s eyes and the fight begins, there is something more elemental. For Mayweather, it’s simple: Take out the Irish enigma and his boxing legacy is complete—a 50-0 record to become the winningest undefeated champion in sports history.

For McGregor, the point of indulging in this—the shitshow superfight of the century—is more complicated: He’s fighting for Ireland, but head to the streets of Dublin these days, and you’ll find the Irish appalled by his behavior, calling him a phony. He boasts of winning more titles, but talk to his friends and fellow fighters about a decade of sleepless nights and proclamations on private jets, and it seems like Mystic Mac wants something unattainable—something perhaps more permanent, something only he can see.

McGregor’s first professional mixed martial arts fight took place in a tiny basketball gym in Dublin. He was deep down on the undercard, an unknown so unknown that an hour before the bell was supposed to ring, nobody noticed he hadn’t shown up. Thirty minutes later, his coach, John Kavanagh, realized his prodigy was missing. He called McGregor’s phone, but it was turned off. Twenty minutes until fight time, still nothing. Finally, as everyone was preparing for a forfeit and the next card, McGregor burst through the door.

“He jumped straight into the ring,” says Owen Roddy, McGregor’s striking coach. “Bounced around, cracked his man a few times, knocked him out, then bounced out of the ring.” Then he had a few pints for good measure.

McGregor’s origin story is well-known. It’s part of his allure. The Irish lad from the Southwest Dublin working class neighborhood gets bullied in school, joins a boxing gym to learn how to fight off his attackers. As the story goes, he comes from nothing and works his way to the top.

It’s a neat and tidy tale, but when he was 16, McGregor’s parents moved him and his two sisters to a large house in Lucan, a leafy village 20 miles from the Dublin city center. On his first day of school, Tom Egan introduced himself. On the surface, they were opposites—Egan the loner with meticulous discipline, McGregor outgoing but entirely unreliable, often spending hours in his own head.

“He was just a lazy prick, and I don’t mean that in an insulting way,” Egan says of McGregor. “He was just at a loss of identity, and he didn’t really have anything to hold onto.”

On weekends, McGregor would stop by Egan’s parents’ house and they’d watch delayed recordings of UFC fights, then mimic the moves in the back shed. During the week, McGregor trained at his childhood boxing club in Dublin, or occasionally an MMA gym near his home with Egan. It was there that Kavanagh, the “Godfather of Irish MMA,” noticed both McGregor’s and Egan’s raw talent. They became his prized pupils at the new Straight Blast Gym Ireland in downtown Dublin.

McGregor arrived determined to fight anyone. He wanted to prove himself, sure, but he was seemingly battling against his own angst.

Once, before he had a driver’s license, he persuaded Egan to let him take the wheel of Egan’s parents’ car. He drove in perfect circles around an industrial park. He flashed his blinker at the optimal time and turned with precision. As long as he was in motion, he was in control. When it came time to park, McGregor hit the gas and made a beeline toward the spot. The car crashed into the wall and smoke billowed into the sky. He had forgotten to hit the brakes.

For brief stretches, Kavanagh managed to reel in McGregor’s unpredictability. He placed him on the undercard for a small-time event, Cage of Truth 3, that Kavanagh was hosting on June 28, 2008. It was McGregor’s third professional fight. At the weigh-in the day before, McGregor stared down his opponent, Artemij Sitenkov, and proceeded to announce he’d knock him out in the first round. Then McGregor turned and yelled at Sitenkov’s coach, “You can get it too, old man!”

This wasn’t performance art. There was no one in the audience.

The next day at the fight, McGregor had his own cheering section, and his family came to see him fight for the first time. But Sitenkov took him right to the ground, submitted McGregor in just 69 seconds for his first loss. The few dozen people in the gym fell nearly silent, and McGregor leaped out of the Octagon and disappeared down the hallway ashamed.

The following Monday, he didn’t show up for training. He missed the next day, and the day after that as well. Instead, McGregor buried himself on his parents’ couch. Egan reached out, but McGregor’s mate was absorbed in his own career, destroying opponents in the 175-pound division on the Irish MMA circuit.

Eventually, Kavanagh convinced McGregor to come back to the gym, and he won his next fight by TKO. But there was no epiphany, and soon he was back on his parents’ couch. The 69-second fight he’d promised to win had slapped him with such force that inertia set in. McGregor didn’t fight for another 22 months.

Meanwhile, Egan signed on to fight the undercard in June 2009’s UFC 93 in Dublin. It was a seminal moment in Ireland, as Egan became the first Irish-born fighter to compete in the big leagues of MMA. McGregor, sitting a few rows back from the cage, saw the kind of champion he wanted to be: an Irishman, inside the Octagon, in the UFC.

There’s a tale about the great Celtic warrior Cu Chulainn, perhaps the most famous of all the Irish myths. It starts with a boy raised in a small town and the children who attempt to bully him. He learns to fight back with such rage that he rapidly transforms himself into the most potent fighter in the land.

He is also a braggart, a flashy warrior in search of everlasting fame. He lives on a knife’s edge and makes as many enemies as friends. But, as with any mythological tale, Cu Chulainn (pronounced Kook-hullen) knows that one day there will be a reckoning. It will either be a spectacular victory or a fail of epic proportions.

In 2009, as the rise of McGregor began, his country’s economy was crumbling. So Kavanagh gave McGregor a job teaching boxing at the SBG gym to help supplement his unemployment check, and McGregor resumed regular training with an eclectic group of fighters.

“We turned up every day to John’s Place,” says Paddy Holohan, one of the fighters. “We were just in this shed, closed off to the world.”

In tiny gyms around Ireland, McGregor reeled off eight straight wins, after starting his career 4-2. With each victory, he became more arrogant and defiant. Even as far back as 2011, he was lambasting other fighters on Irish message boards. In one post, under the username NOTORIOUS, he wrote:

“vote for me for fighter of the year how can you not … broken orbital bones, broken jaws, broken noses, fighters retired … EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM ARE RUNNING SCARED EVERY SINGLE ONE!!!!!”

He defended his Cage Warrior championship, and the UFC signed him to a five-fight contract. In April 2013, on his way to the airport for the first one, in Stockholm, Sweden, McGregor cashed his last unemployment check. After TKO-ing the journeyman Marcus Brimage in the first round that Saturday, he earned $16,000 for the victory and another $60,000 for the “knockout of the night.”

While the younger generation in Ireland was celebrating one of its own, old-school fight-watchers found Mystic Mac’s personality grating.

“He has utterly divided Irish society, not along socio-economic grounds, but by age,” says Sean McGoldrick of the Sunday World, a newspaper in Ireland. “We like our sports stars to be humble.”

The beard grew, and the tattoos followed. McGregor had started to create the fighter he imagined himself to be. For his second UFC fight, in the summer of 2013 in Boston, he called Egan and asked him to work in his corner.

The old friends had exchanged a few emails but hadn’t seen each other in years. After Egan’s loss in UFC 93, he moved across the Atlantic seeking a new challenge, but found it difficult to break through. When he reconnected with McGregor, he saw a “completely different individual.”

McGregor was training alongside Gunnar Nelson, an Icelandic fighter who helped teach him to channel his emotions within the Octagon. He was also honing Mystic Mac’s fighting IQ. McGregor “has this amazing ability,” says Roddy, his striking coach. “You could bring in a guy brand-new—he’s never seen him—and within a minute, he has him worked out and has his patterns read.”

The most important shift, however, came when McGregor’s sister handed him a copy of Rhonda Byrne’s self-help book, The Secret. The bestseller details a version of the law of attraction in which your thoughts manifest your desires. He read passages from the book out loud, then passed it around the gym.

“Conor was the one that wanted to be the best,” says Holohan, who kept training alongside McGregor long after the unemployment checks gave way to millions. If McGregor wanted Ferraris and five-digit spending sprees, they happened. If he wanted to win belts, well then, through his emboldened belief system that, too, would happen—miracle of miracles.

McGregor stopped ruminating and spread the enthusiasm to those closest to him.

“He gets me so motivated,” says Artem Lobov, a teammate at SBG. “I could be going into the shop to buy a sausage roll and I feel like I’m fighting for the world title.”

In Boston, McGregor won at UFC Fight Night by decision. He also tore his ACL in the first round, which forced him out for the next 11 months. That winter, he holed up in a house in Reykjavik, Iceland, with some of the SBG gang. The sun was only shining five hours a day, night turning into more night, but McGregor rarely slept.

Holohan, his roommate in the Nordic mansion before there was Mac Mansion in Las Vegas, remembers waking up at 4 a.m. to find McGregor watching fights on his iPad. So he sat up and talked through the intricacies of the fighters on the screen. But McGregor always talks—and inevitably, the conversation would turn to Mayweather. They imagined stepping into the ring against Money, who had just taken a $41.5 million purse for defeating Canelo Alvarez by decision in 12 rounds, and just how “easy it would be for an MMA fighter,” Holohan says, to beat his ass.

When you compare it to MMA, the two friends agreed, “boxing is very, very easy.”

Over time, thoughts of taking on Mayweather began to crystallize. In the spring of 2015, McGregor was on a 10-city promotional tour for his upcoming fight against Jose Aldo. McGregor and his team jetted across three continents on a UFC-chartered plane. Halfway through the tour, most of Camp Conor returned to Ireland, leaving only McGregor and Lobov onboard. The days blended together, but at one point, Lobov remembers, they were seated next to each other, 40,000 feet above ground.

McGregor leaned in: “I want to box,” he told his friend on the jet. “I want Mayweather.”

He went on to beat Chad Mendes when Aldo pulled out, then beat Aldo anyway five months later, winning the UFC featherweight title. He jumped up a division to lightweight and lost for the first time in 15 fights, this time to Nate Diaz. After the fight, he told commentator Joe Rogan: “I’m humbled in victory or defeat. I respect Nate.”

It is that kind of humility—however forced—that the older Irish generation wants so badly from its stars, that for the first time—however briefly—united his home country behind him. For McGregor, adoration was no consolation. His visions of grandeur were now looking garish.

During the weigh-in for his rematch with Diaz a year ago at UFC 202, McGregor strode up to the scale in a blue tank top, his mouth nearly frothing. He took off his top, stood on the scale, flexed his muscles and screamed at the crowd.

When Diaz approached the scale, McGregor stood next to Kavanagh, his coach, and—according to MMA journalist Ariel Helwani—whispered in his ear: “The illusion of insanity is over. Now back to the game plan.”

Of course, McGregor won the fight against Diaz and, in November, won at UFC 205 against Eddie Alvarez, too. They were formalities, really. The countdown to the Mayweather fight had started years ago.

By the time their cross-country trollfest had reached Brooklyn one afternoon last month, McGregor taunted Mayweather with racist comments, repeatedly telling Mayweather, “dance for me, boy.” He also told the crowd of more than 13,000 at Barclays Center that he was  “half-black from the belly down.”

Two hours later, McGregor was forced to respond to his own responses on an L-shaped runway. He wore a long fur coat with no shirt and patterned pants. Holding a water bottle in his right hand, twisting it nervously between his fingers, he shifted in place. “I’m a big fan of the culture,” he said, when asked about his comments about African-Americans. But it did little to quell the outrage. More pointed questions came, centered around the point of this shitshow in the first place: Did McGregor deserve to be fighting this fight? Was he given something he hadn’t earned?

A few feet away from the uncomfortable interview, McGregor’s small team from back in the Dublin gym remained undaunted. Lobov, with the same energy that McGregor displays from weigh-ins to private planes, exclaimed that his friend is “better than Mayweather. He is going to dominate him, 100 percent. Believe it.”

Belief, however, can become intoxicating. It can make you believe in your own myth.

Toward the end of the tale of Cu Chulainn, the fighter’s hubris has pushed him to the brink. A life’s worth of enemies begins to conspire against him. They force the war hero to eat a plate full of dog meat and then pierce him, one by one, with magical spears. Before the final blow can reach him, the legend decides to tie himself to a tree and face his killers head-on.

The great Celtic warrior, it turns out, is not immortal. He dies standing up.