IN THE OCTAGON of Conor McGregor's mind, doubt loses every battle, gets choked out permanently, is stretchered into oblivion. So it went in Boston this past January, as the UFC superstar prepared to enter the cage at the TD Garden to secure his title shot. Everywhere you looked, the tricolor waved. For hours, the Irish in the stands had been singing, "There's only oooone Conor McGregor!" As McGregor often said, "If one of us goes to war, we all go to war."
The UFC had handed out illuminated thundersticks at the door, and when the Garden darkened before the main event, fans tore out the LEDs and tossed them into the air. The bulbs carved ghostly arcs through the gloom, a luminous rain to welcome the Irishman as a Sinead O'Connor rebel ballad called "The Foggy Dew" echoed through the arena. McGregor stalked toward the ring, toward the next step in his furious rise through the UFC: four wins in four fights, three of them first-round technical knockouts.
Now he was headlining an event with a main card that kicked off after the NFL's NFC and AFC championship games, the better to increase his exposure. The promotion had gone all-in on McGregor. His bearded mug was everywhere in Boston: buses and billboards, radio and TV, even trash cans. "We blew the town out," says Dana White, the UFC president.
No one questioned McGregor's podium game. In the buildup to the Boston fight, he talked circles around his opponent, Dennis Siver, a stumpy German who'd once tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. McGregor described the 10th-ranked Siver at various times as "deformed," a "weird looking little German guy," a "German steroid-head" and "the ugliest little gremlin you've ever seen in your life." By fight time, the little German was licked. He looked dejected and spoke in conditionals. ("If I win.")
"He lives the part," Siver said before the fight. "He doesn't play it anymore. He lives it."
McGregor lived the part so fully, believed in himself so strongly, that any doubt had been extinguished long ago. The two submission losses at the beginning of his career? Freak events. He couldn't lose again because he couldn't imagine it. His mind, he said, was bulletproof. He felt invincible. "If you say it to yourself and look yourself in the mirror and truly believe that not a man alive can beat you, that is the way it is," he would say.
Indeed, many around fighting grumbled that McGregor had rocketed through the UFC's ranks not because of his talent, but his silver tongue -- and when the bell rang in Boston, they were watching closely. McGregor came out in his wide stance, weight angled back, torso upright, hands out like a bare-knuckle traveler. (Imagine John L. Sullivan ... or the Notre Dame logo.) This posture allowed McGregor to keep his head far from damage while maximizing his 74-inch reach, tied for the second-longest in the 145-pound division. He also had immense power. Fourteen of his 16 wins had come by KO or TKO. And on this night, he was all slithering violence, loose and relaxed. Twenty-three seconds into the fight, McGregor whipped a smooth spinning wheel kick over Siver's head. He taunted the German, holding out his hands and clapping at him. At the end of the round, McGregor backed Siver against the fence and uncorked liquid combinations to the body and head, swaying in and out to avoid counters, the movement so fluid it seemed casual.
Early in Round 2, McGregor crumpled Siver with his left straight, a punch few in MMA have been able to take. TKO.
The UFC couldn't have hoped for a better result. The promotion has run into difficulty of late. Too many cards. Not enough stars. Incessant injuries. The slump owed in part to a gamble to go big and blast out as much MMA as possible to the world to create new viewers and grow the sport -- a strategy that could eventually pay off, but the short-term result has been a watered-down product and a disgruntled core audience. Last year was especially bleak: Pay-per-view numbers hit new lows, and only one event registered more than 400,000 buys. Profits fell by an estimated 40 percent, and Standard & Poor's downgraded the credit rating of the UFC's parent company, Zuffa. The UFC had a better first quarter of 2015, but concerns linger. Jon Jones, the sensational light heavyweight, faces legal trouble after putting a pregnant woman in the hospital in a hit-and-run car crash. Anderson Silva, widely considered the best MMA fighter of all time, tested positive for steroids and slunk away to Brazil in disgrace. Ronda Rousey, the UFC's dominant female bantamweight titleholder, remains a marquee star. But even Rousey can fight only a few times a year.
McGregor's arrival wasn't just fortuitous. It was necessary.
When he spotted featherweight champion Jose Aldo, the man slated to be his next opponent, after the final bell in Boston, McGregor vaulted the fence and charged at him, howling, eyes manic, mouth agape -- the same feral expression Cassius Clay wore when he crazied Sonny Liston in 1964. Security guards restrained McGregor, but "The Notorious" had made his point. "I wanted to put that energy straight through his chest like a bolt of lightning," McGregor said later.
Their title fight was scheduled for July 11 in Las Vegas. Barring disaster -- and MMA has had no shortage of that -- it promised to be one of the most-watched bouts in UFC history. Both McGregor and the promotion would have an enormous amount riding on it.
"I LIKE CRAZY places where no one gives a f---," McGregor told me in May, as he walked down Fremont Street, the seedy aorta of old Las Vegas. Behind him, an ample-bosomed woman dressed as a pirate and a man in a stained "Despicable Me" minion costume soft-shoed for coins. McGregor and his mostly Irish training mates had piloted a white van they dubbed "The Paddywagon" to Fremont. There had been a few detours, first to a farmer's market, where they sampled olive oil and bee pollen, and a vendor asked, in all seriousness, if the scruffy fighters belonged to a boy band. "A failed boy band," one deadpanned. "This is our reunion tour." McGregor ducked into a store to obsessively examine Nespresso machines. At the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, he handled a samurai sword from the 1700s and looked down the barrels of Winchester Repeaters and Kentucky long rifles.
But it was among the weirdos and drunks that McGregor seemed happiest. He sauntered the length of Fremont, imperious and all but unrecognized, his teammates in tow. He had few interests outside fighting. ("Shopping and counting [money]," he'd once answered, when pressed.) An excursion like this was about as much distraction as he tolerated.
In early May, McGregor had moved to Las Vegas for training camp, wanting to acclimate to the environment and the time change heading into the Aldo bout. This sort of commitment was unusual in MMA, where most fighters are financially unable to leave home to prepare. But McGregor was flush. Since signing with the UFC, he'd taken to peacocking in stylish suits from Louis Copeland & Sons, one of the best tailors in Dublin. "These custom-made suits aren't cheap," he once told a roomful of reporters, before pulling out an impressive timepiece. "This solid gold pocket watch? Three people died making this watch." The UFC whisked him around in private jets while other fighters flew coach. The company put him up in luxury suites while others slept in regular hotels.
McGregor had relocated his fight camp before -- to Reykjavik prior to his July 2014 bout against Diego Brandao, citing the need for peace and quiet. "Moving around [Dublin] is difficult," he'd complained. "I have to dodge pantyhose." This time, he'd pulled up stakes in a more epic way and taken his entire team, which included his coach, John Kavanagh, and, depending on the day, at least 12 other fighters, to live in what they dubbed the Mac Mansion: a seven-bedroom, 10-bath travertine-floored house with a pool, a hot tub, a gym and, in the master bathroom, a conch-shell-shaped glass shower that resembled a cryogenic chamber. The kitchen had two large refrigerators. In one, pallets of eggs, 60 to a tray, were stacked up. The other contained the better part of a cow: $36 of ground beef, $68.72 of beef loin, $300 of beef tenderloin and a massive hulk of rib-eye oozing blood. No sugar was allowed in the house. No booze either, someone told me, as long as you ignored the 4-liter jug of Carlo Rossi Paisano wine -- and also the hot whiskeys with lime taken at night to help with aches and pains. Aside from that, no booze was allowed in the house. The place was in a gated community about 15 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip. McGregor hadn't arrived here by accident. He'd determined long ago that if he wanted something fiercely enough, he could make it real.
McGREGOR ENJOYS TELLING a story about a dustup from his childhood, circa 2000. He was 12 and jawing with a kid in Crumlin, the tough south Dublin neighborhood where he grew up, when the other boy threw a sucker punch. "He swung a dig from the sly," McGregor remembers. "I stumbled back, and we started fighting." McGregor had been watching tape of the boxer he idolized and shuffled his feet, trying to channel the man, then shouted "Muhammad Ali!" and swung a dig of his own. He missed. Five of his foe's friends jumped in. McGregor took a beating, but his bravado -- he shuffled like Ali! -- made the rounds in Crumlin, where the short list of famous former residents includes several gangsters.
McGregor says he always had what he calls a "self-defense mindset." To hear his mother tell it, he came out of the womb like that, hands balled up near his chin to ward off the sly digs of life. When he got older, he carried a dumbbell bar in his schoolbag. To further protect himself, he took up kickboxing, then boxing.
By then, a drug war had erupted between gangs in Crumlin and Drimnagh, an adjacent neighborhood. McGregor and his pals were nearing an age where trouble might seek them out, but when he was about 16, his family moved to Lucan, a more placid suburb west of the city, and he enrolled in a new school. He still returned to Crumlin to box and hang out, but it was in Lucan where his life would take a fortuitous turn, thanks to a classmate named Tom Egan who was studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The two quickly became friends and began working out together in a small concrete shed in Egan's backyard, swapping grappling moves and striking tips. Egan had furnished "The Shed" with homemade gear. To make a punching bag, he wrapped foam around a bundle of garden stakes and stationed the rig in a cement-filled car tire. For grappling purposes, he put down mats used on farms to cushion cows when they lie down. Egan and McGregor would watch old UFC videos and square off. "We'd put the MMA gloves on," Egan says. "We used to beat the s--- out of each other." Other aspiring fighters joined them, including Gunnar Nelson, now a pro in the UFC. Sometimes they crammed six kids into the shed. To build endurance, they ran in the Curragh, a sandy plain used to condition racehorses and soldiers. It was a Celtic "Rocky" training montage.
Still, Egan's greatest contribution to McGregor's development was bringing him to the Straight Blast Gym in Dublin to learn MMA from John Kavanagh, Ireland's first Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. With a degree in engineering, Kavanagh had a cerebral approach to unarmed combat that appealed to McGregor, who displayed an immediate knack for MMA. McGregor had taken a bleak job as an apprentice plumber after high school. He soon quit to focus on training with Kavanagh.
McGregor won his first three fights by TKO and lost his fourth to a reed-thin Lithuanian who jumped guard and caught him in a knee bar. "I had no respect for jiu-jitsu or the grappling arts. I was a boxer," McGregor said later. "I realized I was not taking the fight game serious enough." There was friction at home, as well: No Irishman had made a go of it in the UFC, so he had no examples he could point to that might placate his father, who disapproved of McGregor's career choice. The two were getting into "proper fights." At the end of 2008, McGregor disappeared from Kavanagh's gym. He was gone for months, hanging out in the street, partying with old Crumlin friends.
"I just didn't know what I wanted to do," he says now. "I was just f---ing around. F--- everything. That's what I was thinking."
McGregor owed Kavanagh hundreds of euros from tickets he helped sell for an event, and the coach heard that his fighter was blowing through the cash and running with a dodgy crowd. When McGregor's mother asked Kavanagh to come to the house to persuade her son to return to the gym, Kavanagh found a hollowed-out McGregor in dire shape. It was a Saturday night. "[He] looked like someone that wasn't eating right, to put it mildly," Kavanagh says now.
The coach gave him a stern warning. "You know where this road leads," he told McGregor. "You've buried some of your friends already." Kavanagh said McGregor had the potential to do something special in MMA, to show people a different style of fighting. The opportunity was tangible now: The UFC had announced plans to come to Dublin in January 2009 to put on the first event in Ireland. Egan had signed to appear on the card. It would be a groundbreaking moment for both Irish MMA and Kavanagh's gym. McGregor could watch his friend and training partner fight in the biggest show in the world. An Irishman had made it. He could be next. "Let's chase this dream," Kavanagh said. "We are in the door, and this is your chance." Kavanagh waived McGregor's debt and told him he could train for free, then ended his talk with a tough-love reality check: "Be in the gym on Monday or don't come back."
McGregor looked at his coach. "John," he said, "I'm going to put an extra floor on that gym."
RECOMMITTED, McGREGOR BEGAN to pile up wins. In June 2012 in Dublin, he fought Dave Hill, an English submission expert, for the vacant featherweight title in Cage Warriors, the largest MMA promotion in Europe. "I feel like this is the MGM Grand," McGregor said before the fight. "He's gonna know in there that it's another level."
As Hill recently told The 42, an Irish publication, "I thought he was just chatting s--- like everyone else. But when we were at the weigh-ins and he kicked off at me, I thought, 'F---, this guy really believes this.' That was the first time it dawned on me quite how ridiculously confident he is."
The fight went less than two rounds. McGregor dominated Hill on the ground and locked in a rear naked choke to earn his first submission win. McGregor jumped the fence and swam out into a crowd of jubilant Irish fans. When he returned to the cage, he did pushups.
In his UFC debut in April 2013, McGregor TKO'd his opponent in the first round with punches to the head. In his second UFC fight, McGregor was winning easily on points against Max Holloway when he tried to yank his leg free during a grappling exchange and tore his ACL. McGregor won the decision but was sidelined for almost a year.
For most newcomers, such a setback might stall momentum. But as McGregor rehabbed in Los Angeles, his star continued to rise. Back home, a documentary on Irish public television turned him into a national celebrity, and his exploits were even earning him attention in America. Case in point, the boyfriend of his physical therapist was a fan and showed up one day to express his admiration. The boyfriend: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
McGregor's time away from training -- the first sustained break he'd had in years -- allowed him to consider how he'd been training. McGregor had been going about it like most MMA athletes: "Show up at the gym, put the gloves on, put the gum shield in and do 10 to 15 rounds straight, do about 300 to 400 rounds a week." Now, his rehab didn't allow for that. So McGregor began to concentrate more on balance and flexibility and freeing his body to move in new ways. He mimicked alligator crawls and chimpanzee walks. He watched videos by Ido Portal, a martial artist turned "movement teacher."
McGregor had come to believe that technique in MMA had stagnated. The sport originated as a clash of styles -- freestyle wrestling versus Muay Thai, for example -- and had evolved into a blend. But the blend itself, in McGregor's mind, had started to calcify. Everyone learned the same punch-kick combos, the same clinch work and takedowns, the same transitions. Those moves became habitual through overtraining and an "embrace the grind" mentality brought to MMA from American wrestling. That wasn't liberating. It was all yang, no yin. Perhaps it took a European to see that.
"How many times have you looked at a person who grinds so hard and trains so hard and then gets better?" McGregor says. "You see them maintain. You see them in good shape. But they never get better skillwise. ... And then through damaging the body, it slips. It declines. I'm trying to move differently."
When McGregor returned to action last July, he was noticeably more limber. Headlining the UFC's second card in Dublin, he wiped out Diego Brandao in the first round. "I've been doing this for 15 years," says White. "That was the craziest fight I've ever been to. When he won, 7,000 beers went up in the air."
McGregor's comeback was complete, but his evolution continued. He wasn't just trying to move differently. He was trying to think differently. A few months after the Brandao fight, he turned up unannounced at Eddie Bravo's renowned Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym in L.A. and asked to roll with the elite grapplers there so he could absorb new techniques. Bravo said no UFC fighter had done that before: They were too scared of being embarrassed.
In his next UFC fight, McGregor humiliated the fifth-ranked Dustin Poirier, TKO'ing him in the first round. Even so, grumbling about the coddled Irishman grew louder. When White granted McGregor his title shot after beating Siver, other fighters complained that the UFC had moved him along too quickly -- that marketability had trumped achievement.
"In our business, there's different types of guys you're going to get," White says. "You're going to get a guy who's an absolute badass but has zero personality whatsoever, or you get a guy who has a great personality but isn't that good. When you get a guy who has an unbelievable personality and is an absolute badass, it's a home run."
WHITE HAD NEVER spent so much on a fight -- committing millions of dollars to Aldo vs. McGregor, producing a movie-quality trailer for UFC 189 and making vast ad buys. "I'm betting on this fight and the amount of money I've spent to promote this that this is going to be the biggest fight ever," White told me on June 22. "Everything hinges on this fight."
The centerpiece of the promotional campaign was a world tour in March. The UFC had never done anything like it -- eight cities on three continents in 12 days, with multiple news conferences and fan Q&A's and, of course, plenty of staredowns.
The first stop was Rio de Janeiro. McGregor had been there in 2014 to watch Aldo beat Chad Mendes, a former All-American wrestler the UFC had allowed the Irishman to bypass -- to the howls of many -- perhaps to avoid exposing a weakness in his game. At a Q&A with Brazilian fans before the Aldo-Mendes fight, McGregor described decapitating Aldo. "In my mind," he later told reporters, "I'm already the world champion." Now he was back in the same city, in front of an arena filled with Aldo supporters. "I own this town," McGregor declared, kicking his feet up on a table. "I own Rio de Janeiro. I'm sitting up here with my feet on the desk. What's anyone up there going to do about it? Not one of yous are going to do anything about it. My name, the McGregor name, my family's motto is 'S Rioghal Mo Dhream,' and that means royal is in my blood. That goes way back. ... [If] this was a different time, I would invade [Aldo's] favela on horseback and kill anyone that was not fit to work. But we are in a new time. So I'll whup his ass in July."
During the staredown that followed, McGregor tried to break Aldo as he had Dave Hill and all the others. But Aldo stared back with a cold intensity. This was his town. He'd fought his way out of favelas. And then, you could see it -- doubt flashed across McGregor's face, just for a second. The possibility of defeat. His eyes widened. He appeared to drive it away, but for a brief moment McGregor did look like someone playing a part, instead of inhabiting it. He peered out nervously over the crowd. His three-piece suit felt contrived. So did his giant watch and his hipster hairdo and the knowing martial arts pose he struck after White separated the fighters. McGregor would later insist the champ crumbled under his gaze. But Aldo had not. To most any observer, it was McGregor who wavered.
For the rest of the tour, McGregor exacted revenge. He had to prove himself again. And as the tour rolled through North America, he berated Aldo mercilessly, going on about the Brazilian's "battle-worn chin." The chatter, eventually, seemed to get the better of Aldo. He made the mistake of saying that McGregor had better not touch him. In Toronto, McGregor responded by impishly pinching Aldo's trapezius. "Whatcha gonna do?" he sneered. Aldo did nothing.
It was promotional gold. White expected tickets to the fight to sell out at warp speed and generate a $7 million gate, one of the biggest in UFC history. But the browbeating served another purpose, McGregor admitted later -- he hoped to make an irate Aldo embrace the grind in training and wear down. The Irishman treated mental jiu-jitsu as another martial art to be mastered in MMA, as important as any other.
"When we were in Toronto," White says, "Aldo said, 'I'm done. I'm not doing this bulls--- anymore. I'm done playing these f---ing games.' I had to go up into his room and say, 'Come on, brother. All we have is London and Dublin, and then you can go home and see your family.'"
At the finale in Dublin, some 70,000 fans had tried to get tickets, just to see the fighters sit at a table in the Convention Centre. The 3,000 or so who got in were going wild. Upon arriving, Aldo, who had placed his belt on the table in front of him, reminded the audience that he ruled the division. "Eu sou rei," he said in Portuguese --"I am the king" -- to which his translator added the ill-considered rhetorical flourish: "of Dublin." The crowd jeered. McGregor cackled. "You're looking at the king of Dublin, yeah?" he retorted, "You're looking at him." He put his feet on the table, just as he did in Rio. This time, Aldo mockingly mimicked him and put his feet up too. As soon as the Brazilian leaned back, McGregor darted past White and grabbed the belt. Nicked it right off the table in front of the champ and held it up with glee. The crowd reacted as if Ireland had scored a World Cup goal. McGregor's face beamed with mischievous delight. "You're looking at the king!"
McGREGOR WAS RIGHT. Aldo did overtrain -- or, at least, he did not train carefully enough. Aldo went hard, bringing in tough new sparring partners to replicate McGregor's style. And on June 23, a report filtered out of Brazil that Aldo had broken a rib -- after taking a spinning back kick, one of McGregor's favorite strikes, it later came out. The UFC initially said it was merely a bruised rib, but six days after Aldo's injury, he was removed from the card. The UFC announced that McGregor would instead face Mendes, the accomplished wrestler he'd been allowed to skip over, for what the promotion called the "Interim 145-pound crown."
McGregor's mental warfare might have been too effective. The event had been shaping up to be a blockbuster, perhaps the biggest in UFC history. "Pre-buys for this fight are bigger than any UFC fight we've ever had, including UFC 100," White had said, speaking the day before Aldo's injury. "It's not even close." But the show would go on without the champion. The show, after all, had always been about McGregor.
Both White and McGregor, however, now find themselves at a surprising inflection point: For White, the costly event that "everything hinges on" is already a disappointment, although a win for McGregor sets up what could be an even more important fight with Aldo; for McGregor, the true championship still hovers a step away, while a victory against a top wrestler will silence doubters.
McGregor's confidence remains absolute, so much so that when his coach woke him from a nap with the news that Mendes could replace Aldo, McGregor reportedly mumbled, "They're all the same," and went back to sleep. White would later say on the radio that McGregor had tried to bet him $3 million that he'd knock out Mendes in the second round. As McGregor saw it, his only real competition was himself. And he was bigger than any single fight.
"I've been f---ing around many times with nicknames," he told me in Las Vegas, "Lately, I've been calling myself Mister Mainstream. Because I'm the one who's bringing [MMA] mainstream."
He'd been asked to audition for a role as a James Bond villain. (He declined, explaining that, "I'm not into show business. I'm into the fight business.") He'd signed major sponsorship deals with Reebok, Bud Light and Monster Energy. He saw bigger things in his future. "I want my events to be separate," he said. "McGregor in association with Zuffa." His brand on par with the company.
White sniffed at that idea but added, "He acts like a partner, and he gets treated like a partner. He's very smart. He's a very sharp businessman."
On that May night, with the sun setting behind the Strip and "Long Tall Sally" drifting over the sound system in the Mac Mansion, McGregor resplendent in a Rocky Balboa "Italian Stallion" robe, the lads getting ready to grill meat and hop in the hot tub and tell stories, the savior of MMA was, for the briefest of moments, alone. Nobody around him. No expectations. It was still a few weeks before Aldo would drop out.
For a second, McGregor was still, almost at peace. He had come a long way from Crumlin. When I glanced over again, he'd assumed a fighting stance. He started bouncing on his toes to Little Richard, dancing with an unseen opponent. And then, so fast it would have been easy to miss, his feet skimmed over the floor, back and forward, forward and back, blurring with movement. He was doing the shuffle.