LOS ANGELES -- Truth is, Conor McGregor didn't know that posting a tweet about "retiring young" on April 19 would have the impact it did.
He didn't put a ton of thought into it, says he wasn't mad when he wrote it. It wasn't planned out. He simply wasn't seeing eye-to-eye with the UFC regarding an upcoming three-city press tour and decided to take the conversation a little more ... public.
The post generated 170,000 re-tweets and quickly prompted the UFC to pull McGregor from a scheduled rematch against Nate Diaz at UFC 200 on July 9. Had McGregor backtracked then, and immediately booked a flight to Las Vegas to participate in a news conference, perhaps UFC 200 might have been salvaged.
McGregor said there were moments when he considered that a Diaz rematch is, after all, something he badly wants. But ultimately, he stood firm.
"I'll tell you what, (the retirement tweet) blew up," McGregor told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "I was kind of having fun to start, half-hearted. Then all of a sudden it's, 'you're off 200!' I was like, 'alright, well f--- you too, then.'
"All said and done, there were times (I thought), 'I should have just jumped on the damn flight.' But sometimes you've got to do what's right for you and not what's right for everybody else -- especially if you've done what's right for everyone else a million times over."
Standard language in UFC contracts, which classifies fighters as independent contractors, calls for athletes to appear at a "reasonable" amount of promotional activities for the UFC.
The UFC wanted McGregor in Las Vegas in late April, then Stockton, California (Diaz's hometown), and New York. Approximately three months away from the fight, some would call that "reasonable." A majority of the fighters scheduled to compete at UFC 200 who did fly to Las Vegas in April told ESPN they thought it was reasonable -- but then, a majority of them also acknowledged they're not called upon to do the same level of media obligations as McGregor.
McGregor believes the circumstances around the April situation should have bought him a pass on the promotional tour. He was willing to fly to New York for the final stop of the media blitz, but did not want to interrupt his training session in Iceland.
"I'm committed to the fight game. I enjoy competition. I enjoy challenges. If a challenge is in front of me and it appeals to me, I will go ahead and conquer it." Conor McGregor
He is coming off the first loss of his UFC career, a second-round submission to Diaz. McGregor believes he was easily winning the fight until his cardio gave out on him. The fight took place at a 170-pound weight limit, but McGregor had trained for a 155-pound fight. The reason for the switch: McGregor's original opponent withdrew from the bout on 11 days' notice.
"It ain't just three stops, it's 30 stops within each stop," McGregor said. "Reasonable media, to me, was New York -- where the sport just got legal. Go around, do all the talk shows, all the morning shows, and blow it out of the water where it just became legal.
"I wanted to isolate, focus, get that win back. That's all I gave a f--- about, because essentially all the other s--- means nothing. If I lose again, then this whole ship comes down. I'm the one carrying the ship. This whole thing goes down if I'm gone."
The week before McGregor was expected in Las Vegas, he had also witnessed firsthand a global tragedy in mixed martial arts. A 28-year-old fighter named Joao Carvalho from Portugal died after suffering injuries in a cage fight in Ireland, where the sport is unregulated.
Carvalho's opponent, Charlie Ward, is a teammate of McGregor's at SBG Ireland. McGregor hasn't spoken much on the incident and expressed hesitation to do so in this interview. Of course, it was a factor in his desire to avoid media the following week, but he didn't want to say that publicly, knowing it would draw more attention.
"I had f------ journalists knocking down my mother's door, you know what I mean?" McGregor said. "That's not what I signed up to do -- have people knocking on my mother's door, talking about a kid dying. It's not nice to see a kid die like that. It does something to you. And there's been show after show canceled in Ireland since that. It's f----- up to be a part of it, and I didn't want to bring it back up and put it more on a public scale.
"After all that, I did not want to be put in front of a camera and made to dance. I just wasn't feeling it."
On May 18, almost exactly one month after McGregor's infamous retirement tweet, he and his manager sat down with UFC president Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta for dinner in Los Angeles. While not really providing specifics, McGregor said, "We don't waste time -- we speak, touch base and go straight to what we know, which is good business." He had the sea bass and brown rice. It's unclear who picked up the check.
"Did I make that flight (to Las Vegas)? Did I do all the media? Did I dance like a monkey? No. Am I still here? Am I still fighting? Am I still collecting? Yeah. So, they saved face, I saved face -- there was no loser. We all won in a way." Conor McGregor
Several times during ESPN's interview, McGregor said his relationship with the UFC is "good." What happened last month was a "publicized civil war" in his words, but there was (and is) no bad blood. He blamed a lack of communication on the recent rift. And for its part, the UFC has said mostly the same. Even as the tug-of-war match was playing out in the public, White adamantly told media members he wasn't angry at McGregor and had a high level of respect for him.
Currently, there is no word on a proposed rematch against Diaz. Two days after the McGregor meeting in Los Angeles, White and Fertitta flew to Stockton to have lunch with Diaz and discuss the fight. The two sides were unable to immediately come to financial terms. When asked to describe the status of the rematch, White told ESPN, simply, "(it) wasn't a good day."
Oddly looming over the negotiations is a proposed boxing match between undefeated, retired superstar Floyd Mayweather and McGregor, a story that has unexpectedly grown legs in recent weeks. McGregor remains under contract with the UFC, and the two compete in very different sports, but that hasn't stopped Mayweather from saying in interviews there is a real possibility of the two meeting in the ring. Presumably, the only way that could happen would be if the UFC signed off on it or McGregor was able to wiggle out of his contract.
So, as much as McGregor says his relationship with the UFC is "good" and the two parties have "had great times and done great things" together, one has to wonder if they're not where they were on April 19 -- in need of each other, but certainly not willing to cede a balance of power to the other.
Last month, McGregor used the possibility of "retirement" as leverage to challenge the UFC's total control. Perhaps this time, he's using the possibility of "Mayweather."
"I'm committed to the fight game," McGregor said when asked if he's committed to the UFC. "I enjoy competition. I enjoy challenges. If a challenge is in front of me and it appeals to me, I will go ahead and conquer it.
"Did I make that flight (to Las Vegas)? Did I do all the media? Did I dance like a monkey? No. Am I still here? Am I still fighting? Am I still collecting? Yeah. So, they saved face, I saved face -- there was no loser. We all won in a way. I had them realistically, but they couldn't bow down, so there was no loser. I was over here, they were there and now we're in the middle. We're in a good spot."