Thou knowest this man’s fall, but thou knowest not his wrassling.
One of the truest tests of a person’s character is how they respond to failure. Wins and losses come and go and we can’t always count on the desired result. What matters more than results is the process by which we navigate those wins and losses—the spirit of resilience developed under adversity and carried over every obstacle along the way. Accepting the challenges we encounter without fear of failure, no matter the risk or the odds, is one kind of victory, and those who can pull it off with style and grace reveal a bit of what human beings are capable.
On January 23rd, on the secluded “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, the most iconic, charismatic, and polarizing mixed martial artist to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), “The Notorious” Conor McGregor, was knocked out in the second round by the Louisiana native Dustin Poirier, thereby avenging the latter’s first-round knockout defeat to McGregor back in 2014. A characterological cross between Muhammed Ali, Bruce Lee, and a Celtic warrior, the Irishman has carried himself as the smooth-talking showman, engaging in the kind of pre-fight psychological warfare with opponents that smudges the line between reality and spectacle. But now, at 32 years of age and well into fatherhood, McGregor was all warmth and respect before and after the Poirier fight. He was clearly disappointed with the result but declared himself satisfied with his effort and already looking forward to the trilogy. “Dustin fought a hell of a fight. Very happy for him. Very happy that I got to compete. I put in an immense amount of work. I gave it me all. I’ll regroup for sure.”
This has been a recurring theme of McGregor’s career with his head coach, John Kavanagh. Kavanagh was the first Irish black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the first Irish coach to have his fighters compete and win in the UFC, and the first MMA fighter from Ireland. Under his guidance, McGregor has approached martial arts with a “win or learn” mentality that views failure as an opportunity for growth in the lifelong pursuit of personal development and sporting excellence. But it was Poirier who seemed to have learned most from their first bout. Conor was the heavy favorite coming in, landing big shots early on and controlling the pace of the contest. Then Poirier’s lower-calf kicks into the peroneal nerve robbed McGregor of his power and balance, leaving him vulnerable to heavy punches. Before the fight, Conor had agreed to donate a chunk of his earnings to Poirier and his wife Jolie’s charity foundation “The Good Fight,” which provides vital services to the children of Southern Louisiana. This resulted in an extraordinary backstage moment after McGregor’s defeat:
Notwithstanding prevailing mainstream misconceptions of MMA as a barbaric relic of an ugly past, dignified moments like these are more the rule than the exception. Martial arts are primarily about self-improvement, refining our strengths and weaknesses, and learning to cope with discomfort and danger. At a time when unbridled expressions of masculinity are broadly discouraged and even disparaged, there’s something cathartic about watching two individuals give everything they have in a pure form of physical competition and then treat one another with respect in its bloody aftermath. MMA represents a meeting of cultures and individuals that transcend identity, class, and geography while integrating art and philosophy with sport—a healthy pressure valve in the modern world.
Mixed martial arts essentially began with the UFC’s first free-fighting tournament in 1993, though the roots of freestyle fighting can be traced back much further. Initiated by Brazil’s famous fighting family, the Gracies, the UFC was organized in part to test their chosen style of jiu-jitsu against other techniques. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a grappling art developed by Hélio Gracie, the smallest and weakest of the Gracie clan, who worked out his own system of positions, steps, and moves to overcome larger and stronger opponents. By the 1990s, the Gracie family dominated the competition across Brazil and Japan and, after an approach from American businessman Art Davie, they decided to enter Hélio’s son Royce (who was by no means the best of the family at the time) into the tournament to represent Gracie Jiu-Jitsu on the world’s stage. In the beginning it was a matter of pitting singular styles against others—boxing, wrestling, karate—but none of them stood much of a chance against jiu-jitsu. Royce won the first few tournaments with relative ease, often defeating much larger opponents.
Up to this point, different styles were still segregated. The exposure of weaknesses within various disciplines changed the game. Over the next 30 years, a systematic evolutionary process occurred in which different disciplines and techniques in different areas of fighting—submissions, striking, the clinch, takedowns—were gradually integrated into a unified set with rounds and weight classes. The UFC is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise under the stewardship of eccentric businessman Dana White and the premier organization of modern MMA, and fighters must be virtually world-class in every aspect of the sport.
Before every big fight, once both fighters have made their way to the cage, there is a moment of nerve-jangling anticipation. I don’t know if anyone is more confident and composed in those moments than Conor McGregor. “When you watch Conor McGregor fight,” UFC commentator and podcaster Joe Rogan once remarked, “there’s an inescapable feeling that you are witnessing something that comes around only once in a lifetime. Someone that is just undeniably special.” McGregor is the sport’s most popular fighter, the first Irishman to ever win a fight in the UFC, the first Irishman to become a champion in the UFC, the first fighter in the history of the UFC to hold championship belts in two different weight divisions (145 and 155 lbs), and the first fighter in the European circuit to do the same. He’s also the only modern MMA fighter to have challenged one of the world’s greatest boxers when he fought Floyd Mayweather.
McGregor has embraced his national ancestry and mythology, but within a global humanist context. He’s also proved to be a savvy businessman, a loyal friend, teammate, and family member, a self-described expert in effective “human movement,” and a bon viveur with a taste for the finer things in life. He displays an obsessiveness with his craft that borders on fanaticism. But his actions outside the cage have sometimes crossed the line and made him a figure of controversy, revealing the excesses of inflated persona, idolatry, and magical thinking, and exposing the distance between public image and private reality.
Above all, McGregor’s success can be attributed to an attitude in which there is no opponent and we are always competing with ourselves, embodying a spirit of antagonistic cooperation through the metaphor of combat that uses adversity, struggle, and suffering to become a better human being.
* * *
Conor McGregor was born to Tony and Margaret McGregor in Crumlin, Dublin, a sprawling working-class suburb, on July 14th, 1988. He emerged with his fists clenched under his chin and the midwife is said to have remarked that he’d be a fighter. McGregor was a crazy, unusually confident kid filled with energy and a wild imagination, and he soon encountered the threat of violence as he got older and ventured out of his neighborhood. He was jumped a few times by older kids and began carrying a barbell in his backpack to swing at potential attackers who attacked him as he walked to school. He took up boxing at the age of 12 at Crumlin Boxing Club and went on to become an amateur boxing champion. This is a common theme among people who get into martial arts. “I never cared about sport and I still really don’t. I didn’t get in it to be the all-Ireland champion or the world champion. I just got into it so people would say, ‘Right, this guy does a bit of training, let’s just watch him, let’s just leave him alone.’ And then turned out I was good at it, and I just got lost in it then.”
In 2006, the family moved to Lucan, Dublin, where McGregor befriended a young man named Tom Egan who would later become the first Irishman to fight (and lose) in the UFC. Egan recalls this new kid in the class sitting with shoulders back and his chest out like he was sizing everyone up. Once the two boys discovered that they shared a passion for combat sports, they began training after school together. Egan then introduced McGregor to his MMA coach, John Kavanagh, a relationship that would become among the most symbiotic in the sport.
As he recounts in his memoir Win Or Learn—MMA, Conor McGregor and Me: A Trainer’s Journey, Kavanagh first got into mixed martial arts after he was attacked and beaten while out with his girlfriend. “I still remember hearing my girlfriend’s screams as they smashed my face into the concrete. I was hit by a brick at one point and they even tried to throw me in front of a bus.”1 MMA was virtually unknown in Ireland at the time, and Kavanagh, at tremendous risk and with the stinging disapproval of his parents, gradually established his own gym (Straight Blast Gym Ireland) and a stable of fighters. Kavanagh speaks plainly about the fear and shame involved in loss. It might seem strange from the outside, but MMA fighters are much less afraid of being hurt than they are of being embarrassed. Kavanagh copes with this fear by framing loss as an important element of personal progress. “I’ve never gotten carried away with celebrating when we win, just like I don’t get too down in the dumps after defeats. Winning and losing are two sides of the same coin. Win or learn is the SBG mantra.”2
Kavanagh noticed McGregor’s obsession with improving early on. He would text Kavanagh at night about specific transitions and techniques that he wanted to work on the next day. “What made Conor a little bit different from other fighters I’ve trained wasn’t necessarily that he was more talented,” Kavanagh explained in a short Irish MTV documentary broadcast when McGregor was first signed with the UFC. “I could see right from the beginning that he was very curious about how jiu-jitsu worked and how martial arts worked. He would be always thinking about it outside of training and when he came into training he’d always have interesting questions, questioning what I would show him and coming up with his own way of doing things. As a coach I’ve noticed over the years that the guys who tend to get better quicker are the ones who are thinking about it a lot more.”
McGregor got off to a solid start with his training and racked up his first few MMA wins by knockout. But once he reached his late teens and early 20s he started getting into trouble outside the gym and would go weeks at a time without showing up. What many people don’t know is that McGregor tasted defeat and adversity well before he came into the UFC, and that those early setbacks were partly responsible for his later success. His third professional fight was the headline bout in one of Kavanagh’s events and he was supposed to sell tickets for the show. “A lot of people came out to see me and I felt a lot of pressure. It’s funny because the way my mind was then, I was almost anticipating a loss. You nearly tell yourself if you’re gonna win or lose and those losses helped me find out about the mental side of things.” Without much grappling experience, Conor was submitted with a knee bar almost as soon as the fight went to the ground. Worse, he had spent all of the money from the tickets he’d sold and instead of admitting it he just decided not to return to the gym.
McGregor’s family began worrying about his well-being as he sank deeper into depression, only leaving his room to party. Eventually, his mother called Kavanagh and asked him to convince her son to keep training. Kavanagh was not particularly keen on working with this kid who had just stolen a bunch of his money and disappeared. Nevertheless, he showed up at the family home one day unannounced and was shown to McGregor’s room. McGregor looked like he’d seen a ghost. “I sat down on his bed and we started talking. I asked him to tell me if I was wasting my time. There were tears—from both of us—but we made a commitment to each other there and then.”3 The following Monday, McGregor returned to the gym with renewed dedication.
He recorded a couple of wins before losing again in a similar fashion in 2010 to future UFC fighter Joseph Duffy. This time, however, he was largely unaffected by the defeat and got right back on the horse, more eager to develop his jiu-jitsu than ever. McGregor was coming to terms with the meaning of loss, but this time he remained committed to improvement and victory. It was exciting to hear him speak about it. His fanbase in Ireland was rapidly growing. Just over two years after his second loss in mixed martial arts, Conor McGregor was a two-weight world champion in Europe and had secured a contract with the UFC. Asked if he was afraid of the UFC champion of his weight division, the Brazilian phenom José Aldo, McGregor was almost insulted: “Man, I would fight that guy in a heartbeat, I’d fight any of them in a heartbeat. There is no opponent at the end of the day. There’s no José Aldo. You’re against yourself. And I feel like I’m at the point where I can beat myself, where I can beat my mind. I just believe in myself so much that nothing is going to stop me.”
* * *
When McGregor made his UFC debut he was still collecting welfare payments and living with his parents. He almost missed his flight because he had to collect his dole at the post office. But in Sweden on April 6th, 2013, he knocked out Marcus Brimage in 67 seconds, earning himself a $60,000 performance-of-the-night bonus. The devoted support base he had been building in Ireland went global and his fans brought a sea of Irish tricolor flags to wherever he fought. His second UFC fight was held a few months later in Boston, and he received the protracted, lights-off walk-out treatment typically reserved for champions. McGregor beat future world champion Max Holloway easily, but tore his anterior cruciate ligament halfway through the fight. “I wanted to keep it standing and put him away, but… my whole knee just popped out midway through the second round. You must improvise, adapt, and overcome because anything can happen inside this octagon.”
An injury like that can devastate a fighter’s career development and confidence. But as Kavanagh tells it, framing McGregor’s nearly year-long recovery in competitive terms kept him motivated. He told McGregor that “champions conquer all adversity… There’s been adversity in the past, there’s adversity right now and there will be more adversity in the future. But you’ve overcome it before and you are going to overcome it again. Why? Because you’re on the road to becoming a UFC champion and this is just a minor obstacle along the way. This time next year we are going to be laughing about all of this.”4
Around that time next year, McGregor headlined the second UFC event to be held in Dublin on a historic night for Irish MMA. McGregor had by then become one of the UFC’s biggest stars with only two fights in the organization, and it was time to kick in the door so that his teammates could follow. All four of Kavanagh’s fighters won their bouts that night in front of a packed arena with noise levels comparable to those of a rock concert (they were officially registered as 111 decibels—about as loud as a jet plane taking off). McGregor dispatched the Brazilian Diego Brandão with a first round knockout to wrap up a successful night for SBG Ireland. “There’s not a man alive who can come on this soil and beat me,” he announced, waxing patriotic. “I said it last year: We’re not here just to take part! We’re here to take over!”
His next fight was in Las Vegas against Dustin Poirier in their first matchup. McGregor taunted Poirier for weeks and then knocked him out in 90 seconds. But he showed his defeated opponent the same respect he’d display years later following the rematch. “I had no ill feelings towards Dustin,” he said after the win. “It was weird to me that he was like ‘I’ve never hated a guy as much as I hate this guy.’ I cannot hate a man who has the same dreams as me. I have nothing but respect for these competitors. Make no mistake, I am cocky in prediction, I am confident in preparation, but I am always humble in victory or defeat.”
A date was finally agreed for the fight between McGregor and José Aldo, and it was billed as the biggest UFC event of all time. Aldo was the only featherweight champion in the UFC at that point (the division was established in 2010), hadn’t lost in MMA for 10 years, and was considered, pound-for-pound, to be one of the greatest fighters ever. In the lead-up, the two men participated in a media world tour during which McGregor repeatedly antagonized Aldo and even snatched away his UFC belt in front of a roaring Dublin crowd. But as the fight approached, McGregor’s leg injury flared up during training, severely compromising his preparations, particularly his wrestling. Then, two weeks before the fight, Aldo was forced to pull out due to a rib injury and Conor agreed to fight Chad Mendes for the interim belt instead.
Almost no one else would have agreed to the Mendes fight at that stage—a completely different style of opponent, an injury, and more pressure than is fathomable to most human beings. The event itself was unprecedented. Celebrities were scattered about and the singer Sinéad O’Connor sang the classic Irish ballad “The Foggy Dew” as Conor entered the octagon. McGregor received a beating in the first two rounds, but with seconds of the second round remaining, he climbed back onto his feet and finished Mendes off. It was the most emotional I’d ever seen him. “I’m absolutely blown away by the support. So much went on during the build-up to this. I just honestly want to say thank you to my team, to everyone that’s come up with me. And to the Irish people that supported me, I swear to God I done this for us.”
When the Aldo fight finally rolled around a few months later, McGregor was almost over-prepared. He knocked out the greatest featherweight of all time in 13 seconds flat during their first exchange. Huh?! Even crazier, he described the finishing shot in an interview before the fight took place. “I felt when we stared down that his right hand was twitching, which was a subtle tell for me. He is ready to unload that right hand and I feel that could be a downfall for him. If he lets that right hand go, I will not be there. I will walk him into that dead space and all of a sudden he will be in danger.”
Within months of the Aldo victory, McGregor planned to move up a weight division to fight for the lightweight title (155 lbs), something no one had attempted before. But when the presiding champion pulled out of the fight with a broken foot, McGregor arranged to fight another crowd favorite and longtime UFC veteran, Nate Diaz, at 170 lbs. This time his confidence didn’t pay off. He had put on too much weight too quickly and, after winning the first round with a lovely boxing exhibition, he tired visibly in the second and Diaz capitalized, starching him with punches and winning by submission with a choke. It was a tough loss after all the momentum. Determined to get it back, McGregor faced Diaz again a few months later. McGregor versus Diaz II was a test for McGregor and a chance to prove he could rebound from defeat in the UFC. The fight was a back-and-forth tug-of-war but McGregor won a close decision in a beautiful showcase of heart and courage from both men. Riding high, McGregor went on to fight for the UFC lightweight title, dusting off Eddie Alvarez with a second round knockout to make history yet again as the first ever UFC two-weight world champion.
* * *
“It is provided in the essence of things,” wrote Walt Whitman, “that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.” Instead of defending his two UFC belts, McGregor next fought the undefeated boxing legend Floyd “Money” Mayweather. He did fairly well for an MMA fighter but ultimately succumbed in the 10th round. Then the controversies began piling up. In 2017, McGregor jumped into the cage at an MMA event to celebrate with a victorious friend and started a fight with referee Marc Goddard who was trying to restore order. In 2018, after a teammate of McGregor’s was threatened and slapped by his future rival, the undefeated Dagestani grappling specialist Khabib Nurmagomedov, McGregor stormed the arena with a gang of people and smashed the window of a bus full of UFC fighters who had nothing to do with the altercation. Some of them were lacerated by shards of glass and were forced to pull out of their fights that weekend. It was an ugly, heinous scene provoked by a juvenile schoolyard beef. He was subsequently arrested in New York and punished with a week of community service and anger management classes.
This set up a huge fight with Nurmagomedov, who had won the lightweight championship in McGregor’s absence. In a press conference before the fight, McGregor sputtered red-faced venom about Nurmagomedov’s family, religion, and nationality. It was way over the top and McGregor later admitted he had been drinking during fight week. When the fight actually happened, it wasn’t very close. Although McGregor enjoyed a few good moments, he was outclassed by a superior grappler and lost in the fourth round by submission. After the fight, Nurmagomedov leapt out of the cage towards McGregor’s team and started a massive brawl during which McGregor was assaulted by Nurmagomedov’s teammates. It was a black day for a sport that is still working its way out of a labyrinth of taboos. Then, in 2019, while out at a Dublin pub one night, McGregor punched an older gentleman in the face who had apparently refused a sip of his patented Irish whisky. He subsequently paid a fine of 1,000 Euros.
Not long after that, McGregor was accused of sexual assault in Dublin by two separate women and of exposing himself to a third in Corsica. Although the criminal charges were dismissed in each case, a civil claim was launched by one of his alleged victims in Ireland’s High Court. The case is currently pending. McGregor denies the charges, but it’s worth noting the shallowness that attends public discussion of influential figures accused of criminality. There seems to be a prevailing assumption that those who find success in one aspect of life should be held to higher moral standards than everyone else. If anything, the opposite seems more likely: Whatever positive charge drives people to achieve great things can come with an equal and opposite negative charge. The insecurities and character flaws that develop in childhood don’t disappear as we mature; we just get better at managing them. And idols seldom live up to the ideal manufactured by press and promoters. As James Baldwin once observed, the very purpose of idols is to destroy them. And yet we still need our stories, our myths, and our heroes.
For now, at least, it seems that Conor McGregor is back because he loves fighting for its own sake. After losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov, he returned to the UFC in early 2020 with a 40-second knockout of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. During a candid interview with Ariel Helwani in 2019 after all the controversies, he accepted responsibility for his mistakes and said he drew inspiration from the stories of other MMA fighters who had come back from defeat. After the recent Poirier fight, he welled up as he spoke about the loyal support of his fan base throughout his troubles. “I’m very grateful for the support I’ve received. It’s got me up off the floor many times throughout my competitive and personal life. I’m proud and honored to come here before you and put a show on for the people. I done this for the support, for the fans, and all I can say is that I’m sorry I let the side down.” During the post-fight press conference, an Irish journalist said this: “A wise man once said, ‘He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat.’ Although we didn’t get to see the masterpiece you intended to create tonight, we got to see a sensational display of heart, charisma, and pride all week. I feel the people taking most away from this will be your children, leading by example in defeat. If that’s not a masterclass I don’t know what is.”
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