With each obscenity, quick-witted put down and victory, Conor McGregor lights up the city that built him.
This cult of personality ignites Dublin’s youth as a symbol of hope while those of a certain vintage remain vocal in their distaste for his words and uneasy with the sport he represents.
Critical moments shaped his childhood, interests and mind to form a persona he labels ‘The Notorious’. But what made the man behind the manic eyes? And how much of it is real?
Being humbled – A Mayweather fan learns ‘manners’
Dublin’s River Liffey is tranquil when we visit three weeks before McGregor will earn a reported $100m (£77,500,000) in his boxing debut against the undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr.
A few streets away, Aisling Daly – Ireland’s first MMA world champion – has just taken one of her clients as a personal trainer and sits in a gym in front of a white board, scrawled with the words ‘demand the impossible and you will receive the maximum’. It fits the topic of conversation – McGregor – who met Daly when both he and his world were changing.
A house move from Crumlin to Lucan in his late teens forced McGregor to switch schools. He was dismayed and vividly recalls a feeling of “isolation”.
But already a skilled junior boxer, he met new classmate Tom Egan. Egan preached MMA and satisfied McGregor’s rabid interest in combat enough to prompt a change in focus. Both men would make it to the UFC through Dublin’s Straight Blast Gym.
Daly, now retired from UFC, recalls McGregor’s first SBG visit. Wishing to prove his worth, he “dropped” her with a body shot and did the same to Owen Roddy – the gym’s best fighter.
“It was a tumultuous one,” says Daly. “At the end of that first session our coach John Kavanagh took him and put manners on him.
“He was arrogant, the same way he is now with the swagger, probably thinking this MMA stuff was easy.
“So John took him down to the mat straight away and controlled all the positions on the ground. He just incapacitated him, landing a few stingy shots. Conor had respect after that round.”
McGregor was hooked. It transpired that unwanted house move was critical. And in joining the SBG Gym he was timely, invading a blossoming crop of talent. He was given his own key after consistently waking Kavanagh up requesting the SBG be opened.
Obsessive in his learning, his study honed in on a noteworthy subject.
“He’s always been a massive Mayweather fan,” says Daly with a smile. “He’d be coaching, showing us punch combinations and videos and he showed us the Mayweather pull-counter.
“Now he’s in a position where one of his idols is his rival. Knowing Conor, he will believe he is his equal.”
Learning to believe – McGregor’s Secret
Interviews across Dublin consistently ratify Daly’s view that what we see in the media is McGregor calling on a genuine charisma. The persona is the man.
“What you see on TV is just an amplified version of Conor,” she adds. “He has a genuine self belief you can’t teach. He believes himself to a point where eventually it manifests.”
To the TV viewer that self-belief is the foundation from which the soundbites launch. It is perhaps McGregor’s key component and took work to develop.
‘The Secret’, written by Rhonda Byrne, was thrust upon McGregor by one of his two older sisters, Erin. The self-help book outlines ways for someone to reach their dreams through positive thinking and visualisation – believing and living as if good things have already happened.
The intervention should not be underestimated. McGregor talks about the book’s impact passionately. Both he and girlfriend Dee Devlin follow its guidance to this day.
“Before anything big had happened he’d be in the gym saying ‘we have multiple world titles, we are millionaires, we have everything we want,'” says ex-UFC fighter Paddy Holohan. “I could just tell he meant every word.
“Conor is an absolute animal, people don’t understand. This guy is different. He had incredible belief in himself.”
An aura rising from recession
This surge in confidence came at a time where McGregor’s father – Tony – told him MMA would not pay.
They clashed when McGregor sacrificed a plumbing apprenticeship in order to train and retaliating, he told his father he would be a millionaire by the age of 25. He was by 26 and the bloody-mindedness in getting there has influenced a generation.
“When Conor rose to prominence in 2009, the country was in a crippling recession,” Peter Carroll, Ireland’s longest serving MMA journalist, tells us.
“He was one of the guys affected by it. He was the one guy that said I’m going to do something no one really knows about and I’ll be the biggest success story this country has seen. I think it gave people hope and a lot of people, particularly youngsters, attached to that.”
Carroll has covered McGregor closely since the early years. He has witnessed his desire to visualise positive outcomes, notably when spin-kicking in his boxer shorts each morning while verbally convincing himself an injured knee had improved overnight.
The street on which we meet in Blanchardstown houses a butcher, bakery and coffee shop. It feels sleepy, local. Carroll is passionate, insightful and almost disbelieving of how McGregor became so global.
“I always thought he was going to either die really young or be a superstar because he was a million miles an hour,” he adds.
“He had this aura about him right back then, when he walked into a room, every single eye was on him. He’s not staggeringly handsome but he exudes this energy, this presence. I’ve never witnessed it in anyone else.
“It was like he was trained from nine years old how to do interviews. He was always an extrovert. I remember the first time I saw him there were around 200 people at a fight in a small club and Conor was the loudest person in the room.
“Even there, he was decked out in the highest trends, the funky jeans we all thought were really cool but look atrocious now, and he had a Paddy cap on. I don’t think he needed cameras to be that guy, he was always that guy.”
Arrogant, brash, groundbreaking
Both Daly and Holohan echo Carroll’s recollections of McGregor’s fashion statements long before his Instagram account began showcasing his expensive threads, long before £20,000 mink robes, long before suits with expletive-laden pin stripes.
A day before we meet with all three of them, they team up to defend MMA in a radio debate. McGregor’s success helps catapult a sport some deem too violent into the mainstream.
“I think it’s a generation problem,” adds Carroll. “I don’t know how we are stuck in a conversation which was going on 25 years ago in America, especially given we have the biggest star in combat sports here in Ireland.”
Mark, a cabbie awaiting a fare on O’Connell Street, believes McGregor is “love-hate”.
“We don’t like people who are arrogant and brash as a rule” he says. “My generation tends to think ‘calm it down a bit Conor’.”
In studying what makes McGregor, one wonders if this divide in some way suits him. The more you delve in to his self belief, the more you feel he’d rather lead an army of fellow believers than carry those of indifference.
“There’s this avid cultural transition we see through Conor,” adds Carroll. “He’s seen as a compass for youngsters when it comes to fashion, how they speak, how they act. I don’t think Ireland has ever produced a bigger star in sport.
“This is the first time we have had someone trying to get on to the next thing, constantly breaking boundaries. A lot of Irish stars before have been unassuming, with an almost happy-to-be-here mentality.
“Knowing Conor like I know Conor, he always wants to do something bigger. I don’t know how the hell it gets bigger than this but it will.”
Avoiding meltdown and kidnapping boxing
Crumlin Boxing Club, where McGregor started hitting bags aged 12, is nestled in-between the local football club’s artificial pitch and parkland equipped with rugby posts.
McGregor’s face can barely be found among the hundreds of images on the walls lapping two rings. The truth is this place lost him. Those MMA conversations with Egan in class proved too distracting.
A short drive away is the Black Forge Inn, where a visit from the local hero is known to prompt “mayhem”.
“The last time he was in here I told him he could buy this pub,” says landlord Liam Flynn. “The next time I see him I will say to him ‘Conor, I don’t think you can afford it’. With him, that reverse psychology means he’ll buy it.”
In almost 48 hours in Dublin, Flynn is the first person to state McGregor – now a father – may be mellowing, describing him as “totally different to five years ago”.
While we are told his frenzied nature is his true nature, surely a personality so unique, puffed-up by ongoing success, will need to plot carefully to avoid flying too close to the sun? If the rise was rapid, the fall could be spectacular.
“The guys you see with him in photographs are the ones who liked the irritating spotty 18-year-old Conor and they are still there because they care,” adds Daly. “He can trust them. Not many new people have come into the circle so he’s making smart decisions.”
Those closest to him knew McGregor when he was picking up 188 euros-a-week in welfare. Success has brought a new home on the exclusive grounds of the K-Club, located just outside his home city.
“What you see of Conor now is what he was when he had less money,” says Holohan, as he prepares to take a kids MMA class in his new SBG Dublin 24 gym. “People don’t know what it’s like to be 29 years of age and be able to have anything they want. Thinking about it he is probably a bit tame for someone with that kind of power.
“For me, Conor is handling things like a boss. Now he has the chance to kidnap boxing.”
‘There will never be another’
Our visit to Dublin issues a belief that McGregor is more than a passing trend or conversation point.
“Every single young guy in a MMA gym now thinks they are Conor McGregor,” adds Carroll. “It’s crazy but there will never be another one.”
Tellingly, those close to him maintain what we see is what they have always got – a vocal, visionary and vicious force.
It seems the public can trust in his persona.
But how quickly will Father Time erode its magnetism? Will age dilute the confidence holding the key elements of The Notorious together?
Nine frantic years have passed since his first MMA fight. A win in his first in the boxing ring could take McGregor’s influence beyond a point not even he could have visualised.
Credit: Luke Reddy