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The Day Conor McGregor Walked Away From Mixed Martial Arts

For all of the wealth, admiration and success Conor McGregor has accumulated over the years, one moment of uncertainty and doubt became the key ingredient to his inimitable drive and self-belief.

The consistent rise of the former UFC lightweight champion and his power over the world of combat sports has hit something of a speed-bump in recent times, a process that was seemingly intensified after a one-sided defeat at the hands of his great rival Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229.

His detractors seem to be revelling in each and every opportunity they get to downplay his accomplishments in the UFC and for that reason, I would be very, very surprised if we didn’t see McGregor fight at least once in 2019.

Sure, there’s every chance that the fame, the excesses of the high-life and the gargantuan paydays that have been flowing freely in recent years have finally gotten to the former two-weight world champion, but to those who have followed his ascent from the beginning, it’s a little harder for us to put too much stock in the narrative that we are being fed, given the track-record of the man in question.

The interesting thing, however, is McGregor doesn’t need to fight again.

His financial future and the future of virtually everyone within his closely-knit circle is now about as stable as one could hope for, and with several avenues well outside the realms of getting punched in the head repeatedly now open to him, who could really blame him for stepping away from the sport?

Well, quite a few people actually.


One of the key ingredients to McGregor’s rise has, of course, been the loyal support of his fans across the world, but in particular, those who rose with him at first in his hometown of Dublin and then those Irish men and women who followed him as he fought all around the world.

As much as it would be a perfectly viable option for him to actually step away from the sport, to do so at this exact time would not only stand as a massive disservice to those who have invested so much of their time, energy and money into supporting him, but it would also allow those who have tirelessly attacked and doubted him at every turn to be justified in doing so.

And anyone who knows Conor McGregor as a human being and as a fighter should know that proving his doubters wrong has always been a priority.

It was what led him to take on the most feared lightweight in history after a two-year absence from the octagon and make no mistake, it will be what leads him back to the bright-lights before long.

Love him or hate him, his willpower and determination to achieve and innovate is beyond question at this point but despite the almost-obsessive attention that has been paid to his every move over the course of the last four or five years, one pivotal moment, a moment that formed the man who would rise to the very top of the world, has been criminally-underexamined.

Back in 2013, before McGregor made his UFC debut against Marcus Brimage, he was a two-weight world champion in the European MMA promotion Cage Warriors and had amassed an impressive record of 12-2, with all but one of his wins coming by way of knockout (the other being through a rear-naked choke).

Twelve finishes from twelve wins is the kind of form that can see a regional-level fighter attain ‘highly-regarded prospect’ status from virtually anyone who knows even a tiny bit about the sport.

We’ve seen people signed to the UFC for less.

Two belts in two different weight-classes and an absolute masterclass against his final pre-UFC opponent Ivan Buchinger had the eyes of the MMA world on Conor, with even the iconic color-commentator Joe Rogan being among the many to tip his hat to the Irishman’s first round lightweight-championship win, which in itself is a pretty special honour for a European fighter fighting far away from the mainstream lights of the UFC.

To anyone, it would have seemed like McGregor’s clear talent, vibrant personality, undeniable record and stunning title-winning performance against the aforementioned Buchinger would have been enough to see him get the call from the UFC brass in no time.

However, in an interview during an appearance on The Fighter & The Kid podcast from back in 2013, Conor explained how he effectively retired from the sport despite clearly being at the very height of his powers.

“You know, there are many ups and downs in the fight-game. There are many times where you have these conversations where you either want to do it or you don’t want to do it and I think for me it was when I originally signed with the UFC.

“I was already a two-weight world champion in my previous organisation. I held the featherweight belt and I held the lightweight belt but as you know, outside of the UFC it is not financially secure.

“I was unsure of what to do. A longtime teammate of mine had gotten some bad news after too many wars inside the octagon so I sat back, the UFC had not called yet.

“I had two gold belts wrapped around my waist and I was thinking ‘I don’t think I want to do this’ and maybe this is not for me if this happened to my friend who came up with me in the game and now he cannot compete anymore – and he is UFC-calibre also – and he never got his opportunity.”

Of course, concerns over the long-term effects of consistent head-trauma are a perfectly reasonable fear to have, but even still, to walk away from the sport after such a massive accomplishment in Cage Warriors just doesn’t seem like something the future UFC champion would ever do.

He had to have known that if the UFC didn’t call him then, he had all of the talent necessary to make his argument impossible to ignore.

As I said before, fighters have been signed to the promotion for much less in the past.

This wasn’t the Conor McGregor who hoisted two UFC belts on his shoulders for a photo in 2014, long before he was even a contender, or the Conor McGregor who posted a tweet saying ‘two belts and shares in the company’ when he was just one fight into his UFC career.

No, this was a guy who was unsure of his abilities, worried about the stability of his future and above all else, doubtful about his chances in this merciless game.

For a man who has made such a point of attempting to shut down his doubters at every turn, before he joined the UFC he doubted himself more than anyone, despite having every reason – given his prowess in Cage Warriors – to believe he could achieve great things.

“So I sat back and had essentially walked away from the sport and I was out of the gym for maybe three or four weeks. Then, I was sitting in my friend’s car, the phone rang – it was from Iceland – my coach John Kavanagh was over there with my teammate Gunnar [Nelson] who was preparing to fight. And it rang and it rang and I did not want to answer and I had not been in the gym for four weeks. I coached the boxing class in the gym.

“So for every Tuesday for those four weeks, I was missing. I didn’t text anyone, didn’t show up. I was done, I was gone. My friend in the car said ‘just answer the thing’ and I said ‘I’m not answering the thing because it’s going to be a fight and there’ll be arguing over something’.

“But the phone kept ringing so I said I’d answer it. ‘How do you feel about making your UFC debut in nine weeks in Sweden?’ So then I put the phone down and had a long conversation with myself and said that some people’s journeys are meant to go other ways but this is my destiny now and that’s when I said I would give this everything.”

I believe that this was the moment that made the man.

Within the space of four short weeks, he went from accepting defeat and his retirement all the way to beginning the process of building himself up to eventually be in a position where he would accomplish more than anyone who had ever laced up MMA gloves before him.

It might have taken time to get himself into that headspace but I just think that the contrast between the McGregor who accepted failure and the McGregor who then set out to achieve the stuff of legend is simply remarkable and a real point of reference for those who find themselves wondering about the source of his sometimes-insane self-belief.

All out-of-octagon antics aside, as an athlete and as an example of what the mind can achieve, we are dealing with a very special human being in Conor McGregor and one who will be – and already has been – studied down to the most minute of details for quite some time.

Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena

About Cillian Cunningham

Lead mixed martial arts writer who can be contacted at cillian@punditarena.com.