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 UFC’s lightweight champion Conor McGregor and his power over the world of combat sports has hit something of a speed-bump in recent times, just months removed from the glitz and glamour of his boxing debut, a bout that could well stand as the most lucrative payday he will ever make in his career as an athlete.
And though his detractors seem to be reveling in each and every opportunity they get to downplay his accomplishments in the UFC, many have still speculated that this so-called implosion of the sport’s biggest star before our very eyes is nothing but a facade, another game played by the guy who so publicly announced his retirement to the world back in 2016, merely as an act of defiance against a heavy promotional schedule that he wanted no part of.
I have decided to retire young.
Thanks for the cheese.
Catch ya's later.
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 19, 2016
I mean the man himself famously left the stage during the memorable UFC 202 bottle-throwing incident and said to his coach, ‘the illusion of insanity is over, now for the gameplan.’
Sure, there’s every chance that the fame, the excesses of the high-life and the $100 million payday that came with ‘the Money Fight’ have finally gotten to the former two-weight world champion, but to those who have followed his ascent from the beginning, it’s hard 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 that for the first time in his life, 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.
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 has 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.
@TheNotoriousMMA I just caught your fight, Conor. Congratulations, you looked sensational! Hope to see you in the UFC someday. Best of luck!
— Joe Rogan (@joerogan) January 1, 2013
To anyone, it would have seemed like McGregor’s clear talent, undeniable record and stunning performance against the aforementioned Buchinger would have been enough to see him get the call from the UFC brass in no time, but 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. Like 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 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 only one fight into his UFC career. No, this was a man 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.
Two belts and shares in the company.
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) June 5, 2014
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 as much as 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.”
This was the moment that made the man, I believe.
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 genuinely believed 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 him as he accepted failure and him as he 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