On Saturday, November 12th, combat sports make its return to the floor of Madison Square Garden, although this time in an octagon, not a ring. It has been 9 years, 5 months, and 3 days since the last (sanctioned) punch was thrown in the historic venue, and Saturday’s UFC 205 will be the first legal Mixed Martial Arts event in New York since a state ban in 1997.
The fight for legalization is an incredible story in its own right, full of drama, political corruption, casino employees, culinary unions and Las Vegas business quarrels. On paper, the card is quite possibly the best one ever assembled in the history of the UFC. Sporting three championship bouts, and sixteen of the twenty fighters on the main and preliminary cards are ranked in the top ten of their respective weight classes. UFC 205 is all but guaranteed to be one of the best displays of MMA the world has ever seen.
However, one man at the top of the fight card is, has been and seemingly always will be commanding the attention of the fans, fighters and media. That man is “The Notorious” Conor McGregor.
To the casual sports fan, McGregor is a gregarious, gaudy, fast-talking Irishman who grabs headlines with his out-of-cage antics. His CONSTANT trash talking, Instagram flexing and press conference performances keep him at the center of MMA news, and his seemingly endless ability to generate content for internet memes keeps him at the center of sports culture.
To the MMA fan, McGregor is a gregarious, gaudy, fast-talking Irishman who boasts a 20-3 overall record, 8-1 in the UFC. He’s known for his stellar, dynamic striking, arguably subpar grappling and ground skills (as exploited by Nate Diaz at UFC 196) and having the sand to fight at the highest level in three different weight classes.
His polarizing being is one of the most exciting, fresh and authentic things to happen to the UFC in its existence. Since his UFC debut in 2013, Conor has fought in the Featherweight (145 lb), Lightweight (155 lb) and Welterweight (170 lb) divisions. He has won, and currently holds, the Featherweight championship belt, seven consecutive post fight bonuses (most ever), five consecutive Performance of the Night awards (most ever), 2 Fight of the Night awards, and has 6 knockouts in the Featherweight division (most ever). He owns three of the top four pay-per-view buy records for the UFC and appeared on the cover of the UFC’s most recent video game. Saturday he will be competing for the Lightweight championship belt, hoping to become the first UFC fighter ever to hold two belts in two classes simultaneously.
Yet, despite all of this, he has been met with severe criticism regarding his self-promotion, dodging opponents (both in and out of the ring) and his “special treatment” by the UFC. All of these accolades, criticisms, assessments, opinions and statistics merely scratch the material surface of who McGregor is, and how he got here. The reality is that there are two Conors: there is the infamous, brash, cocky “Mystic Mac,” and there is the hungry, humble, dedicated Conor McGregor who runs almost exclusively on self-belief.
It’s rare that people look past the El Chapo-themed outfits, the expensive cars, clothes, watches and the witty insults hurled at opponents and examine the introspective, intelligent McGregor. Everything in his life is by design, achieved by his own will and dedication.
No one is more aware of this than McGregor himself, recently saying, “There’s no talent here; this is hard work. This is an obsession. Talent does not exist, we are all equal as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that is that. I am not talented; I am obsessed.” (If that quote doesn’t make you want to go out and conquer the world lose my fucking number)
That version of McGregor doesn’t generate memes, it does not sell pay per views and it doesn’t insult opponents, so it gets pushed aside for the “You’ll do nootin!” or the now famous “Who the fuck is that guy?” from the 205 presser. Yet, for every one of those quotes that puts dollar signs in Dana White’s eyes, there are ten that exhibit McGregor’s deep, real understanding of sacrifice, discipline, pain and, in turn, success.
McGregor has talked candidly about almost quitting MMA just THREE years ago, when he was fighting in smaller promotions all over Europe, when the UFC was a distant dream. He has talked about the road from those days, with nothing but holes in his pockets, to the lavish life of opulence he lives now. His girlfriend, Dee Devlin, has been with him since 4 months before his first fight. She has stuck with him this entire time, and no one is more cognizant or thankful for that than Conor. He’s stayed loyal to Straight Blast Gym and coach John Kavanagh since day one, a rarity in the world of MMA.
Conor has talked about how he does not believe in superstitions but keeps an old hat belonging to his grandfather in his bag to remind him of who he is and where he comes from. His family and friends are the most important thing to him in his life, and many of them have been there since the very beginning. McGregor’s father was not supportive in his decision to leave his job as a plumber and pursue a career in fighting. Conor’s response to that? “Now, I have retired him. Now, he doesn’t have to work, so it’s a beautiful thing to give back to my family. That’s all I really want. That’s what I do this for, to secure my family’s future. I don’t care about anything else. I’m able to spoil people and that’s the best thing.”
We would rather take Conor at face value; frankly, it’s an easier pill to swallow. It’s easier to label a man as arrogant and cocky than to acknowledge the sacrifices he’s made and the accomplishments he’s earned to get to this point. It’s easier to laugh at the psychological warfare he wages on his opponents than examine his thoughts on self-belief and work ethic (without getting too introspective, maybe because they expose our lack of both?). It’s easier to root against and hate on a guy than it is to believe in him with the same supreme confidence he does in himself, and ultimately risk failure.
There truly are two Conors: one that appeals to our insatiable need for entertainment now, and one that, when acknowledged, leaves us inspired and hungry for success in our own right. The mastermind behind both is Conor McGregor, and that is the Mystique of the Mystic Mac.