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Conor McGregor is the UFC. He’s the savviest striker in the Octagon and a poet on the mic. From his calculated retirement and verbal spats with Dana White to the main event against Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205, the one-time plumber from Ireland has become a polarizing figure, leaving the world wanting more—win, lose, or draw.
In April of this year, UFC superstar Conor McGregor, although “superstar” is an insipid word for his actual stratospheric stardom and importance to the UFC, did something he rarely does: After underestimating Nate Diaz at UFC 196 in March, he made a complete cock-up of a move—he retired.
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He unretired two days later, in what must be some kind of record for big-statement futility. (It’s hard to call it a come-back when you haven’t left the building yet.) The 28-year-old’s out-of-the-blue announcement that he was giving up the fight game came just weeks after the rematch with Diaz was announced, who had handed him his one UFC loss to date. It was a power struggle with UFC boss Dana White over whether McGregor would leave his training camp in Iceland to fulfill contractual promotional obligations in Las Vegas, which he did not want to do.
“I have become lost in the game of promotion and forgot about the art of fighting,” McGregor declared at the time. “Sitting in a car on the way to some dump in Connecticut or somewhere, to speak to Tim and Suzie on the nobody-gives-a fuck morning show did not get me this life.”
FROM: Dublin, Ireland
WEIGHT: 170 pounds
TURNED PRO: 2008
NICKNAME: “The Notorious”
UFC RECORD: 20-3-0
WINS BY STOPPAGE: 17
FIRST-ROUND FINISHES: 13
One could speculate, not unreasonably, that having lost so surprisingly but categorically to Diaz, beaten by a move he himself fetishizes, the rear naked choke, McGregor didn’t want to take the slightest chance of being unprepared for the rematch. But we all know what the second word of show business is, and by the time he announced he was back, a time measured in nanoseconds, he was gone: White had dropped him from the bill and replaced him.
White and McGregor subsequently hugged it out, and two fight nights later, at UFC 202 in August, McGregor was back in the Octagon and outlasted Diaz in a thrilling five-round split decision, as narrow a victory as a fighter can attain. Reporters noted how intelligently McGregor adjusted his style to patiently exercising unexpected restraint, beat the taller, canny Diaz. What sticks out is their surprise. It seems never to have occurred to them that the Rock ’em Sock ’em Robot that McGregor resembles was capable of adapting his style against a tricky, more fluid opponent.
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Irish born and soaked, Conor McGregor, a 5’9″, 170 pounds Edward Scissorhands-and-feet of an MMA fighter—who’s next opponent is Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205—is by a country mile, the greatest, most charismatic athlete in the fastest-growing sport on the planet.
He looks like a leprechaun, not the false mythology of the fat little cheerful chap winking at you, but the original mythology of the vicious creature that wants the pot of gold and will tear your body apart if you try to take it from him. Out of the ring, he’s a handsome, often sartorial sprite, with an oblong rather than round face that can, even when he’s talking calmly, look like a wounded Alsatian snarling. He’s a born showman, whose simple walk across a room has the immortal swagger of a rock star. His prematch, in fact, anytime, comments are the gold dust of provocative, harshly funny put-downs that build ticket sales and generate millions of pay-per-view dollars. Videos of his fights, where you know the result, cost $60 to watch on the UFC site.
In the ring, his fat-free, almost fleshless slight frame transforms into a ruthless brutal weapon. He fights more like a traditional boxer, swiveling his shoulders to dodge murderous blows and delivering combinations of punches of deceptive power from someone his weight. In films of his fights, the astonishment of his opponents when punched betrays their pain. The kicks, elbows, and knees strikes must hurt too, but the punches rattle their being and look as if they penetrate to the places closest to death.
His rise to the top was, to cuddle a cliché, meteoric. It took him slightly over two years from his first UFC fight to his first championship. White brought him to the States after hearing so much about him on a trip to Dublin, where McGregor, then an apprentice plumber, was building a reputation in cage fights, and signed him never having seen him fight. In McGregor’s second UFC fight, against Max Holloway in Boston in 2013, he tore the ACL in his knee, one of the hardest injuries for any athlete to recover from, but still won the fight. It could have all ended there. For someone less determined, and less singularly focused, it would have. After 11 months of rehab and training, ignoring advice to sit still—“movement is medicine to me,” he said in an interview with Esquire—McGregor returned and fought Brazilian MMA champion Diego Brandao, in front of a hometown crowd in Dublin, and destroyed him, mercilessly knocking him out in the first round.
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McGregor wants to fight Floyd Mayweather. He says he would “kill him in less than 30 seconds,” which is patently ridiculous. Except it’s not to McGregor. He believes it.
“I’ve lost my mind being in this game, yeah?” he says on an Irish TV documentary. “Like Vincent van Gogh. He dedicated his life to his art, and lost his mind in the process. That’s happened to me. Well, fuck it.”
Then he smiles his demonic grin and says: “I’ll die a crazy old man!”