Thursday 19 October 2017

Conor McGregor: The teenage years, the cheeky neighbour and the talented footballer

Jack O'Toole

“You’re going to Crumlin. Make sure you bring a stab vest and a knuckle duster,” the text jokingly read.

It was 9 o’clock on a Monday morning and I had been sent to the ‘projects’ to find out more about the life of its most notorious survivor - Conor McGregor.

I’d been to Crumlin before. I was treated at Crumlin Children’s Hospital as a child and I had visited the facility frequently when my younger brother had his appendix removed there years later.

I was somewhat familiar with the area and had visited McGregor’s first boxing club on multiple occasions, where I was often greeted by Phil Sutcliffe Sr., a two-time Olympian who first taught a young McGregor how to throw a punch.

Sutcliffe and his fellow coaches could not have been more accommodating to my camera man and I during our time there.

They regaled tales of McGregor’s youth and spoke highly of his work ethic and his determination, and less glowingly of his ability to pay back his debts for the power tools he had once borrowed in a previous life. A debt which is still outstanding.

But that had all been before ESPN journalist Wright Thompson had opened my mind to the other side of Crumlin, the side where you can’t cross the street without fear of a fight breaking out.

The side where you have to drop dates off at bus stops because of the danger of what might happen to you if you walk them home, and the side where only men with McGregor’s success can be afforded safe passage through the area’s gangland boundaries.

Nov 2016: Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Eddie Alvarez by second round TKO following their lightweight title bout at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden, New York. Photo by Adam Hunger/Sportsfile
Nov 2016: Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Eddie Alvarez by second round TKO following their lightweight title bout at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden, New York. Photo by Adam Hunger/Sportsfile
August 2016: Conor McGregor of Ireland celebrates winning after his welterweight bout against Nate Diaz of USA at UFC 202 in the T-Mobile Arena
August 2016: Conor McGregor of Ireland during his welterweight bout against Nate Diaz of USA at UFC 202 in the T-Mobile Arena
August 2016: Conor McGregor of Ireland in action against Nate Diaz of USA during their welterweight bout at UFC 202 in the T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, USA. Photo by Joshua Dahl/Sportsfile
July 2014; Conor McGregor celebrates victory over Diego Brandao
July 2015: Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Chad Mendes
March 2016: Conor McGregor after being submitted via rear naked choke by Nate Diaz in their welterweight bout
March 2016: Conor McGregor, below, in action against Nate Diaz during their welterweight bout
December 2015: Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Jose Aldo
December 2015: Conor McGregor, right, lands a left punch on Jose Aldo, resulting in a knock-out stoppage after 13 seconds
December 2015: Conor McGregor, right, lands a left punch on Jose Aldo, resulting in a knock-out stoppage after 13 seconds of round one
July 2015; Conor McGregor weighs in ahead of his UFC 189 Interim Featherweight Title fight against Chad Mendes
July 2015: Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Chad Mendes
July 2015: Conor McGregor, left, in action against Chad Mendes
January 2015; Conor McGregor, left, in action against Dennis Siver
January 2015; Conor McGregor ahead of his fight with Dennis Siver
January 2015; Conor McGregor is interviewed by UFC commentator Mike Goldberg after weighing in for his fight against Dennis Siver
September 2014; Conor McGregor after his feather weight bout victory over Dustin Poirier
September 2014; Conor McGregor, centre, in action against Dustin Poirier
July 2014; Conor McGregor in action against Diego Brandao
August 2013: Conor McGregor celebrates next to Joe Rogan following his win against Max Holloway
Aug 2013: Conor McGregor punches Max Holloway
April 2013: Ireland's Conor McGregor leaves the cage after defeating US Marcus Brimage in the Ultimate Fighting Champhionship
Dec 2012: McGregor celebrates after defeating Ivan Buchinger at Cage Warriors 51
June 2012: McGregor after beating Dave Hill in Cage Warriors

I had been searching for this place as I wandered through Crumlin’s Old County road, the street just beside where McGregor was raised, but the further I walked and the more people I talked to about the UFC star and his upbringing, the more I was convinced that the side of Crumlin that Thompson was referring to was situated somewhere roughly between his left ear and his right, and not anywhere that you could pinpoint on a map.

The side that I found was the side that was located either side of McGregor’s Crumlin home, where I dropped in unannounced only to be welcomed into the home of Keith Carolan, McGregor’s childhood neighbour.

Carolan was a search and rescue winchman, a former member of the Dublin Fire Brigade and an ex-Army football captain.

He used to play football with a young McGregor on the green of grass near both of their houses, and now his teenage son Cormac plays with his former neighbour on EA Sports UFC 2, where McGregor is one of the game’s highest rated characters.

His 99 rated Stand Up and 92 rated Clinch make him one of the game's most enjoyable characters for Cormac and his friends, but long before McGregor's virtual handspeed wowed a bunch of kids from the area, it was his speed around the estate that had impressed Carolan.

“He was cheeky, there was no doubt about that,” said Carolan.

“When he would do things he’d run inside and his mother Margaret would come out and defend him.

“He was a little impish bloke. When I say cheeky I don’t mean he’d give you backchat, he just had this cheeky grin.

“He’d say something, or do something, and he’d have this cheeky grin and then he’d go running. He was a fast runner as well, you couldn’t catch him.

He was a normal young fella but he wasn’t afraid to speak up for himself. He was brought up right by Margaret and Tony. He’d give you a bit of lip and then he’d run.

“But sometimes he’d just do things for a laugh. You can see it sometimes still in him now. Every now and again when I see him interviewed on the tele you can sometimes see the young Conor comes out.

“When he’s not the brash and when he’s not the swaggering Conor McGregor, you see the little young Conor come out.

“You see the little smile on his face, especially when he’s dealing with his fiancee Dee, you see the little smile coming out. Or in some of the programs when you see he’s at home with his mam and dad, you see the little look on his face that he used to give when he was a kid, the little look of ‘oh I’m going to wind these up now’.

“He was a normal kid but they’d have their fights out there, you know the way kids have their fights, and Conor would wind them all up.”

Arguments can quickly turn into fights in Crumlin, and McGregor certainly had a few scraps long before he was paid millions to do so, but like many from his area, Carolan took exception with Wright Thompson’s recent analysis of Crumlin, a portrayal that the The Irish Times’ Jennifer O’Connell referred to as 'something like the Gaza Strip or 1920s Chicago'.

The picture is very different in Carolan’s eyes.

“I’ve lived in Crumlin for most of my life, I came here when I was three and used to live on the Monasterboice road,” he added.

“All my brothers and sisters grew up here. None of my brothers and sisters were involved in drugs. My father was in the army, my mother was a homemaker. There were nine kids in my family but there is trouble in Crumlin.

“There has been drugs in Crumlin. There still is drugs in Crumlin. There’s still a lot of bad things in Crumlin but I’ve never seen it.  I’ve never been beaten up on the streets. I read that ESPN piece and I’ve never had to drop a girlfriend off at the bus stop.

“I’ve never been afraid to walk around Crumlin or Drimnagh. Yes there are problems, and some kids that grow up have problems, but when we were growing up, when Conor was growing up here, they have Lourdes Celtic football club, they have a club ground down in Sundrive Park, they have the boxing club in Crumlin, the swimming pool in Crumlin, there’s Pearse Park in Crumlin, there’s plenty of schools, Crumlin GAA, there’s good councillors here.

"I feel safer in Crumlin than anywhere else and I've been to just about every major city in Europe."

The facilities are all still in Crumlin but McGregor is not. He now lives near the K Club in County Kildare but he still returns to the area quite frequently.

He has friends dotted all over the village. His name comes up in barbershops. If you ask about him, people are more than willing to talk to you and point you in the right direction.

When I asked where I could find some people that know him, I was given a lift by a man named Lar to Crumlin village, where I was advised to drop into the local Paddypower and Boylesports stores, as well as the local pub ‘The Horse Shoe’.

I was told that McGregor was only in the village’s Boylesports last month, just before he left for Las Vegas to continue his preparations for his professional boxing debut against Floyd Mayweather Jr. this weekend.

This was a company that only five years ago had rejected his application for some part-time work and last month he entered the same bookmakers as a 10/3 underdog about to take on the greatest boxer of his generation.

I entered the store to see if I could find out more, but unsurprisingly, all I left with was the added knowledge that McGregor was a 'good price' for a knockout, and that betting companies don’t disclose that type of information to people that just walk in off the street.

But when I stepped outside the store’s offices on St Agnes road, a local man approached me as he could hear that I was talking about McGregor over the phone.

“Are you looking for McGregor?” the voice bellowed behind the end of a cigarette.

“No,” I replied before hanging up the phone to my editor. “I don’t think I’ll find him here. I think I’m a few thousand miles off at this stage.”

“Yeah you’re right, you won’t find him here, but he was here just a few weeks ago,” the man replied back.

“So I’ve heard,” I added before asking him: “Does he still come around here often?”

“He does,” the man replied. “My brother knows him and would be friends with him, you see him drive down here in his Lambo.. But not to show off or anything like that, he’s not really like that, it’s just, well, I suppose we’d be doing the same thing too if we were him.”

The man’s response stuck with me for a long time after we went our separate ways.

What did he mean by that? And why did he feel the need to tell me that McGregor was not trying to show off by driving a Lambroghini through Crumlin, when one look at his social media feed would suggest that that’s all he ever tries to do.

Sparring today.

A post shared by Conor McGregor Official (@thenotoriousmma) on

Was ’we’d be doing the same thing’ merely driving a Lambroghini? Or was it the fact that McGregor still wanted to visit the area where he was from?

You can take the boy out of Crumlin but you can’t take Crumlin out of the boy

On the other side of McGregor’s old family home, an elderly Scottish woman named Marie loads rubbish into her bins.

Marie has lived in Crumlin for nearly 30 years and there’s only a couple of months difference between Conor and her son Joseph.

The two played with each other regularly when they were kids before the McGregors relocated to Lucan when Conor was 16.

Marie hadn’t seen Conor since the move, however, she did run into him in The Black Forge Inn in December 2015, just two weeks after he had knocked out Jose Aldo to win the UFC’s Featherweight championship.

It was the moment McGregor’s star just started to enter the stratosphere in which it now currently shines brighter than ever, and naturally, he was crowded by patrons looking for photos.

Marie was unfazed. To her the man she saw was Conor McGregor, the boy she once knew, not the man and the fighter everyone now knows.

McGregor continued to take pictures with patrons throughout the evening until he stopped Marie on her way to the bathroom. He immediately recognised her, and after spending most of his time at the pub taking photos on other patrons phones, he decided to take out his own phone and take a picture with Marie so that he could show his parents.

Lar had told me a similar story when I sat beside him in his truck on the way to Crumlin village. He had told me that when his son, a former schoolmate of McGregor’s, was in Lifestyle Sports last year, he had run into Conor while the two were shopping at the store.

McGregor was accompanied by his entourage and security detail but immediately went out of his way to take pictures with Lar’s son and his kids.

Everyone in the world who meets him wants his picture, but the man himself seemingly only wants to take pictures with international celebrities, his teammates, and those who knew him before the ‘60G’s’ became a worldwide catchphrase.

It’s a side of McGregor that you won’t often find on his Twitter or Instagram. It’s a side that takes photos with local Gardai at Leixlip Garda Station. It’s a side that visits families unannounced at Crumlin’s Children Hospital. It’s a side that is humble in defeat. It’s a side to him that certainly exists but a version that you don’t often see, at least publicly.

In a recent interview on his website TheMacLife, McGregor speaks to Andrew McGahon about his final preparations for his upcoming fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr..

It’s an interview that covers his training, working with boxing referees Joe Cortez and Emile Tiedt, and his thoughts on the UFC’s Performance Institute, a 184,000-square foot campus with a high-altitude simulator, weights and water treadmills.

Asked by McGahon if he would like to build a similar facility in Dublin, McGregor said that he’s entertained the thought in the past but that he would not want to disrupt the businesses of several of his teammates and coaches, with former UFC fighter Paddy Holohan, his striking coach Owen Roddy and his head coach John Kavanagh all running their own gyms throughout Dublin.

“I’ve had a lot of people come at me with gyms,” said McGregor.

“The UFC gym brand, they were coming and looking to build mega gyms, but, you know, I’m set.

I pulled back from it years ago because teammates that I came up with, they were setting up gyms, and I didn’t want to interfere and come in and starting to take on them.

“I wanted them to succeed in their chosen area. I just backed away from it.”

McGregor is a man who is seemingly obsessed with making money, however, he also passes up opportunities to add to his own wealth if it comes at the direct expense of his teammates' fortunes.

He takes pictures with those he knew before the fame, when it’s the exact opposite for those that want a picture with him.

He lives in a plush estate called Ladycastle, on the grounds of the K Club, yet he still drops into a Boylesports in Crumlin 30km’s away.

The world may see him as the brash, polar-bear coat wearing, lambroghini driving prizefighter, but to those who know him, he’s the kid from Crumlin who took on the world. The kid with the cheeky grin that made it big. 

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