Like father, like son: Meet Tony McGregor, dad of 'The Notorious' UFC star Conor
'Conor's fists were clenched coming out of the womb'
Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30
His cage-fighter son is one of the most famous sportsmen in the country, but in the early days Tony McGregor admits he would have preferred Conor to be a plumber. Now, on the eve of Father's Day, Tony tells our reporter about his relationship with his own father, overcoming cancer and his immense pride in all three of his children.
When he looks back on his life so far, Tony McGregor says that becoming a dad and grandfather has made him happiest. That, and his long marriage to the lovely Margaret, of course. It has also made him privy to some very special moments, such as when his son 'The Notorious' Conor was born in 1988 at Holles Street, and emerged into the world in a classic boxer's stance.
"His fists were clenched coming out of the womb so he was ready to fight," Tony laughs. "The midwife said, 'This fella is going to be a boxer.' It was an easy birth as Margaret was only in labour for an hour, so Conor was in a hurry to make himself known."
The 27-year-old has certainly done that, but the prophetic midwife could hardly have imagined that the tiny baby would end up a world-famous mixed martial arts champion. Did his dad see the signs early on?
"Never," he says. "It could have been a train coming out of a tunnel, but I didn't see it whatsoever. I didn't approve of Conor's job choice initially, because I just couldn't see the career in it, but I'm bang on board now and have been since well before the UFC. He was able to prove me wrong, which has made me so proud."
Fresh from our photoshoot at the Ice Bar in Dublin's InterContinental Hotel - where he proved to be a natural in front of the camera - Tony is dapper, gracious and an old-fashioned gentleman. While he sounds like a classic 'Dub', the witty 56-year-old was actually born in Liverpool to an Irish father Christopher and English mother Patricia.
His dad was a petty officer with the British Merchant Navy and was at sea until he retired and, on the eve of Father's Day, Tony remembers him as a generous, kind man. "He would go off on trips and we wouldn't see him for three months, so when he came back, he was like a stranger," he recalls. "He was a giver and always came home with loads of gifts for us."
Sadly, Tony's father being away for months on end put a strain on his parents' marriage, and when Tony was eight and his eldest brother Stephen was 12, his mum met someone else while his dad was at sea. She left the family home and sadly they never saw her again, as she started a new family with the other man.
"She just left and there was no contact after that," Tony shrugs. "My father got custody of the family, and while my sister Pamela stayed in Liverpool, my brothers Stephen, Gary and I all came to Ireland and were split up between his sisters. They took one of us each and we were absorbed into their families.
"When my dad was on leave, he would come over to visit, and we would all stay together in one house and pick up where we left off. He chose that life of adventure, so he would tell us all the tales of where he had been. He was a very generous man, and we would never be short when he came home."
While such an upheaval must have been very traumatic, Tony wears it lightly. He says that it made him self-sufficient and he became a survivor. His three siblings now live in the UK again, and he goes over regularly and was very close to his dad. "My father died 12 years now so I go over and visit the grave," he says, showing me an old photo of the two of them together.
"When my father retired, he went to live in the navy's retirement village, which was in a lovely setting on the River Mersey. I don't think any seaman likes land, so he was always looking out at the water. He had a massive heart attack aged 73 and actually died that way, looking out the window at the river, which is the way he would have wanted to go. I went over to him as much as I could, but looking back, I wish we had spent more time together."
After primary school, Tony went to Ringsend Tech and left at 16. He began an apprenticeship as a mechanic and stuck it for a year, but it wasn't for him. "The boss was old-school, and he would fire a wrench in the air and make sure it hit you," he explains. "I left and went to factory work, and then got a taxi licence."
Tony recalls how he first saw his wife Margaret when they were walking to school in their early teens, and they got together at 16. "It was her looks that attracted me as she wasn't a bad-looking bird," he smiles. "Margaret was beautiful and she still is. We got married at 21, 36 years ago this year. She's a very generous woman and a good listener and she has great qualities."
The newlyweds started off living in a two-bed apartment in Dublin 2, and saved "religiously" for three years until they had enough to secure a mortgage. They bought their first house in the suburb of Crumlin in Dublin 12, opposite Sundrive Park. By then, their first child Erin (35) had been born, and she was followed by Aoife (30) and Conor (27).
"That was what you did as a working-class person," Tony explains. "You didn't go to university or college - you got married and had kids and became a man early on in life. I drove a taxi for 26 years, which I loved, although I worked nights around the clock so I was like Dracula.
"I was around during the day to make dinners and collect the kids from school, so I got to spend a lot of time with them. I would bring Conor to his football matches on a Sunday morning, even though I would have been working until daylight on the Saturday night."
When Conor was five, the family moved to a bigger house in Crumlin, a three-bed semi that had two bathrooms. "We thought we were the bee's knees with our en-suite," says Tony.
Conor played football for the local team and did well at it. Like his older sisters, he went to the Irish-speaking school in Harold's Cross, Scoil Mológa.
Describing himself as "only average" when it comes to sports, Tony is a "keen spectator of all of them and participator of none". He vividly recalls how Conor walked through the doors of Crumlin Boxing Club at the age of 12, and instantly realised that this was the sport for him.
"He came home that night and asked us why we had put him in soccer for all those years?" says Tony. "Like all Irish mammies, Margaret wasn't best impressed and didn't want to see her son getting hurt. She still can't bear to look at Conor fight."
While Conor has become known for his larger-than-life, outspoken and colourful personality, his dad says that he was fairly quiet as a child and never caused any trouble, but he was also leader of the pack with his own peer group. I'm very disappointed that there are no tales of trash-talking in the McGregor household to regale.
"We didn't see much of the personality he has now when he was growing up," says Tony. "That developed with age and is a sports persona that goes with the package. I find it very entertaining."
Boxing went very well for Conor, and he came under the wing of Phil Sutcliffe, who still runs Crumlin Boxing Club. They weren't doing MMA there, and the teenager decided he would like to try kick-boxing so he went to the local club occasionally, missing out on his boxing sessions.
"Phil knew that he was losing him, as he was developing more skills and interest in MMA combat as opposed to boxing," says Tony. "I think what appealed to him was all the different disciplines you can use, whereas boxing is just one discipline."
Fathers and sons can often clash when the teenage years rear their hormonal heads, so did that occur in the McGregor household when Conor was coming of age?
"That happens in all houses, where there's an alpha male and then a young buck comes along," says Tony. "The home has to evolve and I had to realise that too. We had a few clashes over the years all right, but not enough to mention, and you learn to back down. Thankfully we have a great relationship now."
When Conor was 13, the family moved to a three-storey, five-bedroom house in Lucan. While they had more space and there was no more fighting over the bathroom, it was hard on the teenager because he had to change school and make new friends. Conor went to Coláiste Cois Life in Lucan, and befriended Tom "The Tank" Egan, who had a huge interest in MMA and also went on to become a UFC fighter. Tom introduced Conor to coach John Kavanagh in Straight Blast Gym Ireland on the Long Mile Road, and that was where the magic happened.
"I watched Conor from the sidelines as he progressed in sport, and saw that he was his own man," says Tony. "One of his teachers told us that he had the intelligence to be a lawyer, so we were praying he would go and do that, but he didn't like school and wanted to get out as quickly as he could.
"We decided to get him into a trade after his Leaving Cert and he chose plumbing, but he only stuck that for a year. If any plumbing goes wrong in the house now, he is no help whatsoever!
"He was developing his love for MMA and was perfecting his discipline all the time in the background, although I wasn't aware of it. He had the vision, and he knew where he was going."
Prior to making it on the UFC circuit, Conor alternated between being on the dole and making a couple of hundred euro per fight on the MMA amateur circuit. His started with Cage Contenders and then his profile grew when he won the Cage Warriors featherweight and lightweight championships in 2012, before signing with the UFC. He became the first Irish-born UFC champion after he defeated José Aldo in 2015, in the now infamous fight where he knocked him out after 13 seconds.
The early fight that stands out for Tony took place back in the Cage Contenders days, when Tony was shocked at the size of Conor's Polish opponent. "He looked like a brick house and I thought, 'Oh my God, this is what's facing my son,'" he says. "Then the music started and Conor came out and I realised he had the same physique as this other guy. That was when he changed from a boy to a man for me.
"He faced the man in the octagon and dispatched him in double quick time, and that was the defining moment. I knew then that he was destined for good things, and after he signed for UFC, it went meteoric."
MMA has its critics and some see it as dangerous, an issue that was furiously debated recently when Portuguese MMA fighter João Carvalho died following a Total Extreme Fighting event in Dublin. Does Tony ever worry about Conor's safety?
"I have no fear because when someone is under the guidance of a good coach, you really have nothing to worry about," he says. "The death of the Portuguese fighter was tragic, but there are injuries in all sports - sure two cyclists died recently during pro cycling races (Belgian cyclists Antoine Demoitie and Daan Myngheer). I worry on the run-up to a fight in case he injures himself in training and has to pull out, but never worry when he's in the octagon, because he's the landlord there and he's looking for his rent."
These days, Conor is a very wealthy man who can make millions from fights, and according to his dad, he has never forgotten his roots and is very generous to his family. He even gifted the folks a gorgeous boxer dog, Benjamin, a couple of weeks ago. So what's it like having a megastar in the family?
"It's phenomenal, but it hasn't changed us," says Tony. "Conor has a very generous nature, which he gets from his mother, and we realise that we're very lucky. He came home from an American trip last year, and I saw this fleet of cars coming around the corner with him in the lead car, a black BMW 5 Series. I presumed it was an entourage chauffeuring him home, but he told me to hop in and asked if I liked the car? I said it was lovely and he handed me the keys and said, 'Good, because it's yours.' He bought one for everyone in the family, which was really nice."
As he talks, Tony shows me some family photos. He loves taking photos and it's through his association with Fujifilm - for whom he's promoting the Instax Wide camera line as an ideal Father's Day gift - that we meet today. Photographs are tangible, he says, in an era where everything is digital.
"I bought a Fuji camera and I bring that with me to the fights so I can have my own photos and memories," he says. "It's good to get them printed because in a few years there could be new formats and social media sites, and your photos could be gone."
Tony retired two years ago, and has since taken up chess and works out in the gym. He looks fit and healthy and is grateful to be well, as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2010 aged 50.
"I found a lump and it wasn't painful, but I was concerned so I got myself down to the GP," he says. "I knew it was urgent as he sent me to A & E at St Vincent's hospital. When you first hear the word 'cancer', it gives you a fright, and I was shaking like a leaf but knew I was in good hands. I didn't have private health cover, but I got great treatment and excellent care from Mr David Quinlan and his team. The oncology staff in Vincent's are out of this world."
Tony had a stage one seminoma, and after surgery to remove it followed by radiotherapy, he bounced back. He also found himself in great hands in St Luke's hospital with Professor John Armstrong, and was even able to drive his taxi while undergoing radiotherapy.
"I was lucky it was detected early and it was curable. All the family were great and they minded me. When Professor Armstrong gave me the all-clear, I clicked my heels coming out of Luke's, because I saw a lot of sad things there and felt very lucky that I was well. I went straight into Tour America and booked a holiday to San Francisco and California, so I celebrated the start of 2011 there with Margaret and that was a treat for us."
Conor's girlfriend, Dee Devlin, picked up the Most Stylish Newcomer accolade at the recent VIP Style Awards, the UFC star is known for his keen sense of style and previously won the Most Stylish Man award. He surely gets it from his old man?
"Ah he was always interested in style and kept a keen eye on fashion, but you don't get further than Penneys on the dole," laughs Tony. "When I was 18, I bought my first bespoke handmade suit, and would go into the tailor and get chalked up for it every week."
What about the media controversies? There's hardly a day that goes by without some dramatic story about Conor - who announced his retirement on Twitter earlier this year only to rejoin the UFC - making the headlines. Does that sort of thing affect the family or do they brush it off?
"We've learned not to take anything personally," says Tony. "It's all part of the showbiz and the Conor McGregor business, and to be honest, I don't think there is such thing as bad publicity. At home, Conor is as grounded as anybody, and he sits on the sofa with his feet up watching TV or he walks his dog. Dee is his long-term partner and she is such a lovely girl - a sweetheart. We have this showbiz side when we're rubbing shoulders at fights with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gerard Butler and Bruno Mars and it's all great, but then we go back to Lucan and we're just a normal family."
As well as Conor, Tony is a very proud father to his daughters Erin and Aoife. Erin is a freelance hairdresser and she has a daughter, Taylor, who is 15 and a "great kid". Erin has a partner of three years, Terry, and is due to give birth to their baby boy this summer. Tony, who already dotes on Taylor, is looking forward to the new arrival. Aoife is engaged to Mark and they are getting married this December, and they have started up an excavation business together.
"I think every father worries about the girls until they're in stable relationships with a decent partner, and mine are," says Tony. "I have a great relationship with my daughters, and am sort of a young dad so I can party occasionally with them. Raising children is a formidable challenge, and I just did my best with my three.
"I think you have to keep a close eye on them and guide them, but at the end of the day, they're going to make up their own minds. Really though, I think Margaret is the one who keeps the home together, as she would be the backbone of our family, like every Irish mother."
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Photographs by Kip Carroll