Thursday 19 April 2018

Ask. Believe. Receive: The unshakeable confidence of Conor McGregor

He's brash, he's loud but - win or lose against Floyd Mayweather - UFC star McGregor looks set to make $100m this weekend. Our reporter considers how Crumlin's most notorious ­export has come so far

Bigmouth strikes again: Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor come face to face during their world press tour at SSE Arena, London last month. Photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty
Bigmouth strikes again: Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor come face to face during their world press tour at SSE Arena, London last month. Photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty
Self-belief: Conor McGregor after beating Chad Mendes in the UFC in July 2015
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was one of the publishing sensations of the decade. In 2006, it was impossible to escape talk of the self-help manual, The Secret. Penned by former Australian TV journalist Rhonda Byrne, sales rocketed thanks to the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey.

Byrne's message of positive visualisation - that if you want something badly enough, you will get it - was lapped up by millions around the globe. Others were keen to dismiss the book as an especially trite example of pop psychology.

But several years after it was first published, Conor McGregor's oldest sister, Erin, thrust a copy into his hands. She had found it invaluable when pursuing her own bodybuilding dreams and reckoned it would help steel his mind in his then fledgling mixed martial arts career.

McGregor was said to be dismissive at first, but soon became enraptured by Byrne's persuasive arguments and her oft-quoted line from the Bible: "And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive." The 'ask, believe, receive' mantra became a constant in his life as he sought to leave the dole queue behind and seek a fortune thanks to his gift for fighting.

Self-belief: Conor McGregor after beating Chad Mendes in the UFC in July 2015
Self-belief: Conor McGregor after beating Chad Mendes in the UFC in July 2015

Much of The Secret was inspired by a book published in 1910, The Science of Getting Rich.

Five years after drawing his last unemployment benefit payment, McGregor is set to get exceptionally rich indeed.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Irish time, he will make his professional boxing debut in Las Vegas against a man thought by many fight experts to be the greatest 'pound-for-pound' boxer of all time. Irrespective of what happens against Floyd Mayweather, it's thought McGregor will pocket at least $100m for his troubles. In one night, he will make more than the combined yearly on-field earnings of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - the world's most garlanded footballers. It's money, too, that will also dwarf the phenomenal earning power of Rory McIlroy. (Mayweather, who was lured out of retirement for the fight, is set to earn up to $200m.)

The meteoric rise of the 29-year-old from Crumlin, Dublin, has been nothing short of astonishing. McGregor only signed his first contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in February 2013 and his fortunes have risen in tandem with this most marketable of the many strands of mixed martial arts.

Tunnel vision

Two years ago, RTÉ's fly-on-the-wall documentary series, The Notorious, offered a glimpse of McGregor's ambition, and many scoffed at what then appeared to be the outlandish dreams of the mouthy, brash fighter with a taste for bling and celebrity. Nobody's laughing now.

"He is the most determined person I've ever met," says one figure in Irish sports sponsorship. "Utterly tunnel-visioned about where he wanted to be and how he was going to get there. He's not the sort of guy I could warm to and I find the brashness to be really off-putting, but maybe if he didn't have that God complex, he wouldn't be in the position he is today."

This weekend's fight has been billed as the greatest contest in combat sports history. It's a marketing line that conveniently ignores Muhammad Ali's legendary fights of the mid-1970s, when heavyweight boxing transcended sport, and some have branded Mayweather-McGregor as nothing more than a freak show. This, after all, is a contest between a 40-year-old retired boxer and a UFC champion who failed to distinguish himself as an amateur boxer in Crumlin.

Some have likened it to Ali's risible bout with a sumo wrestler in the 1970s or the so-called 'Battle of the Sexes' tennis match between retired pro Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King that same decade.

"At a juncture where culture has been corrupted to the point the Kardashians wield influence and Donald Trump rules them all," wrote sportswriter Ewan MacKenna in the Independent this week, "then perhaps this is the perfect sporting event for its time and its place, a tiny microcosm of real life played out in a ring."

The consensus among boxing aficionados is clear: McGregor has little hope of beating a man with an unblemished record of 49 wins in 49 fights. And yet, few would argue that McGregor, himself, believes he will win.

In an in-depth ESPN magazine feature on McGregor and the Dublin that made him, US sportswriter Wright Thompson sensed that the fighter was driven by a sense of failure and his unshakable self-confidence is real.

Thompson was widely pilloried for his portrayal of a violent Dublin that seemed to come from the pages of a Dennis Lehane thriller, but he found a McGregor who was still motivated by proving his doubters wrong. Not least his father, Tony, who had worried about the foolhardiness of his only son giving up a plumbing apprenticeship in order to pursue his love of MMA.

Today, Tony enjoys sailing in a yacht bought for him by Conor. It's named The 188 - a reference to the weekly dole money Conor had to live on. In the weeks leading up to the Mayweather fight, he told leading MMA journalist Ariel Helwani that he chose the name as it was a reminder of a life he never wanted to return to.

A Dublin childhood

Born in July 1988, a couple of weeks after Ireland's involvement in the European Football Championship, McGregor was the third of Tony and Margaret's three children. Erin and Aoife had arrived first.

He was small in stature, but excellent at sport - particularly football. Like many boys from Crumlin, he gravitated towards the boxing club and soon found he had a natural talent.

And yet, McGregor has often spoken about the hard knocks that pockmarked his teen years, of being bullied occasionally and having to fend for himself in street fights. Many who know him also talk about his sense of disorientation when the family relocated to Lucan, in west Dublin, when he was 17.

He went through the gaelscoil system - first in Tallaght and then at Coláiste Cois Life in Lucan - but his Irish was decidedly rusty when asked a question as Gaeilge by a TG4 reporter a couple of years ago.

A turning point came when he met Tom Egan, an MMA fighter from Kildare who was trying to make his name in the then modest world of UFC in the late 2000s. Egan helped reignite a passion in McGregor for combat sports and he was soon training in the Straight Blast Gym founded by John Kavanagh, who has been his coach for many years.

In Kavanagh, McGregor found a figure who truly believed in his abilities and the pair have been inseparable since, although there's a remarkable gulf in temperament between the cool, considered and soft-spoken 'Coach Kavanagh' and the hot-headed, ranting foul-mouthed McGregor we have seen of late.

Since his earliest days in UFC, McGregor has divided opinion, but the for and against camps have become even more polarised in the run up to this fight. McGregor was roundly criticised for his behaviour at four press conferences to promote the Mayweather bout. He was accused of racist remarks towards his opponent and for corrosive language where the word 'bitch' featured strongly.

And it's not the first time he has been criticised for the manner with which he verbally abused opponents. This is a fighter who referred to the German challenger, Dennis Siver, as a Nazi and who goaded Brazilian fighter José Aldo in his home country. "I own this town, I own Rio de Janeiro, so for him to say that he is the king and I am the joker, if this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback, and would kill anyone who wasn't fit to work, but we're in a new time, so I'll whoop his ass instead."

An Instagram star

It's that sort of talk that has made McGregor an unsavoury figure for many, including some of those who reside in Crumlin. "I think he's a terrible role model for young boys," says one lady on St Agnes Road. "His language is disgraceful and you'd think he'd watch his mouth now that he has a baby of his own."

Her friend is of similar mind. "There's a lot of hardship in this part of Dublin and in [neighbouring] Drimnagh and Walkinstown, but has he done anything with all his money to help the young people here? He's quick to come in with fancy cars and an entourage, but someone in his position should be doing more - not just showing off how much money he has."

But it's that same extravagant lifestyle - private jets, supercars, jewel-encrusted watches, all documented gleefully on his Instagram account - that appeals to a clutch of teenage boys playing football in the small park close to Our Lady's Children's Hospital.

"He's right to spend it any way he likes," says one. "He's worked hard for it and he believed in himself when no one else would. I think he's going to knock Mayweather out. He says he's going to win it and I believe him."

His companion has little time for the McGregor knockers. "F*** them," he says. "They're just snobs. They don't want someone who doesn't talk like them to do well. If you're Irish, you should get behind him."

It's not known how many Irish fans will shell out the €24.95 for the pay-per-view rights for the bout, but it's thought that up to $600m will be generated globally. A further $70m will go into the coffers from tickets sold for the 21,000 capacity MGM Arena. And yet, on Wednesday, more than 7,000 tickets had remained unsold - not surprising, perhaps, when one considers that the cheapest face-value ticket is $500. The most expensive is a scarcely credible $107,000.

It's huge money and McGregor has been aware from his early days in UFC that there was a killing to be made, especially in the US where he's one of the most visible of sports stars.

He's shown an impressive business acumen, too, having established a website The Mac Life which is part news feed, part lifestyle brand. It allows him to get his message out to the world - without having to engage with the press in a way that most of his peers have to - and it demonstrates a determination to enhance the Conor McGregor brand outside of the octagon/ring. It's thought this most dapper of dressers will launch his own clothing line in the next year.

Despite the stadium-sized attitude, McGregor is said to have kept his feet on the ground thanks to the support of a small group of people. Girlfriend Dee Devlin has been by his side for the past decade and the couple have a three-month old son, Conor Jr. Besides John Kavanagh, he's close to several members of Ireland's close-knit MMA community, including ex-pro Aisling Daly. And he retains a handful of friends from his boyhood in Crumlin.

There has been controversy about friendships with members of one of Dublin's most notorious criminal gangs. "Kinahan cartel thugs enjoy high life with champ McGregor", read a Sunday World headline last year, and featured a photo of the fighter and an unidentified gangland figure standing proudly on the bonnets of a pair of expensive cars.

The same paper also reported earlier this year that his sister Aoife married Mark Elliott, an ex-convict who was imprisoned for three years after being caught in posses­sion of a huge cannabis stash for sale and supply.

There is no suggestion, however, that Conor McGregor - or any member of his family - has been engaged in criminal activity.

If the past five years have felt like a whirlwind to the Dubliner and all who know him, it's impossible to say what the next five have in store. But Dana White, the all-powerful UFC President, believes McGregor's potential is as boundless as his confidence: "If you look at this thing and you look at how big this fight is and you look at how big these athletes are that are involved in this fight… if Conor does knock Floyd Mayweather out, he's the biggest athlete on earth."

And Rhonda Byrne - and her much maligned, but enormously popular, book - will have played their part.

@johnmeaghermuso

The holy trinity

Dee Devlin

The 30-year-old from Walkinstown, Dublin, has been in a relationship with McGregor for the past 10 years. She gave birth to a son, Conor Jr, in May and mother and child have been by his side at his training camp in the US since then. Also an admirer of The Secret, Devlin is seen as a smart operator who has helped guide Conor’s career. She looks after certain business arrangements and ensures he meets his gruelling training schedule and fastidious diet regimen. She was named Ireland’s Most Stylish Newcomer at the VIP Style Awards last year.

John Kavanagh

McGregor’s coach is one of the visionary figures in Irish MMA and is seen as the primary reason why his most famous protege has become such a star in the sport. Kavanagh (40) from Churchtown, Dublin, is hailed as a master tactician in UFC circles. He was one of the first people to introduce Brazilian jiu-jitsu to Ireland and he is especially devoted to that strand of martial arts. A soft-spoken and calm figure in a world characterised by bluster and aggression, he is said to value his privacy.

Dana White

The super-wealthy UFC President helped turn the fortunes of the once-ailing franchise on its head. White is front and centre of most major UFC events and is fond of stoking passions between opponents. He’s seen as one of the cleverest marketeers in sport and was a key broker in helping to make the McGregor-Mayweather fight happen. He was also the one to see the marketing potential of the loudmouth Irishman he signed a deal with in 2013, although relations haven’t always been rosy between the two.

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