Wednesday 11 December 2019

Blood, Sweat and Tears: The rise and fall of Conor McGregor

In extracts from his new book on Conor McGregor, Ewan MacKenna charts the early determination of the fighter to succeed, and his later fall from grace in the octagon

Conor McGregor sfter defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor McGregor sfter defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Photo: Sportsfile
Irish MMA fighter Conor McGregor
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Paschal Collins comes from a boxing family. He's a world away from those show-time pseudo-gangsters that manage their UFC fighters while going through life always muttering beside every decision, 'What's in it for me?' As he orders up two coffees, Collins starts telling stories that aren't manufactured and marketed to be more valuable.

Paschal, who runs a gym in north Dublin, remembers when McGregor was like that too. Not a penny to lose but a dream to gain. The most wonderful of intersections, even if you don't know it at that very moment.

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It was 2012 and Collins knew little about MMA. That was about to change.

"There are so many fighters that come in and out of the gym - boxing, Thai boxing and MMA too more recently. But when Conor walked in - even the way he was groomed, he had the skinhead - he looked really, really healthy; there was this shine from that. And looking at him, I knew he took care of himself. His skin was clear, you knew he ate well and drank well. His physique was unbelievable. I didn't know him personally but straight away, he caught my eye.

"He started to work and, funny enough, he had good boxing skill, so I thought that's why he was coming into me. A bit of work and this kid could go somewhere. But a few lads told me he was Cage Rage champion or one of these MMA things based here. Fair play, I thought. And he was likeable. He was genuine. He knew what he wanted. He wouldn't bother you, but he'd ask a question politely. And what I liked, if he came over and asked something and got his answer, he'd go off and be practicing what I told him. He picked up on every little thing, every detail. Then you wouldn't see him for a month, and he'd be back and then he'd go, and you'd get a text that would ask if he could come to the gym at night. I never watched UFC before him, but I heard he had a big win in Sweden. And maybe if that hadn't happened we wouldn't be here talking. But that was a huge win, and I saw all the media outlets in Ireland talking about him, so I gave it a look and got into it."

His early memories of the Conor McGregor that nobody knew? The kid came into his gym one day, and he was just inside the door, buck naked, changing into sweats, without a care in the world. There were others there sniggering, but that didn't matter as he was there for one mission and it was about dragging himself to the top.

"Sometimes, he'd come over to the gym for spars and he'd spar anybody," continues Collins. "He'd spar my nephew, who is a cruiserweight. Light-welterweights too, middleweights, the lot. Then he'd do some pads. It was a case of who he fought. If it was someone that required his striking to be brought to the next level, he'd be here. But it's funny, you wouldn't see him for a couple of months, but when he'd come back, you'd see a different style around how he'd box.

"Conor is a guy that wants to learn. He's very intelligent, and the most important part of any athlete is that, to have a brain, because you can't teach someone that doesn't want to be taught. A lot of his success is the ground work and learning he has done himself. Even when I saw him first, six or seven years ago, he was a hard trainer sure, but he was a clever trainer. He'd maybe go at six in the morning and again at three, and he'd train again at eleven at night. So he was doing then what a lot of high-performance athletes still hadn't started yet. He was way ahead of his time."

Curious about him and his looks, Collins sought Conor out on another one of his visits to the gym to ask him about his diet, and he was met with a chef's reply. He'd never heard of putting almond butter on chicken before but McGregor lectured about the good fats mixed with protein and how it tasted nice. A maverick of sorts.

"So even before he got to the stage of the UFC, he was giving it his all, from his diet to his training to the time he put into the game to his educating himself. It wasn't like he was in the gym all the time, but when he was there, he was there to learn, was very respectful, and went off and did his own thing. Nobody bothered him, because he was there to train. And it goes back to what I said about [my brother] Steve [Collins, a former Championship boxer] in the 80s. He was a hungrier fighter and there was nothing here at that time. He was hungry to make something of himself. Conor was exactly like that; he was desperate to get out of here and be somebody.

"Do I think he's made mistakes since? Yes. We all do, but he's in the public eye, so when he makes them, they are out there. I've made mistakes, you've made mistakes, but they pass by. Not for him. Remember he's human, though. I've met his partners in the whiskey, clever businessmen. I don't know his agent, but I believe he is clever. And John's [Kavanagh] influence might help him through these tough times. And they are tough times, people forget that, because people want to take from you. They'll accuse you of everything. I've seen it with Steve. They want you to crash into them, I've seen people say, 'Hit me,' because they want to take money. That's the downside of having too much wealth."

Behind it, though, he says there are still glimpses of the old McGregor. For instance, a week after the Khabib fight, the two met in Boston at the Katie Taylor bout when his entourage weren't around. Ringside, they got shooting the breeze. "We sat there and talked about acquaintances we both have that used to box with me, and he enjoyed it. Simple things, and he had a laugh. You could see he enjoyed it. The promoters took him away, and he came back and I got a text the next day saying, 'Great catching up, I'll see you in the gym soon', and I was kind of glad of that as it was still him. Six years ago, he had nothing, and now he's one of the most popular and wealthiest stars of this generation."

* * * * *

Straight Blast Gym has served McGregor well. It's where he trained so brutally and brilliantly to make it. His sanctuary and salvation all in one.

It's a couple of minutes to the McDonald's where we first met in early 2013. The choice of venue was his after his maiden UFC victory, a first-round stoppage of Marcus Brimage who had called McGregor "an arrogant person that needs a reality check". His inability to miss the chin earned him knock-out of the night and, more importantly, the $60,000 that came with it. A figure that would be swallowed up by the sums he earns now for just showing his face for a split second, it meant everything to him back then.

The tape of our chat is still in a drawer, and taking it out on occasion brings back memories. In the car park that day, there was a warmth coming off McGregor. It seemed the impossible had happened, but as he spoke, he showed how he had made it possible.

"Even before this, all the problems I'd have in life, when I'd go to the gym, they were gone," he said at the time. "I used it as an escape, that's why I was there eight hours a day. It's the way it's always been, and that's why I do it. I can escape from everything. It's hard to explain. The fact I'm such a believer in your thoughts becoming reality now, it makes me realise that back in the day, I was always thinking about danger and I ended up bringing it. They were my first lessons in the law of attraction.

"But you have to be obsessed. If you talk to me about football, I wouldn't have a clue what you're on about. If you're talking to me about energy efficiency from the bottom position, we can talk into next week. I don't know what's what, but I know how to break down the human frame no matter the size. And I know how positive thinking matters."

Freestyle wrestling, Thai boxing, even his first flirtation with capoeira - the Brazilian fight dance, he explained, that originated with African slaves who didn't want their masters to know they were training so they disguised it as rhythmic movement. It was hard not to be drawn into how he picked apart a game that many see as barbaric, making it sound like chess as he studied anything and everything to improve himself and his chances.

"If you dedicate yourself to one style, you best believe you are weak at another discipline," he added. "I like to be able to move every way. There's a time and place for all disciplines. I study all different styles, and there's no limit to where the body can move to attack and defend. The more movements your body can make in a combat situation, the more your opponent is put on the back foot and is reacting to your movements rather than creating his own movements. I learn from anything. I saw two gorillas on television play fighting. Crazy stuff.

"It's like freestyle wrestling. They are arm dragging, and their posture is so solid - and posture for combat is so vital. I even take from them."

He hadn't cashed the $60,000 cheque at that stage, the biggest amount he'd seen and too much to have really imagined. But McDonald's wasn't about the present, instead it was a promise he wouldn't change in the future. After all, he'd always treated himself to a weekly cup of coffee there, and this was no different. There was a glint in his eye, an accessible giddiness, a likeable roguishness.

He'd been in the social welfare queue not long before. He'd also applied for a job in the bookmaker, BoyleSports, and was turned down, and next they were coming calling to try and sponsor him. So much seemed the perfect story, but how often do the great tales end on a high?

At one point, he'd even told his old man that if left to his own devices, he'd be a millionaire by the time he was 25. "They were always onto me," he recalled of his parents. "'You aren't doing anything productive with your life, you need to go and get a job.' I had some tough times with my da. 'Get your arse into a fucking job. What are you doing? You're doing nothing with your life.' I had to listen to it all the time, right up to two months ago. But in Ireland, it's a rush to work, that's the wrong way. I was thrown into a plumbing apprenticeship. I hated it, fifteen-hour days, just getting bossed around.

"I just decided, fuck this. I'd have a go at MMA. Honestly, I'd rather be poor. I'd rather have no money and just be training than in a job I don't love. I don't get that. If someone asked me for advice about work, if you're in a job you don't love, just quit. You only live once and you want to chase what you want to chase. People in Ireland, all over the world, they have that negative mindset. They focus on what if something bad happens. That's no way to live. Think what happens when it goes right. Why worry? It'll only bring more worry. When you focus on the positive, the negative shrinks away. What you think about, then it will happen. You are never wrong, and that's just what I believe in.'

A certain Oscar Wilde quote always comes to mind when that tape of our interview rolls. 'When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.' As for of all the thoughts he shared that day, one sends a shiver.

"I told everyone I'd do it, but they never believed me," he smirked without a care. "Now look at me. But people say be careful of the money, don't blow it. If the money becomes a problem, I'll get rid of it. I've been planning to get to this stage for a long, long time and I won't let anything stop me. Honestly. And there's so much going on and so many people trying to get in touch, I just go to the gym. It's the place I can forget everything."

Being shunted into fame and fortune might make you initially, but ultimately it will try and break you as well. It didn't even take that long for McGregor: back in 2013, after the McDonald's coffee, he called his girlfriend Dee after training and begged her for a lift home in a banged-up car. He simply didn't fancy the few miles on foot.

Within two years though, by 2015, he was on ESPN, playing up to a wretched persona. Asked about his love life, he couldn't control his response as the parody had already overtaken him, and he was only thinking of his image. "I've a long-term girlfriend," he boasted. "I don't know about romance, but I like to get down occasionally. I don't really have a romantic side is what I am saying. If I'm going in, I'm going in for the kill. You won't catch me walking down the beach holding hands; you will catch me going deep."

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