Saturday 20 January 2018

Conor McGregor: from the edge of the ring to centre stage

In an exclusive extract from 'Notorious', a new biography on MMA star Conor McGregor, Jack Slack pinpoints the moment the fighter turned his back on a normal life

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor
Conor on the red carpet with his partner Dee Devlin
Conor McGregor

Just a few years ago, when he was in his early 20s, an impartial observer might have suggested Conor McGregor was hardly pursuing any of his options with much vigour, to say the least.

He had had a decent gig as an apprentice plumber, a stable career had he carried it through, but he had packed it in after just a year to focus on competing. Knowing what he went on to achieve, it was an admirable decision, but to his parents at the time he seemed to be out of his mind.

As different as McGregor and his coach John Kavanagh were - the brash extrovert and the cautious introvert - they had this in common: both of their parents were concerned that they were pissing away their youth on a hopeless dream. Kavanagh had a respectable degree in engineering but had zero to show for the last half decade on his curriculum vitae. He had come to accept this mixed martial arts (MMA) lark was a dead end.

Conor McGregor, meanwhile, had no qualifications, and his parents were naturally concerned as to what he would do once he had left school. In an interview with RTÉ Sport, he recalled: "I ended up getting a trade just to keep them quiet because I used to have a lot of fights with me dad. I ended up getting a trade as a plumber. Literally up in the back arse of nowhere. Up in Wicklow, the Wicklow mountains. That site was one of the biggest sites in Europe, Kilternan. Huge. And now it's just abandoned. Now it's just deserted."

Conor on the red carpet with his partner Dee Devlin
Conor on the red carpet with his partner Dee Devlin

After a cold, wet, miserable day on site - months before his first loss, in the fight against Artemij Sitenkov - McGregor decided that he couldn't do it anymore. He packed up his things, and went home early. A fortuitous call from John Kavanagh enabled him to take his first step as a full-time professional MMA fighter, for better or for worse.

"John got in touch and said, 'I have a show, I'm running a show, I'd like you to fight on it.' And then that was it. I packed it in."

When he told his parents that he intended to pursue a career in mixed martial arts with everything that he had, they attempted to be supportive while knowing that their son was likely throwing away all future prospects of employment and success. McGregor told RTÉ: "I was always getting pestered: 'What are you doing with your life?' They didn't know what it was. They didn't know I could make a career out of it. As far as they were concerned - me ma and da I'm talking about - as far as they were concerned, I was just getting into a cage and fighting with some other guy. They didn't know nothing about it. No one did, really! But I knew."

From 2008 until 2014, there was no reason to believe that McGregor could make a living wage from mixed martial arts even if he were the best fighter who had ever lived. When his parents implored him to go back to the site, his response was to sleep in. He recalled that his father, Tony, would come in each morning and "punch the head off" his son to try to get him to go to work. Quitting the day job and telling the boss to take it and shove it is a dream for anyone with a more consuming passion on the side. It was the action of someone who is dead serious about fighting.

But it just didn't match up with Conor McGregor's behaviour after his first loss - disappearing from the gym without a word. Then again, he was convinced that he was a future champion, and he had just had his illusions shattered by an unrated journeyman from Russia in slightly over a minute.

Just as Kavanagh had questioned himself through the numerous obstacles he had run into in the previous five years, McGregor was now wondering if he had wasted a good portion of his life chasing his dream of becoming an elite fighter. And the truth was that neither was going to get an answer until they had dug themselves a good deal deeper into the hole.

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor

McGregor returned to the ring one more time in 2008, in December, against a man named Stephen Bailey. It was a characteristically wild and woolly brawl.

McGregor came out swinging, tagged his man up with a couple of neat blows and leapt in with a flying knee. Bailey grabbed hold of McGregor and attempted to take him down, but McGregor stuffed the attempt. A left hook cracked Bailey from the cinch and Bailey attempted exactly what Sitenkov had done just a few months earlier: he pulled guard.

This time though, McGregor was nowhere to be found. Bailey fell to his back and threw his legs up but his opponent was already past them and consolidating side control. As Bailey squirmed, McGregor threw his leg over and mounted his man. Chest to chest with Bailey, McGregor waited for the opportune moment to posture up, and when he did, he began to rain down left hands, at which point Bailey quickly turned to concede his back.

Bailey continued to roll, but McGregor stayed on him like a backpack; he ended up underneath Bailey. Riding Bailey's momentum, McGregor released his control and came up on to the top of the mount once again at the edge of the ring. This time, McGregor snuck through his left hand before Bailey could roll and Bailey was left covering up.

A storm of hammer blows followed and as Bailey hung out of the ring underneath the bottom rope, McGregor continued to pound, himself going between the middle ropes. The referee quickly waved the bout off.

Conor McGregor rose from the canvas and ran to the one camera filming the bout at ringside. Leaning through the ropes to press his face right to the lens, McGregor removed his gumshield and announced, "I'm the f***ing future."

Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor by Jack Slack is published tomorrow (John Blake Books, €18.99)

'She'd drive me to the gym and listen to all my dreams'

Dee Devlin from Walkinstown, Dublin, was already familiar with McGregor on sight when, one night in 2008, he approached her in a Dublin nightclub. Essentially penniless, McGregor nonetheless won Devlin over with his wit and charm, and with a caring streak rarely commented on.

McGregor's career decisions would have turned most girls off, but Devlin respected his drive and often helped to spur him on during the moments of self-doubt. Through the losses and the collection of unemployment benefit, McGregor was encouraged by Dee Devlin.

In an interview in May 2015, McGregor told VIP magazine: "She'd drive me to the gym, and she'd listen to all my dreams. I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for her."

He added his dream had always been for Devlin never to have to worry about money again and remained determined to end his career on a beach with Devlin. He let his romantic side slip through briefly and sincerely in the interview when he noted: "I'm doing all this for her."

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport