We saw a different Conor McGregor this week ahead of his fight with Donald Cerrone on Saturday in Las Vegas. He was respectful and humble towards his opponent during their press conference, a world away from previous fight build-ups. In this extract from Choas Is A Friend Of Mine by Ewan MacKenna, we look back on a crucial win for McGregor that sent him on the road to fame and glory, and how he got inside his opponent's head before they entered the cage.
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Like so many unique characters before him, what makes McGregor so dangerous to himself out of the octagon has often made him dangerous to others in it.
When comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan sat across from actor Jamie Foxx for an edition of his podcast in 2017, the subject of Mike Tyson and personality came up. "You have to have it," Foxx explained. "Like back in the day, Mike was a wild boy. To hang out with him, you could understand he was the biggest person on the planet and he had demons. But he was fun, too. You see him in a club and he sees some girls, and he was like, 'Fine, how you doing, do you like BMWs? You like cars, you like BMWs?' He'd take the girls out and go get a BMW, he was that crazy. He'd open up the dealership. But like I was saying, you can't have that type of talent in one area and ... You can't drink milk and nearly kill someone. Look at Hendrix, look at Elvis, they have to have some deficiency, because that's God fucking with us. He gives you something incredible, but he's also going to give you something to anchor that. Yin and yang."
That's not to put McGregor on that level, because his results and his status simply do not match up, and it's not to defend him either. But it is to look into a sort of madness that can get you to the top of your sphere, a place that only inspires much more madness.
Where, then, did the climb begin?
Well, it's seven years since he won his first belt via Cage Warriors Featherweight Championship.
That was the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end.
It was 2 June 2012 when he fought the busy, tough and smart Dave Hill for that crown. The Englishman had only lost two of his twelve fights, had never been stopped and was seen by experts as seriously durable, but he had never come across anything like this. These days Hill is retired, and while so many fighters are either scared to talk openly about experiences as if a sign of weakness, let alone admit to actual weakness, he's refreshingly different.
"I hadn't heard of him," he recalls of the build-up. "Well, I say that. I'd kind of heard his name once or twice, but I'd never seen his fights or anything like that. My coach at the time, Marc Goddard, he said, 'You're matched with this guy Conor. Give him a look, you are fighting him in Ireland in a couple of months'. I had a look through his fights and could see he was pretty handy and lairy."
Once it was announced, the baiting began instantly, just as it had with [Artemij] Sitenkov.
But it was no longer a shield for McGregor.
The void had been filled as it had consumed him and had become a weapon.
Hill remembers going on social media and being met with a steady drip of comments from McGregor's mates, telling him he was going to get hurt, how he didn't stand a chance, that he'd soon be battered. He'd been around, but this was off the charts.
"Usually, it was always quite amicable before fights. But then, the week before, there was a radio interview to promote it. We were both on, and he went off on one. I couldn't get as much as a word in, and he was just going on about how he was the best in Europe, how he was the best in the world, and how he was going to beat me up and batter me. He was talking me down quite a lot, and that was new to me as well."
It was the start of Hill being taken away from his normal routine, although the weigh-in stands out most. He had lost seven kilos that week, four and a half of those through dehydration, a lack of food, and an age in a sauna during the 24 hours before standing on the scales. As a result, he showed up exhausted, although that's not unusual when significant and strenuous efforts have been undertaken to make weight ahead of a fight. McGregor was unusual. He was hyper, getting into his face, shoving his head against Hill's, forcing him across the stage.
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"I wasn't ready for it to kick off," he says. "The main thing that stood out for me ... until that point, I just thought that Conor was a dickhead and all that talk was all just for show. One of the main things I see with fighters and sportsmen is a lot of the time, on social media, they'll talk crap and do it in person as well. They'll talk about what they're going to do and how now is their time and they are the very best. That's them lying to themselves. That's what I thought about Conor until the weigh-in, and it dawned on me. 'Oh shit,' I genuinely said to myself. 'This guy believes everything. He's not all there'."
Hill had experiences of the fight-game bluster before. He asks not to name the opponent for obvious reasons, but on one previous occasion, he had another MMA exponent trash talking at him as well. This guy promised him what would happen, but then pulled out of the bout. Later, that fighter admitted to Hill that he wasn't in a good place mentally. It had basically all been an effort to get his friends and his camp to buy into his words about being the best, in the hope it would bounce back and he might believe it himself.
"That's what I thought Conor was doing," Hill continues. "Only then he squared up to me and starts shouting, 'I'm going to fucking bury you. You look soft, you are soft.' I just thought, 'Shit, this isn't an act. This is what he really thinks.' So initially, there's a little bit of intimidation.
"I knew he got a little lairy at weigh-ins, but it's a strange sensation. On one hand, even though you know the bloke is coming in there to try and knock your head off anyway, it's this that gets to you. Like, in dressing rooms, you know you are going out there, and if you overthink it, you'd realise, 'This guy can legally punch or knee or kick or choke me, he is trying to break my limbs and take away my oxygen.' But around that part of it, the adrenaline usually kicks in and it's quite surreal. A lot of times, what happens [is that] someone will say, 'Remember when you landed that shot?' or 'Do you remember when he took you down?' And you don't remember, as it's autopilot. As I got more experienced and fought more, I could keep my head together a bit more and was a bit more relaxed.
"After a while, I was more worried about losing, because you feel embarrassed rather than hurt. that's what I was scared and nervous about. All that work for eight weeks, and then you go home with nothing but your pride hurt. Because of that, with Conor, people wonder why his words mattered. It's hard to explain. But if I could go back and relive it, I would set myself up for it, as it gets in your head and makes you think too much.
"If someone comes to a weigh-in, shakes your hand, says, 'See you tomorrow,' you just go on and have a relaxing day. You're used to it. It's what you do. Sportsmanlike. But this? You think he means business, and after he said it, I wondered, 'Do I look soft?' I remember people saying if I was alright, and I said I was fine. I think I'd have been better to confess and say that threw me a little bit, and gather my thoughts a little bit better."
It put Hill on the back foot, and he stayed there.
Of their fight – after the talk – he recalls how McGregor could walk as well. Up to that point, what got Hill across the line so often was his fitness, meaning he stayed on the front foot and ground his opponent down with sheer work rate. But McGregor never took a backward step. He was on him from the start, stunting rhythm. If Hill tried to advance, he was caught with a shot, and suddenly it was McGregor doing what he wanted. And there was still talk there, too.
"He was quite a powerful presence. He's troubling me, and then he chatted a bit during the fight and that threw me as well. When we were up against the cage, he was saying, 'You look soft, you look soft' and 'I'll go all day with you.' Part of me was concentrating on what I wanted to do in the fight, but another part was wondering, 'Do I talk back?' When I fought, I never had someone speak to me like that. There's enough to be doing with trying to focus on the bout and listening to the cornerman, but now there's this."
Ultimately, Hill submitted in round two for the only time ever. It was also a landmark for the victor as he hadn't just punched his opponent into submission, rather he showed a skill set and an evolution that many had thought he'd never make. McGregor even shook Hill's hand afterwards, sent him a few messages telling him to come over and train in Ireland, and the experience left Hill keeping a close eye. What took him aback most wasn't how far McGregor made it but rather that the same tactics in the lead-up to bouts had succeeded so far up the ladder.
"I'm surprised how much it's worked with others," he says. "Every time he's stepped up, especially when he started getting bigger name fighters, [Dustin] Poirier, a few of those guys. I thought there's no way he'll get inside their heads, as they are too experienced, they are too game. Then he did get in their head and did wind them up and did intimidate them. You could see it. They won't admit it, but I felt it worked. He did it even on José Aldo, threw him a little bit. I do think mentally he threw him, because people aren't used to it. In MMA, most people are very respectful which is a nice part of it. And then there's him. Whether intimidating or winding you up or getting you angry, it's an extra element.
"I don't think it worked with Khabib and Diaz, though. But most others, he got in their heads far more than expected. And it's nice to see him do so well, because he's the only person that ever stopped me when I was fighting, so at least I didn't lose to a mug. And I did start to find all his chatting entertaining, as much as I think sometimes it goes too far and he can be quite disrespectful. It does get too personal, but he backs it up and it's part of why he did so well. There is the odd case when I think, 'What a dickhead,' especially when he goes and loses. I don't think there's any shame in losing, but when you chat so much shit and call people out and then lose, it's humiliating. It doesn't help him when he's fighting top dogs."
So what do you do with that crazy that Hill found so intimidating? Take it away, and what is left come fight night?
Back then, in 2012, it was the perfect balance of madness and brilliance. The problem for McGregor is that the madness soon consumed him.
UFC was coming and, since then, when the final bell rings out, he no longer stops.
Chaos is a Friend of Mine: The Life and Crimes of Conor McGregor, by Ewan MacKenna, is out now with deCoubertin Books and available via Amazon: You can purchase here.