It is not difficult to imagine Conor McGregor as he extends on a Ron Arad sofa surveying the world from his mountain-top castle. He eyes his rivals, watches the emerging UFC-ESPN deal, weighs his options, moves his pieces around a chess board embossed with gold. He thinks about a return, a trilogy fight with Nate Diaz, another battle for redemption this time against Khabib Nurmagomedov. Or even just a warm-up against the right name at the right time. Timing. All about timing.
He flaunts with – or even fakes – his retirement. He teases headlines from a thousand outlets. McGregor toys with his return as he once did his opponents on that run of success which saw him become the champ-champ and fulfil his greatest dreams.
But when, or even why, will he fight again, adding to his career resume of 21 victories and four losses by submission ?
The Irishman, 31 years of age on July 14, has wealth beyond his wildest wishes. Estimates on his career earnings are close to $150 million. The eldest of his two children with his manager and partner, Dee Devlin – Conor Jr – is now two years of age.
He has close to 40 million social media followers. That reach and resonance means that he can throw a huge rock on the social media ocean and create a tsunami of noise and news.
He has the gift of the gab, clear marketing nous – McGregor has, or has had, endorsement deals with Beats by Dre, Monster Energy, Reebok and Bud Light and Burger King, worth in the tens of millions of US dollars – and ahead of his fight with Floyd Mayweather, McGregor even announced a fashion brand partnership with custom clothier David August.
That night, the Irishman earned close to 118million US dollars.
He wants for nothing. Yet what is really going on behind the scenes ? Is the fighter still there, hustling away, doing the things we never see, honing the skillset for the nights when the lights go down and the lonely walk to the Octagon beckons again…? Will we see the best of McGregor ever again, or has the hunger gone forever and what we are witnessing is high level money making match-making…?
McGregor would not come out of his lair. But in a swoop across the layers of the MMA spectrum, from the UFC to SBG, to his coach and team-mates, to leading figures in the Irish media, I discovered for Fighters Only Magazine that the McGregor fight movie is far from complete, that his position has simply allowed him to plot and plan, something the ex-trainee plumber on the dole – who had also a very sharp mind which could have taken him to law school – had done from the time of being a teenager. He planned, he dreamt, he put his body through the mill. But his books are up to date, as we shall find out. And that means, as UFC president Dana White always puts it, he is “ready” to fight. Yes, there have been bumps in the road in the last three years, as he has become fight sports biggest pay per view star, but then again, WHATEVER McGregor does makes news, from the dolly through the bus in New York, to the crushed mobile phone in Miami, to the devastation of the ruckus in Dublin at a Bellator event in the Christmas of 2017 where his friend Charlie Ward was fighting.
Pete Carroll, regarded as the leading writer on MMA in Ireland, who had started writing an official book on the life of Conor McGregor, told me that amongst the group around the martial artist, there is the feeling that a fight announcement could come at any time. The chips just need to stack up. “That is the general feeling. The casual fans in the street have no feeling he won’t fight again. The general consensus is he’s just biding his time. You have to look into this new pay-per-view structure with ESPN,” Carroll explained to FO Magazine. “A lot of people are saying that can take away from a fighter’s money because people have to go through the extra wall with ESPN.”
“Maybe he’s trying to broker himself an individual package in that regard. Of course we also know he wants this stock in the company. He’s talked about it a lot. If we do see him back, we’re definitely going to see some sort of special circumstance attached to it. Even with the Khabib fight, they had Proper 12 on the canvas. They have to make him feel special. That’s what he wants. He needs to be made feel special before he’s ready to go back in and trade leather for them.”
So the new ESPN deal might have just made McGregor take to his binoculars for a while from his mountain hideaway ? “Maybe so. We were only talking about the lack of star power in the UFC at the moment and the lack of names. The more Conor waits, the more desperate they’ll be to come up with one of these two million kind of pay-per-view days. He’s the only who can bring those views. Will it be the last time he can draw those kind of numbers? Maybe, but he can definitely do it one more time.”
Fascinating from Carroll. Makes sense. We know McGregor has in his DNA the desire to fight, admitting recently that it would never leave him. In public in late April this year McGregor told a fan who had been pleading with him to return – “If I am being honest with myself I don’t think I will ever be able to fully walk away from fighting. We are all fighters in this world and each of us will be fighting for the rest of our time here.”
In an interview I conducted with McGregor in the Gibson Hotel in Dublin in 2015, he told me he would earn 200 million from his career. We know how mystic Mac has been. His Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey company – named after the Crumlin neighborhood, in Dublin 12, in which McGregor grew up – is still resonating strongly, with an extending of distribution to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and Canada this year.
And while McGregor has not fought since October 2018, with that defeat to Nurmagomedov, his successor at the summit of the lightweight division, there is no sign that he will back down in the face of the Dagestani. The Dubliner was hoping to have an immediate rematch with ‘The Eagle’, who is expected to defend his 155lb crown against Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 in September.
A key figure to ask in all of this, is McGregor’s head coach John Kavanagh. These are the requests that Kavanagh, he tells me, gets numerous times a week. When we speak face to face at a Bellator event in Birmingham in early May, the standout guru for a generation of fighters tells me of a training session with McGregor two days earlier, and of their talks.
“The most I can say about Conor is I believe he will fight again. Until he actually signs for another fight I have nothing more to say.” The problem for Kavanagh is now that ANYTHING HE SAYS about Conor is gold for journalistic headlines.
But there were other team-mates that were willing to speak about the figure who has continued to inspire them. Like featherweight Pedro Carvalho and Brian Moore, the bantamweight, both of whom are signed with Bellator, and are McGregor’s team-mate at SBG.
“It’s not down to me to say if or when Conor will come back,” explains Carvalho. “But as a fan of MMA and because of what he has done for all of us, and the sport, of course I want to see him back. He is a winner, and he’d will win again. He has champion in his head heart and soul. It’s in his DNA.”
Carvalho has been inspired by his team-mate. :”This is my life and I’ve sacrificed my life for this. I came here at the age of 13,” said the 23-year-old. “I have a nine-month old boy and it’s been so hard. I’m in Ireland and he’s back home in Portugal. It’s been hard, but at the same time I’m in a killer set of mind.”
“Any fighter who says money doesn’t matter is lying. We need to pay bills. I came from a poor background. My mother and two aunts raised me. I want to come to them and offer them a life they never had. I want to offer my kid a life he’s never had. With this being said, when my name is announced in the Bellator featherweight tournament, you can write on a piece of paper: in one year’s time I will have one million in my account and a Bellator belt around my waist.” Does that not sound like McGregor ?
Moore, meanwhile, told me that due to his competitive nature, it is inevitable that the generational leader will step inside the fighting arena once more: “Absolutely he will come back. Conor is one of the most fierce competitors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. That’s one of the most influential factors of his life.”
Moore insists fans can discount the money he has earned. “He never has to make the walk again for financial reasons, but you cannot stop a guy that’s in his prime and has achieved so much from coming back and doing it again. He’s one of the best to have ever done it and on top of that, I can never see him not doing that again.”
McGregor frequents the gym. “I see Conor regularly, he’s always in the gym and always training hard.” The itch for the fight, for the challenge, for the DNA of the warrior will return. “Yeah, and that’s so admirable. You’ve got a guy who has achieved what so many won’t and financially he’s killing it as well. I think he will come back because of that itch and urge. More than anyone I’ve ever met, he’s super competitive, which makes him a kind of athlete we’ve been blessed to witness.”
“I don’t think he really cares about proving anything to anyone else. He’s got nothing to prove and he knows that. He’ll do it for himself and the right reasons when he does come back.”
Carvalho is near by. He suddenly jumps in… “Brian Moore is from Wexford. People from Wexford, they fought the British with pikes. The perfect combination is Portugal and Ireland.” Moore is laughing. In fact, we are all laughing. It is like something from the script of a McGregor moment.
“We’re very very proud of Conor and all he’s achieved. I’m a very proud Irishman,” added Moore. “We always get behind our athletes. He’s probably achieved more than any other Irish athlete, certainly in combat sports. It would be great to have him back and representing our county again to become world champion again, which I think he will 100 per cent do.”
This is something Carroll has always found. An unshakeable belief set. “When you’re talking to their teammates, they think he’ll beat Khabib. That’s what they seem to say, it’s more than a fight. I find it very hard to believe, based on the Khabib performance, that he can ever get back to where he was when he fought Eddie Álvarez and won that title.”
“I find it hard to believe he could go into that fight with Khabib and it’ll be a very different fight. That left hand used to just explode on contact and the fight would be a very story when it connected. But he was overextending on those left hands against Khabib and he didn’t look picture perfect as he usually do. Even when he did get that chance to stand with Khabib, he couldn’t do anything with it. It’s very hard for me to see a guy who turns 31 in July, who relies so much on his speed and explosiveness and believe he can get back to that level of three, four years ago.”
And yet McGregor is hellbent on setting the record straight. Carroll concurs. “With the Diaz fight, when he lost he got straight back in there. That’s the guy he is and always will be. With all the controversy we see with him outside the cage at the moment, I think that is a real indicator that he is not in a camp. I think every time we see him go into camp, he goes into a zen-like Buddha zone. We saw it when he first kicked off his UFC career, as soon as he started about fighting it got very philosophical. That’s the part of him that’s missing now. That’s the key component that hasn’t been there, especially in the Khabib fight and maybe even since the Mayweather fight. That’s the guy we need to see again if he’s going to come back and fight to the best of his ability.”
“I’m in contact with guys who are in the gym with him all the time. Even at the time when there was that phone incident, everyone was saying he was looking amazing in the gym. He was getting back at it, he was fit. I mean, a guy like that will always look fit. Look at him before the Khabib fight, he looked in supreme shape, but that doesn’t always translate into results.”
Fair enough. Bit if anyone wanted, or needed signs of sincerity about his desire to return, behind the scenes McGregor maintains – like he does with coach Kavanagh – an adherence to the basic code for the fighter. This is a clear sign. McGregor’s whereabouts have been monitored under the random drug testing programme throughout his last three years.
Jeff Novitzky revealed exclusively to Fighters Only Magazine: “There’s so many fighters who are on testing programs who are 100 per cent compliant, but you never hear those stories. You’re always hearing the negative story about someone who’s tested positive. To be compliant under this program can be done if you listen to the education and messages we put out there. It’s not difficult, but it does take some work and it’s a burden to ensure that you’re letting USADA know where you are 365 days of the year so you can be tested. Those who do it consistently well year after year deserve to be recognised.”
Well guess what ? “Conor is on the USADA program and is still being tested. Conor is under UFC contract so he’s required to tell
USADA every day of the year where he’s at to be tested. And he’s doing that. He’s been 100 per cent successful under the program.” Does Novitzky have a sense, then, due to this, that the fizzing Irish witticisms and warring will be back soon.
“That would be more of a Dana question, but in terms of an anti-doping angle and whether he is fulfilling his obligations, yes he absolutely is…”
When it comes to UFC president Dana White, there is a tussle with McGregor’s demands. McGregor wants shares in the UFC. White has thus far played that down. Nonetheless, Sly Stallone believes The Notorious should have a way in to the company. When asked if he would “give him a little piece of yours” recently, by TMZ, Stallone responded in the affirmative. The legendary actor was one of 23 people who bought shares in the fighting organisation when it was involved in a £4.5 billion takeover back in 2016. Two other actors – Mark Wahlberg and US talk show host Conan O’Brien – have even had their buttons pushed when they were hallenged by McGregor recently – for a fight – for their shares in the company. It was in jest, of course, but McGregor was making his point again.
“Conor McGregor will fight again,” White said in early May, adding that he was due to sit down with the Irishman for face-to-face talks to discuss the future in a matter of days, in Los Angeles. Planned talks in Miami had failed. “Me and Conor communicate every day. Things are good with Conor I and we’ll get something figured out soon. Conor likes to be in a position where he holds the cards and he does what he wants to do. He and I figure out how to work together and how to make it all happen.”
But there is a desire to see Conor back, even from those he has angered. Like Mike Mazzuoli, the president of the Athletic Commissions in the USA. He told me recently. “I just hope he gets his life together.”
“I’d like him to get his life straight and understand you can’t act that way. Like I said back in 2017, when he did that to me, Conor McGregor is not bigger than MMA. To me it seems MMA has moved forward from what he did in 2017. You don’t hear much about him anymore. Everyone wants him to get healthy and be smart and hopefully he will.”
“Oh, absolutely. Fighters come and go. They’re on top today and tomorrow they’re looking up wondering what happened when they do stupid stuff. Hopefully he’s going to get his life straight. Hopefully the UFC are going to assist him in doing the right thing. At the end of the day, that’s important.”
The feeling is that McGregor’s return is imminent, and that with the right position of the Russian foe, Diaz, and possibly a tune-up, the Irishman will be back in camp. “I’ve heard he’s talking about fights and talking about his interest levels in different fights. I think it’s only a matter of time before we see him back in there,” explained Carroll.
“So many people talk about how much he’s earned from the whiskey company and the Mayweather fight, but there’s still plenty of money to be made on the table for another fight. I heard very recently he was dead set on the Khabib rematch and he wants that rematch. It’s very likely that will happen.”
Dustin Poirer fights Khabib Nurmagomedov in September, we understand, So the Diaz fight is still there, that trilogy fight. It’s a major money-spinner.
“I don’t think Conor can look beyond Khabib or Nate when it comes to a fight at the moment just simply because as far as the money and parties involved, it makes sense for everyone. I definitely think it’s going to happen. I’m quite surprised people actually fall for Conor’s retirement ploy, he’s done it too much now.”
But can The Mac reach the heights he once held within sport and the mainstream ? Sport can be so fickle and it’s all about ‘what have you done for me lately’. You only have to look at the public 180 on Tiger Woods. The public 180 on Tyson Fury.
“Definitely his reputation isn’t in the place it was three or four years ago during the ascent to the UFC title. But, I feel like if he can go back in there, get a big win and represent Ireland as he has in the past as a fantastic role model, then yes sport changes peoples perspectives of athletes,” reasoned Carroll. “I think that is a possibility, but he has to want to change that. With Tyson Fury we saw a deliberate change in that man, an evolution of that man and I think that’s what people need to see if they’re really going to get behind Conor McGregor again. It’s absolutely not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
This interview first appeared in Fighters Only Magazine.