Conor McGregor is the physical embodiment of Ireland – proud, passionate and tough.
It’s part of the reason why the Dublin native has become the jewel in the Emerald Isle’s crown. Yet, in so many ways he’s quintessentially ‘un-Irish’. The UFC featherweight champion has risen from working as a plumber’s apprentice to one of the most notorious sporting personalities on the planet.
He’s done it with audacious proclamations and a brashness that almost belies his Irish roots.
But what makes his success all the more remarkable is that he predicted his ascent long ago.
Before the vast wealth and the notoriety, an interview from 2008 resurfaced as McGregor began to hit the big time. The hair was different and the clothes were modest but that mesh of cockiness and confidence was exactly the same.
“My dream is to be the UFC champion and have more money than I know what to do with… my dream is to be number one,” the then 19-year-old said.
Fast forward eight years and those dreams have become reality.
You see, in McGregor’s eyes his book has already been written and we as the public are only just reading it now. The second instalment is on its way with the chance of unprecedented simultaneous two-weight world glory next month at UFC 196. And few would bet against him achieving that feat.
After all, he ended the 10-year winning streak of one of the pound-for-pound greats in Jose Aldo in 13 electrifying seconds.
Now, the 27-year-old sits atop the UFC and it seems no one can stop him. So how did he get to this point?
Owen ‘Rowdy’ Roddy was one of the pioneers of MMA in Ireland. When he entered the sport over a decade ago, there were no Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts in the country. In fact, the sport was so unheard of people laughed him off and thought he was preparing for professional wrestling.
The picture he paints is a far cry from the scenes of UFC 194 in December as swathes of loyal Irish fans swept through Las Vegas.
But the long-time striking coach of McGregor at their Dublin home of Straight Blast Gym, provides an insight into how a diamond emerged from the dirt and harnessed the pressure of a nation to dazzle like no other.
“He first came into the gym with Tom Egan (the first Irishman to fight in the UFC) a long time ago,” Roddy tells Sport360.
“Tom had done a bit of BJJ and a little bit of kickboxing. Conor was primarily a boxer but he moved around with Tom playing around a bit. Conor knew nothing, though.
“But I remember moving around with him and he hit me and I just thought ‘S***! This kid hits hard.’
“So I took him down and submitted him and that was it. But I remember him getting up off the ground and not being fazed at all by it. You could almost see it in his eyes that he was like, ‘I could have knocked you out easily’.
“From day one, he had that 100 per cent belief in himself.
“You could tell if he stuck at it, he would be amazing. I said it then that he would become a UFC champion, so I called it well.”
Indeed he did. But few others followed. In the beginning McGregor was raw. His talent was untamed and his life away from the ring was wild. He made his professional MMA debut shortly before that 2008 interview was conducted and went 4-2 in his first six fights.
Yet, it was those two defeats, for contrasting reasons, that would help cut the fighter we see today.
The first was to Russian wrestler Artemij Sitenkov. McGregor was submitted after 69 seconds to a kneebar and in the aftermath he disappeared. For two years.
It took the intervention of his head coach at SBG, John Kavanagh, to bring him back to MMA.
“John has often told the story of when he lost his first fight he disappeared for a few months and with the money from selling tickets for the fight,” says The42.ie journalist and author of Kavanagh’s upcoming autobiography, Paul Dollery.
“Conor’s mum rang John and asked him to come and see him at the house because he drifted away and was hanging around with the wrong people. His mum felt he needed some direction in his life and John went down and got him back. That was a big turning point.”
If the aftermath of his first defeat gave him direction, the second saw the dawn of his obsession for the sport. Fellow Irishman Joseph Duffy is the last man to beat McGregor. It took him just 38 seconds to submit the soon-to-be king in their 2010 clash. But there was no disappearing act this time.
“After losing to Joe he brushed it off very quickly and realised he made a simple mistake,” Roddy recalls.
“He came straight back to the gym on the Monday and started wrestling a lot more and competing in Jiu-Jitsu. After that there was no looking back.
When he was a young kid, he at times was too aggressive and forcing things. But then he started to mature and look at the game differently. He became calmer and much more calculated.”
From that point on everything clicked. His win streak began to grow and he captured the Cage Warriors featherweight and lightweight straps. The world was beginning to take notice. Driven by his natural charisma, the McGregor name spread beyond Ireland and soon the UFC came calling.
In April 2013, he made his debut for the promotion in Stockholm, knocking out Marcus Brimage in just over a minute. He would go on to rack up wins against Max Holloway, Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier and Dennis Siver.
In less than two years, and in just five fights, McGregor had become one of the UFC’s biggest stars.
And Aldo was next. The Brazilian pulled out their first fight with a rib injury and his replacement, Chad Mendes, a high-level wrestler, was the type of fighter many theorised McGregor had been protected from. He, too, though, was dispatched, another knockout. But not everyone was on board with the McGregor hype train, even after his December defeat of Aldo, he polarised opinion.
“The thing about McGregor is that he divides people in Ireland just as much as he does across the world,” Dollery adds.
“But even the people who don’t like his personality in Ireland, when he beat Aldo and Mendes, they recognised and respected what he had achieved.”
And Roddy shed light on what sets him apart.
“Even after the Aldo fight he wasn’t happy with his striking because Aldo managed to clip him on the way down,” Roddy says.
“That’s the obsession. Not many people have that. You look at Aldo his obsession is for his family. For Conor it’s MMA. He never stops. It’s crazy. I’ll get a message from him after a striking session and I’ll be in bed at midnight and he’ll be saying, ‘I was thinking about this shot earlier on, we should do this instead’. It’s very hard to compete with that because for him MMA never sleeps.”
McGregor emphatically believes it’s his destiny to do something no UFC fighter has done before, by becoming a two-weight world champion.
On March 5 he takes on Brazilian lightweight Rafael dos Anjos in Las Vegas attempting to do just that. But no matter the outcome, the Notorious story will long be told and if you ask him how it ends, it’s with him draped in green and wearing gold.
Undefeated rising star ‘Super’ Sage Northcutt tapped out to Bryan Barberena in a stunning upset at UFC on Fox 18 on Saturday.
But at least now it will allow the hype surrounding the talented, but inexperienced 19-year-old to die down.
While many will view the defeat in the second round as a complete derailment of Northcutt’s hype train, it could yet turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
The American fought for the third time in four months – his last coming in December.
And it did not go well as he tapped to a triangle arm choke not even fully locked in. He became only the fifth UFC fighter ever to be submitted from the half-guard and quite simply, he gave in super quick.
“I knew it was a matter of time before he was going to tap,” Barberena said.
While that may be the case, a more accomplished fighter would have been able to escape and it proves that too much was coming his way too soon.
Northcutt didn’t take time off to improve, rest, or do much of anything other than jump right back into training camp.
Instead, he continued to balance a sudden UFC career with college, and rushed into a fight at a higher weight against an opponent he admitted to not knowing anything about, just weeks after his previous victory over Cody Pfister.
And it showed. Barberena weathered Northcutt’s right hands, despite a cut above his eye, in the first round and the teenager gassed out. By the second he was exhausted.
He threw a right hand and fell, allowing Barberena to jump on him and land elbows. Without even passing guard he tied Northcutt up and got the tap.
But this is not the end and with time and the right coaching, Northcutt can still yet prove he is more than just potential.
It’s the biggest weightclass in the UFC but in terms of talent, it’s the smallest.
The heavyweight division has long been a declining force ever since crossover star Brock Lesnar returned to the WWE in 2011.
With no dominant force, the injury-riddled Cain Velasquez is to blame for that, or rising star, the 265lbs title scene has stagnated and is now in a state of flux.
That Light Heavyweight division in @UFC is getting pretty dang interesting after last night. Can't wait to see the next couple of months.— Theo Rossi (@Theorossi) February 1, 2016
Ben Rothwell added his name to the long list of candidates in with a shout of a shot at champion Fabricio Werdum after his submission of Josh Barnett on Saturday.
But when you take a deeper look at the rankings, the problem is laid bare. Of the current top 10, the average age is close to 39 and is headed by 38-year-old belt holder Werdum.
To put that into perspective, Ring Magazine’s equivalent chart for boxing’s big hitters works out at 33, with 27-year-old Tyson Fury their
top man. The UFC’s once premier division is old. Really old.
And the problem is at a grassroots level. Looking elsewhere in the promotion, the flyweight division has Henry Cejudo, bantamweight has Aljamain Sterling, featherweight has Max Holloway and lightweight has Tony Ferguson.
Heavyweight? No one and it’s led to the flux we see right now.
The root of the problem stems from fighter pay. The financial reward of competing in the UFC is dwarfed by the likes of the NFL, which is able to comfortably lure the type of athletic freaks needed to freshen up the UFC.
Of course, MMA is more than just about pure athleticism but the skill sets needed for the sport have to be taught early.
But as a young athlete, what appeals more, the unpredictable and intense route of MMA or the riches of American Football?
Throughout UFC history, the heavyweight division – whether it was Dan Severn, Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, Lesnar and Velasquez – has commonly been dominated by collegiate All-American wrestlers.
But there aren’t any young versions of them around at the contenders level.
Still, the division has its moments as Rothwell proved in New Jersey.
His unexpected, if not shocking, submission win over Barnett, is a timely boost after the body blow of seeing the main event of this weekend’s card ripped apart by first Velasquez and then Werdum’s injury pullouts.
But if the heavyweight division is a shallow class, light-heavyweight is a murderous row.
In the main event Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson cemented his spot near the top of 205lbs division after he knocked out Ryan Bader in 86 seconds.
Eight months after coming up short in his first UFC title fight against Daniel Cormier, Johnson is more than ready for a second crack at it. Whether that be against Cormier or a returning Jon Jones when they eventually meet again.