“Win or Learn”, the title of Conor McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh’s autobiography that describes the mentality of team McGregor and of those who will sit in his corner (as opposed to outside the octagon) when he takes on Floyd Mayweather Junior on August 26th in Las Vegas. In McGregor’s career to date he has had the opportunity to learn with his Mixed Martial Arts (“MMA”) record to date standing at 1-0 at amateur level and 21-3 at the professional level. Mayweather an Olympic bronze medallist has a record 49 wins and 0 loses in professional bouts across various weight classes.
McGregor and Mayweather’s backgrounds are even more diametrically opposed than their respective records. Mayweather’s Wikipedia biography alone screams Hollywood biopic, his mother a drug addict, his father a drug dealer, he used boxing as his escape from the harsh reality of his circumstances. Golden glove winner on three occasions, Olympic bronze athlete and arguably the greater pound for pound fighter of all time with championship wins in five divisions. Out of the ring his colourful personal life adds to the story rather than detracting from it, he perhaps may be more fitting of McGregor’s nickname, Notorious.
McGregor on the other hand comes from a loving working class family and after his secondary (high school) education began an apprenticeship as a plumber before ultimately abandoning this avenue in favour of a career as a fighter. By no means does McGregor’s story have the same rags to riches, success in the face of all adversity angle of Mayweather’s but the end result is the same, two fighters at the top of their respective sports, both driven by a desire to be the best, to win, to be infamous and to cement their status by beating the other when they meet in August.
When McGregor exploded onto the UFC mainstream many Irish people, myself included, initially cringed with the outlandish outfits, the over enunciation of every syllable as he trash talked his opponents, the impression of the mean streets of Dublin and the notion of the fighting Irish which UFC perpetuated in every trailer, every build up to a fight. It was almost as if Darby O’Gill and the Little People was reborn with an artificial notion of Ireland and the Irish being re-created by what appeared from initial assessment to be a jumped up leprechaun character.
Needless to say I was not initially won over by the McGregor hype. However, McGregor has the knack of getting into people’s heads, and not just his opponents. The flamboyant outfits, the trash talking, the showmanship it is all, as McGregor himself puts it, are part of the game and boy is he good at playing it. McGregor has captivated UFC fans in a way no other fighter has. Fans have bought into the larger than life character and he has gained the notoriety his nickname craves. It was impossible not to be impressed with his talent in the octagon and his equal talent outside of it where the UFC as a whole dance to the Irish jig he is playing. McGregor quickly realised that the UFC was one big circus and he has made himself the ring leader. The way he has risen so prominently to the top has in itself endeared him to the Irish public. As a small nation take pride in seeing one of our own excel in any field and he certainly has done so. Bit by bit we have started to dance to his tune.
As a teenager in Ireland McGregor had two loves, football and boxing. As his passion for boxing increased his love of football, at least from a playing perspective, waned. For a man who exudes a love of the opulent and extravagant and exudes all the qualities of an extrovert it seems the routine, the regime and the discipline of boxing, and later martial arts, had a magnetic like attraction for McGregor.
In Ireland, MMA historically has been an underground sport with the perception being of fighters covered with tattoos savagely beating one another akin to animals in cages. MMA continues to have that perception among some, but it is changing and McGregor is the catalyst for much of that change. MMA is a sport, it is an art form, the movement patterns, the ability to inflict blows on your opponent while simultaneously evading theirs and extricating oneself from attempted submissions.
Simply put MMA is not just two men in a cage attacking one another without thought. It is not the barbaric savagery that its opponents would lead you to believe. To watch McGregor fight, albeit his recent bouts have been relatively short affairs, you can’t help but appreciate his obvious talent. Like the tiger which emblazons much of his abdomen McGregor moves with the precision and cunning of a cat, waiting for his opportunity to bounce at his opponent. Here is a man who is predatory in the ring, animalistic in his moves and ruthless in his execution.
The glitz, the glamour, and the hype which will surround McGregor’s August fight in the MGM Grand, and have surrounded his UFC bouts to date, are a far cry from the small halls and gyms in which he began his MMA “career”. McGregor made the UFC sit up and take notice and he has undoubtedly changed their industry immeasurably with the ring meeting the octagon. He wanted the Mayweather fight and was determined to make it happen and it is.
In a 2016 interview unrelated to the possibility of any fight with Mayweather, John Kavanagh recalled his first meeting with McGregor and in the context of that meeting describing the southpaw as a “good boxer”. Nevertheless Kavanagh would go on to beat McGregor in their first meeting and that sense of being humbled by the quiet and soft spoken Kavanagh who would go on to become his closest friend and trusted coach undoubtedly built a bond between the two which has been pivotal to McGregor’s rise to prominence. Behind every good man there is a good woman, in McGregor’s case it may be more fitting to acknowledge a great woman (his long term girlfriend Dee Devlin) and an equally good guy in Kavanagh.
McGregor’s advance into Mayweather’s “territory” poses more of a difficulty to Mayweather than many seem to anticipate. Everyone knows what Mayweather is capable of doing in the ring, no one doubts his ability or questions his talent, McGregor is an unknown, an enigma, unpredictable, and undoubtedly the underdog, all of which feeds into his hands. The respective nicknames can allow one to draw assumptions as to fighters’ motivations, Floyd “Money” Mayweather Junior (we will disregard the nickname Pretty at this juncture) and Conor “The Notorious” McGregor. Mayweather has certainly lived up to his and irrespective of the result in bringing the worlds of boxing and UFC together McGregor is doing his part to ensure he will do likewise.
For Mayweather and McGregor, the August bout will be a huge pay day but that may pale in comparison to the real prize on offer, cementing their fame and that of victory. Boxing as a sport has been in the decline in comparison with the ascendancy of UFC. The biggest names in boxing have already fought one another, re-matches can only bring so much hype, a sport is marred with controversy, dubious decisions and limited quality opponents whereas UFC is only growing with high profile sponsorship deals, outlandish personalities and a growing contingent of fighters ready, willing and certainly hungry to emanate the success of McGregor.
The UFC is fast becoming the ultimate show in town and boxing knows it. UFC and Mayweather Promotions will walk away the real winners in this fight from a financial perspective, and while McGregor may ultimately lose to Mayweather in the ring, he too will walk away a winner. Any defeat in the ring will not prevent a return to the octagon for McGregor who can saunter back to a UFC bout with his usual swagger if defeated knowing he a took on the best and was beaten by the best.
For Mayweather, a loss poses a more difficult prospect. He won’t he affected financially, however, if he loses to McGregor only a successful rematch could restore a much more valuable commodity for a fighter, pride.
Kavanagh’s book uses a line that encapsulates the philosophy that McGregor seem to abide by: “Only those who never stand up, never fall down”. McGregor, the UFC fans, countless Irish supporter myself included, will be watching in August and hoping that while he stands up tall with the support of a nation behind him.