Something feels very serendipitous about Dublin's own Conor McGregor fighting in Boston at the UFC's inaugural event on Fox Sports 1 this Saturday. As McGregor puts it: "We are a tough nation. Born fighters. Combat is in our blood."
McGregor (13-2) meets Max Holloway (7-2) in an undercard bout (Fox Sports 1, 6 p.m. ET), part of the cable network's relaunch as a full-fledged sports channel. The 25-year-old featherweight might as well be on the main card. He's certainly garnered more attention than most of the fighters appearing after him that night.
Before you label McGregor as the night's token Irishman, there are a few things you should know about him. For one, he knocked the socks off his opponent, the fans and UFC President Dana White in his 67-second Octagon debut in April. McGregor's fearless performance was one of those lottery-winning moments that every struggling fighter dreams of, where everything changes in what seems like a blink of an eye.
So smitten was Boston-native White that he pulled McGregor aside backstage just minutes after his bout and told him he'd be coming back for the Boston card -- the first of a few surreal moments that have come with getting swept up into the UFC whirlwind. After watching the bullish promoter on television all those years, McGregor couldn't believe White was talking to him, let alone offering him another bout so quickly.
"Honestly, I felt drunk," McGregor said. "I was in a bubble. I was in a daze. It really felt like a video game to me. Once the cage door locks, it's just another contest to me. The situation inside the Octagon doesn't faze me. Outside of it, I'm like a little fan."
This fan's journey is only getting started and it's been a fun one to watch unfold so far.
From Crumlin to Boston
Conor McGregor grew up the youngest of three children in Crumlin, a suburb of Dublin dating back to the 12th century, known just as much for its seediness as for its deep-seeded history. His father, a taxi driver, and mom, a sales rep, McGregor dreamed, like so many Irish youngsters, of becoming a professional footballer (or Irish for soccer player). But on the side, an eight-year-old McGregor also dabbled in boxing and kickboxing around a few local gyms -- more out necessity in the beginning, he said, than anything else.
"For some reason, I had this face everyone wanted to hit all the time. I wasn't bullied -- bullied is a heavy word, but you'd get into [potential] situations and these situations weighed heavy on my mind," said the fast-talking, yet deceivingly conciensous McGregor. "It went from learning to defend myself to becoming an obsession. [Today], I have to do some sort of combat to ease my mind. It's really like a sense of security."
At 12, McGregor found a kindred spirit in Tom Egan, a friend of the same age who shared his growing passion for combat sports. The pair religiously watched UFC events on the Bravo channel -- one of the promotion's first broadcast deals in Europe in the early 2000s.
"I had a little boxing, some kickboxing; he had a little jiu-jitsu," McGregor recalls. "I'd go down to his house and stay there the whole weekend. I'd teach him a little. He'd teach me a little bit, and we'd punch the head(s) off each other in this little shed out in the backyard."
It was mostly just good fun until one Saturday morning, when the 16-year-old McGregor and Egan drove into the city centre to scope out the Straight Blast Gym, one of the few MMA facilities in Ireland at the time. McGregor said his outlook changed when he met coach John Kavanagh, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt believed to be the first Irishman to ever compete in a professional MMA bout, in 2000.
"That was when I really got serious," McGregor said. John taught me to have an open mind with combat, to study all styles. I became obsessed to where, literally, I couldn't speak of nothing else. I found out there were actually some [MMA] shows going on over here that I didn't even know about."
At 17, McGregor won his first bout at a Dublin show with a second-round technical knockout. These were formidable times for Ireland's local circuit and McGregor grew along with it. By 2011, McGregor had fought for eight promotions in Ireland and Northern Ireland, a telling statistic given there were only two or three promotions in Ireland just a few years prior.
At first, McGregor balanced his training with a day job as a plumber, but that soon gave way to the fighter's ambitions to make it into the UFC.
"I worked 14-hour days, shoveling s—t out of a pipe and being ordered around a freezing-cold building site at six a.m.," McGregor said. "I just realized one day, I was done. I wasn't going back."
Still living at home, he said his parents had a difficult time understanding their only son's decision. His father tried to drag him out of bed and back to the construction site a couple of times, but McGregor was steadfast.
"They were always on my case before a fight. They'd say, 'What will you do if you lose? Will you go back to your plumbing?' That's the kind of things I was hearing on fight day," McGregor recalls.
Though he knew his parents were operating out of concern and love for him, it was a difficult time, said McGregor. Still, his faith in his potential was unflinching. Over time, as McGregor's wins accumulated and his recognition grew, he said his parents came to understand why he'd been so adamant.
On the last day of 2012, McGregor boosted his record to 12-2, was on a hot eight-fight win streak, and had become the first Irish fighter to hold titles simultaneously in two different weight classes for the well-established Cage Warriors promotion. Probably most attractive to the UFC, though, was how McGregor won his bouts -- 10 (T)KOs among his 12 victories.
Teammate Egan had already earned the distinction of becoming the first Irishman in the Octagon when the promotion visited Dublin for UFC 93 in 2009, but had lost his bout via first-round strikes. The hypomanic McGregor had a decidedly different air about him when he entered the cage against TUF veteran Marcus Brimage (6-2) last April in Stockholm, Sweden. With his very first step onto the canvas, there was an unflappable confidence about McGregor. His aggressive and borderline reckless attack on Brimage only accentuated that. It was as if McGregor already knew there was no way he'd lose; the rest of us just had to get with the program.
The crowd's response to McGregor was instantaneous and visceral. It's something that UFC owners Zuffa LLC look for in all of its fighters -- the innate ability to get a reaction, any kind of reaction, from the fans. And after only one bout in the Octagon, it was plainly obvious that McGregor had this in spades.
Irish Americans Are Welcome
The road to Boston hasn't been as smooth as it sounds. A month ago, McGregor traveled through Canada to get a temporary visa, then proceeded to Las Vegas for 10 days to get a U.S. social security number -- an extraordinary requirement made by the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission that sent UFC promoters scrambling to keep their foreign fighters on the card. It was a small price to pay, said McGregor, as if anything outside a herd of charging bulls could keep him away.
In Sin City, McGregor cruised the Strip one night with White in his six-figure Ferrari. McGregor saw it as a symbolic gesture of where his career could go and the lifestyle he might attain should he continue on his path of dedication. During the drive, conversation eventually turned to this Saturday's bout, and White asked if McGregor minded the way Irish Americans cling to their heritage. McGregor was taken aback to hear that some of his countrymen may roll their eyes at the overzealous Irish American population in the States.
"To have this link between Ireland and America is brilliant," he said. "Ireland is a small country; us over here love when Americans say they have Irish in them: 'My great auntie was from Ireland.' That, to me, is brilliant. Why wouldn't you like [other] people to be proud of your nation? Who wouldn't like that?"
McGregor will certainly be welcome in Boston this Saturday and the UFC has done everything to lay out the carpet. Undercard fighters don't get their own dedicated open workout days to meet media and fans, but McGregor broke that rule. Irish pubs have been plastered with specially made posters of McGregor, arms raised with the green, white and orange flag waving behind him.
"If there's a spark, I want to light a fire," White told the media Thursday when asked about the special treatment.
White is being a savvy businessman. Though his UFC tenure has been short, McGregor already feels like a good horse to bet on. Zuffa has been patiently waiting for a legitimate Irish fighter to use as a flagpole in Ireland the way Brits Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy became patriotic idols in the United Kingdom. And fans have been waiting for a legitimate Irish fighter to proudly root for. It's a sentiment that hasn't been lost on McGregor.
"It's going to be a special occasion for me, to represent Ireland as a whole, to carry my nation in there," McGregor said. "It's something I'm going to take with me for the rest of my life. No one's going to be able to take this from me."