He is the brightest star in the UFC cosmos right now, the sport’s center of gravity, and the rare fighter whose talents in the Octagon keep pace with his talents for promotion.
Conor McGregor’s fight at UFC 196 may now be in limbo, but there are no questions about the UFC star’s popularity and rise. The UFC featherweight champion is featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time this week.
McGregor was scheduled to fight lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196 on March 5 in an attempt to become the first UFC fighter to hold titles in two weight classes, but multiple outlets reported Tuesday morning that Dos Anjos would be forced to withdraw from the fight with a broken foot.
Sports Illustrated spent several days in Dublin with McGregor, and here are some outtakes from the time on the home turf of the UFC’s irrepressible star:
On wondering why McGregor would move to 155 lbs. and fight a bigger opponent, risking a defeat as well as a blow to his aura:
Conor McGregor: “You know, I could have chosen an easy contest. I could have stayed in the division. But really what else is there to do? I have beaten everyone in the 145-pound division. Jose [Aldo] was the longest reigning champion. He is the only champion in the 145-pound division. He was the pound-for-pound No. 1 on the roster. He had beaten everybody. I had beaten everybody. Then I beat him in 13 seconds.
“There’s no one really there just yet. I’d like to see a couple of them throw down and look to build that interest back up again. That's what I should feel with the featherweight division personally. I feel they should compete now....True champions, they fight, compete and they work. So I looked around the landscape, and although I feel they are all inferior, I chose the one on paper who was the toughest, the current 155-pound champion.”
On what fighting feeds in him:
“It’s pure. I don’t got to wake up and pretend to be enjoying something or pretend to be passionate about something like many people that go to work and they have a boss and they must, Yes, sir, no, sir, clock in, clock out. Why were you late? Why are you not in today? That's not how humans are supposed to live, I don't feel. That's not how I wanted to live. This is something I can do that I'm passionate about, first and foremost.
“It's pure to where we came from. We came from combat. That’s it. We were survivors. This is just something that we are bred to do. It feels natural to me. I am thankful that rather than getting in trouble for it, I actually get praised for it, and paid very, very well for it....For me, that first collision where there's no one to say, Go soft, there's nobody holding you back, it’s just go. That for me is a beautiful feeling.”
On where his brash and outspoken persona comes from:
“Again, it goes back to that I feel if you truly commit to something you’re obsessed about, or if you truly commit to something you can see in your mind, then it will become a reality. So I have a deep, deep belief in that, that if I tell you I’m going to crack you with a clean shot to the chin inside one minute of the first round, you will be unconscious, then that will happen. I’m only getting better at it. It’s a learning process, I feel, the game of visualization. I’m certainly getting better at it. I feel I’m able to pinpoint the shot and the time.”
McGregor is the first male UFC fighter to appear on the cover since Roger Huerta in 2007. Ronda Rousey was featured on the cover in May 2015 with an accompanying Sports Illustrated Films short after winning her 11th consecutive fight to maintain her UFC bantamweight title.
L. Jon Wertheim’s full magazine story on McGregor, which chronicles his rise to UFC stardom, will debut Wednesday morning on SI.com along with McGregor’s SI Films feature.