LAS VEGAS – John Kavanagh has a Mayweather-McGregor story. It’s not one that those assembled at the UFC Performance Center to hear McGregor wax fight philosophy on Friday know yet. In fact, McGregor’s longtime coach retreats away from the media scrum of more than 120 reporters to the back of the gym to tell it properly.
There, he sits on a ring apron and recalls the night of Sept. 13, 2014. Mayweather fought Marcos Maidana for the second time late that evening, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. He won, as usual, by unanimous decision. McGregor and his team, Kavanagh included, watched the bout from a local eatery in Las Vegas, where McGregor was training for his UFC fight against Dustin Poirier later that month. (He would win, by first-round knockout.)
At that point in his career, McGregor was not yet a UFC headliner. He had not stopped the legendary Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, had not split bouts with Nate Diaz, had not held belts in two different weight classes simultaneously. And yet as he watched Mayweather slip Maidana’s blows and land his own, he looked at Kavanagh and said, “One day I’m going to fight him.”
Kavanagh didn’t even try to stifle the laugh. It seemed absurd, this notion. For one, while McGregor had trained in all manner of combat sports, including boxing, he had never fought a professional boxing match. For another, Mayweather was a generational star, boxing’s pound-for-pound king, and he had never even entertained facing a mixed martial artist inside a boxing ring. Plus, he was closer to 40 than 30. It didn’t seem like he wanted to fight that long.
Who would have thought of that? Sober? McGregor, turns out. Fast forward to the summer of 2017. Everyone with an Internet connection or at least one friend knows that McGregor will meet Mayweather inside a boxing ring at T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 26. The skeptics – and there are many – have decried this match as little more than spectacle, a circus. They may be right. But they should also know this about Conor McGregor: he says things that seem impossible, that open him to ridicule and mockery, and then those exact things happen and so often that no one in his orbit doubts McGregor anymore.
Take his bout with Aldo, in Dec. 2015. The week before the fight, McGregor had dinner with the UFC’s founder, Dana White. The conversation was all I’m going to knock him out and I’m going to land my left hand and he’s going down right away. Now White had grown accustomed to McGregor’s bombast. The first time they had dinner, in Las Vegas, White called a friend afterward. “I don’t know if this kid can fight,” he said, “but if he can even throw a punch he’ll be the biggest star ever.” But this was Jose freaking Aldo, perhaps the best fighter in the history of MMA. Slow your roll, White told McGregor. But here’s the real crazy thing: the fight unfolded exactly as McGregor said it would, right down to the early knockout, with the left.
McGregor exudes similar confidence on Friday, pulling up to his promotional event in a green Lamborghini, wearing what look like white pajamas decorated with plants and trees. He retreats inside the spacious locker room at the sprawling performance center and hangs a Versace robe on a locker hook. His last name is splashed across the back, along with nickname, The Notorious. At least a dozen members of his entourage watch as he changes into workout gear, and then flexes in the mirror and heads down a corridor. Everyone follows until a security guard clarifies. “That’s just the bathroom folks,” he says.
The media horde awaits. McGregor climbs the stairs into the gym. He’s flanked by his team doctor, his nutritionist, Kavanagh, his camera crew and assorted friends. He hops in the ring and shadowboxes, then moves to the heavy bag, as photographs scramble over each other for prime position.
McGregor predicts he will knock Mayweather out in the first round, should they wear the eight-ounce gloves Mayweather reportedly petitioned the Nevada Athletic Commission for on fight night. With 10-ounce gloves, McGregor says Mayweather may last through four. He then denies reports that he called Mayweather a monkey on their four-day international press tour and dismissed those that called him racist as trying to create controversy. Then he rips into Paulie Malignaggi, the respected boxer and Showtime analyst who recently boxed with McGregor in camp and left in a huff over a video that showed McGregor knocking him down and landing several shots hard shots. Malignaggi insisted McGregor show the entire video from 12 rounds of sparring. McGregor promises he will not, for, he says, strategic reasons.
As the fighter heads back into the locker room, White stops in the Conor McGregor Conference Room and plays the Malignaggi video on his cell phone. Say what you will about McGregor’s chances against Mayweather, but in that video, he does not look like a novice.
White is on a roll. Just Friday, he says he spoke or exchanged messages with Travis Barker, David Spade, Roy Hibbert, Gordon Ramsay, Robert Downey Jr. and Shaquille O’Neal about the Mayweather-McGregor fight. White can still remember the first time he heard about McGregor. He was accepting an award of excellence from Trinity College in Dublin and afterward he stopped at a square laden with bars and offered to pay for everyone’s drinks all night. He thinks his tab ran over $23,000, but it was well worth it. “That’s the night I found about the unicorn,” he says.
White, Kavanagh, McGregor – everyone around the MMA star actually believes that he can win. But no one more so than the fighter, who says his sister gave him a book years ago, when he was a teenager, called "The Secret", which lays out the “law of attraction” and how, the theory goes, thoughts can change the world. Ever since then, McGregor has believed he can think things into reality, can speak things into existence.
As he plays with this three-and-a-half-month-old son, Conor Jr., McGregor is doing just that, even then. Of Kavanagh’s story, he’ll later say, “That sounds about right” and “that’s how I like to roll.” That may sound crazy, or foolish, and everyone from pundits to oddsmakers believe McGregor will lose to Mayweather soon enough, regardless of what he thinks.
But, hey, stranger things have happened.
Just ask Jose Aldo.