The Anarch

On UFC’s Conor McGregor’s Rise: From Nothing to Stardom

A handful of artists throughout history trained in combat sports. Mid-20th Century painter and performance artist Yves Klein was a black belt in Judo, going as far as to write a how-to manual on martial arts. Hemingway’s enthusiasm for boxing is well-documented. Swiss Dadaist poet and edge lord Arthur Cravan liked to parade his boxing and combat skills around Parisian bars, and was rumored to have once beaten up Guillaume Apollinaire so badly that Apollinaire was put in a sling. But when Cravan attempted to go professional as a boxer, perhaps as a marketing ploy for his art, he lost all three of his fights. 

In fact, only one great artist has risen to the real elite of combat sports. Irish UFC superstar and billionaire Conor “The Notorious” McGregor,  or “Conor”, as his legions of adoring fans affectionately call him, has not won a fight since knocking out Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone back in 2018. Since then, he’s fought twice, both times against American MMA fighter Dustin Poirier. Conor humiliated Poirier when they first faced off in their younger days: this time he was knocked out the first match and had his leg snapped in half the second. 

Nonetheless, when Conor comes back in 2024, it will be the biggest pay-per-view event in mixed martial arts history. That’s because, despite diminishing skill in the ring, and a calendar now mostly filled with partying with his friends on his Lambo yacht or promoting his beer and whiskey brands rather than dropping martial artists with his legendary left hook, Conor’s star hasn’t fallen. 

How can this be? The answer is that Conor’s popularity isn’t merely a result of his legendary run of wins in the mid-2010s, but the style, charisma, and nothing short of avant-garde theatrics with which he executed them. There have been better and more dominant fighters since Conor entered the UFC, yet even if you know nothing about the UFC or MMA, you likely still know the name “Conor McGregor” – the loud, brash, smooth-talking, and well-dressed Irish boy who is so comfortable beneath the shine of the spotlight as I am tucked into bed with my wife and dog on a Saturday morning. 

The manner in which the Conor McGregor story unfolded cannot be replicated. Born in Dublin in 1988, Conor’s father Tony was a cabbie and his mother Margaret was a housewife. What the family lacked in money, they made up for in love and support – a love which shines through in their son’s work ethic today. Conor was a talented footballer at age 16, before taking up boxing lessons to fend off the bullies that often tormented him. In time, he got so good that those bullies wouldn’t dare. Influenced by Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee, Conor was naturally drawn to the rising sport of mixed martial arts, and wound up at now legendary coach John Kavanaugh’s MMA gym Straight Blast

His talent was instantly obvious. He developed adequate grappling, elite striking skills, and a unique ability to manipulate his weight that allowed Conor to fight in both the featherweight (145 lbs) and lightweight (155 lbs) divisions with the same level of ferocity. 

On February 17, 2007, at only 18 years old, Conor debuted at an amateur fight and won via a technical knockout in the first round. He would lose two fights after that first win, both via submissions at featherweight – likely because he lost some protective strength after what must have been a brutal cut to 145 pounds. After that second loss, he would take some time off to further develop his grappling and defense skills. Back in the ring, he went on an eight-fight winning streak in the European Cage Fighters promotion that resulted in championship belts at both of his weight classes. For the next decade, Conor’s life and career appeared to be imbued with a blessed energy that often felt supernatural, like he could and would do no wrong.

In February of 2013, Conor got signed to the UFC. His first opponent was Marcus Brimage, then undefeated in the UFC. He won the fight easily with a first-round knockout, proving that the hype behind him wasn’t unwarranted. But it wasn’t just the grace of his violence or the ease with which he put his opponent down that impressed the UFC and its fans, but the remarks that he made in his post-fight interview. After being congratulated by the interviewer on his performance, Conor declared: “Thank you so much,” before gesturing at the Camera: “Dana, 60Gs, baby!!!” referring to UFC President Dana White’s “Performance of the Night” bonus check awarded to the fighter with the best performance, simultaneously demonstrating his thirst for success, humble beginnings, and peculiar and seismic charisma all at once.

A star indeed was born.

*** 

Before Conor, no crossover, global superstars ever emerged from the UFC. There were no “uber-famous” MMA fighters outside the industry. What catapulted Conor to global stardom was his unique charm and the surreal glory and glamor with which his victories were executed. Conor negates the stereotypes of fighters as violent, brutish meatheads in almost every possible way. He glows on screen, dresses like a British rude boy, is obscenely intelligent and quick-witted, and his confidence and self-assuredness never leave you feeling offended. On the contrary, his brash antics were so joyous that eventually it became nearly impossible not to root for the guy. 

Nietzsche once said that it was the most impotent men that were the most evil. Nothing about Conor is impotent. When he went on a tear of victories in which he knocked out elite fighters ranging from Dustin Poirier to Chad Mendes, he became the best version of himself. All the trash talk preceding the fights was backed up by the magic of his athletic and violent prowess. Conor took Muhammad Ali’s penchant for talking shit and elevated it to an almost avant-garde performative art form.

Just a few of his best lines:

“I said I’d knock him out in the first round, and I knocked him out in the first round,” he said after knocking out Dustin Poirier in the first round. “You can call me ‘Mystic Mac,’ because I predict these things.” Or at a press conference in 2015 with every athlete in the UFC, when a fan asked Conor which fighter on that stage would give him the most challenging fight, Jeremy Stephens, a relatively unknown fighter at the time, took to the mic to remind Conor that he, not Conor, was the hardest hitting fighter at 145 lbs. Conor merely responded: “Who the fuck is that guy?” in perfectly deadpan droll, creating an utterly iconic clip.

In the lead-up to his now legendary featherweight championship fight against José Aldo — the Brazilian fighter who was at that point one of the most feared men in the entire promotion, having held the title for three years and defended it several times against basically everyone else in the division — fans and commentators were shocked by the absolute fearlessness and lack of respect that Conor paid Aldo in the massive marketing push for the fight. One of his trash talk lines, delivered in Aldo’s home country, is so perfect, languid, and literary that it’s almost impossible to believe it came from an athlete:

“I own this town […] If this was a different time, I’d invade his favela on horseback, and kill every single man who was not fit to work.” Evoking the image of a proud European conquistador in the lead-up to a pay-per-view fight? You couldn’t help but chuckle to yourself and think: “How does he come up with this stuff?”

Conor McGregor during a promotion for UFC 264’s fight against Dustin Poirier.

But Conor’s cocky trash talk wouldn’t have landed so beautifully had the talent not been there backing it up every single step of the way. For years, Conor did every single thing he said he would do. He predicted first-round knockouts against a variety of opponents. He went into the UFC predicting that he would be the first mixed martial artist to hold two belts in two different divisions, and he did just that. First, by knocking out the aforementioned Aldo in one single left hook 13 seconds into the fight – a record in a featherweight championship belt – a moment so profound it felt like an eclipse had blotted out the sky and left the universe altered in its wake. Then, moving up to the lightweight division, by knocking out Eddie Alvarez in the second round of the fight with a ferociously elegant combination of left and right jabs. His statement after the fight was simply unforgettable:

“I’ve disrespected every single person in the company, so from the bottom of my heart I’d like to take this chance to apologize… TO ABSOLUTELY NOBODY. THE DOUBLE CHAMP DOES WHAT THE FUCK HE WANTS!” The moment was arguably as triumphant as Ali knocking out Foreman, but also as sublime as Kurt Cobain doing MTV Unplugged, or Michaelangelo revealing his plans for the Sistine Chapel. It just felt different than simply an athlete winning a fight, it felt important and inspiring in a way that sport typically isn’t.

That of course wouldn’t be the last of Conor’s predictions to come true. He said that he would not embarrass himself in his exhibition boxing match against the undefeated Floyd Mayweather, Jr in August of 2017. Again, Conor shocked the world by going toe to toe in his first-ever boxing match with the greatest boxer on the planet for 10 whole rounds, landing powerful shots and impressive combinations before Mayweather’s cardio — a skill developed over decades of 12 round fights and unique to boxers — eventually proved to be too much. But at that point, anything more than a first-round knockout was considered to be a loss for Mayweather. 

Both Conor and Mayweather earned more than $100 million in the lead-up to their fight – to this day the record purse for any fight in history. Conor’s ability to earn is indeed also unparalleled. He currently holds the top four of the five biggest-earning pay-per-view events in UFC history. He once said that he’d surpass footballer Christiano Ronaldo on the Forbes list of richest athletes. That also came into fruition in 2021, when he was crowned highest-paid athlete in the world with a reported annual earning of $180 million.

Yet Conor has become known also for his kindness and generosity shown throughout his career. Yes, he says outrageously disrespectful things in the lead-up to fights, but in doing so he generates attention and income both for himself and his opponents. Conor follows a classic martial artist code of honor, handed down by the likes of Bruce Lee and others: “I’m cocky in prediction,” he says, “humble in victory and defeat.” He particularly demonstrated this in his 13-second record fight against Aldo. When interviewed in the Octagon right after the fight, Conor praised the Brazilian as a great champion and said the man deserved more time in the fight, almost as if he lamented how quickly he ended it.

Or in the 2015 edition of the Ultimate Fighter, where Conor appeared as a coach alongside UFC fighter and Team Alpha Male MMA gym head coach Urijah Faber. Despite the tense relationship between the two at the beginning, a bond and friendship between them developed over the course of the series, bringing the show a warmth it never had before. When Faber brought on one of his top prospects – the bantamweight fighter TJ Dillashaw who would eventually become a champion of his division – Conor pointed out to Faber over and over that Dillashaw was a “snake” and that he would eventually stab him in the back. Faber didn’t want to hear it at the time, but Conor proved to be correct. Dillashaw abandoned Faber’s squad and stole one of his best coaches the next year. When asked about it by Joe Rogan, Faber said: “Conor has an amazing judge of character, I’m not saying that he doesn’t ever get on your nerves, but he’s a special guy.”

Conor’s innate decency, however, burns brightest in his long-term relationship with the love of his life and mother of his children Dee Devlin. In a world where athletes often get supported by a woman during the hard years only to ditch her for something hotter and younger by the time they make it, Conor and Devlin’s relationship stands out as nothing short of radical. Devlin believed in Conor so much that she worked two jobs to allow him to train full-time. And he did not abandon her when he got rich and famous. On the contrary, he once said to MMA journo Ariel Helwani that Devlin not having to work anymore is amongst his proudest achievements. The couple is still together and now have four children, which Conor says gives him more joy and triumph than the countless other achievements of his career.

The rise of Conor, of course, means a great deal especially to the Irish people. In 2015, it was reported by travel agents that more than 5,000 Irish men and women traveled from their home country to Las Vegas to see their hero become champion. Ireland has produced many great men of history: Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Beckett, Joyce, Van Morrisson, and many others. None of these men, however, achieved the kind of success McGregor has, with the possible exception of Bono – but then again, who would want to claim him? Conor is truly Ireland’s greatest son. His string of losses since being submitted by UFC’s champion Khabib Nurmagamedov in 2018 diminish nothing, because everything about his rise to glory was so singular that the dream he represents is well solidified in history. 

***

In all his fascinating and thrilling public statements, there is one topic that Conor never demonstrated much interest in: politics. Too driven by his own will and desire for greatness to pay much attention to public affairs, Conor is more of a one-man rebellion. This does not mean he’s “punk” – because what does punk do but tell you that there is “no future” and to annihilate yourself with drugs and booze? Conor’s message throughout his career has been to inspire people to be the best version of themselves and to find a craft or a niche and then push it to the absolute endpoint of human abilities, and beyond. 

To the extent that Conor’s ever been a political figure, he is the “anarch” described by Ernst Junger in Eumeswill – not to be confused with an “anarchist”. “The anarchist is dependent,” Junger claims, “Both on his unclear desires and on the powers that be.” Nothing about Conor’s desires is unclear, and he is dependent on nothing but his talent and determination. Alongside very few men of our era — Kanye West and Donald Trump among them — Conor has willed his own reality into existence. He is the perpetual anarch who “expelled society from himself” and became immortal through the mastering of his craft and the accumulation of knowledge of an ancient art form.

The Irish elites already had an innate hatred towards the working-class boy who joined their ranks through sheer willpower. Now that Conor has weighed in on Ireland‘s deplorable refugee crisis in the aftermath of last month’s attack on a school teacher and three small children at the hands of an immigrant, and even hinted at the possibility of running as President, you can expect the Irish authorities and the EU to do everything in their power to attempt to destroy his life and achievements. Conor represents the kind of populist threat that eclipses the likes of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, Argentina’s Javier Milei, and perhaps even Donald Trump, by a large margin. This is the man who knocked out José Aldo in a single blow. The man who accumulated a billion dollars in the fight business. The man who lives by his own rules and marches to the beat of his glorious drum.

The average Irishman would not only be happy to accept Conor as their leader, but would proudly bow and kiss his ring. If the Irish authorities want to destroy Conor McGregor, they are going to have to fight a lot harder than launching bogus investigations into his finances or smearing him as a demagogue. The double champ might be on his way to save Ireland – and we know what happens when Conor sets his mind to something.

Adam Lehrer is an artist based in New York and the host of the System of Systems podcast. He can be followed @SafetyPropagan1.


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