Conor McGregor Doesn't Believe in Death April 17 2015
Most of the time, Conor McGregor wins fights with his fists. He has won once with elbow strikes, and he has won once by submission. But the other fifteen times he has professionally beaten another man bloody—most recently Dennis Siver, whom he picked apart in Boston in January—it has been with his hands. His coach, an Irish mixed martial artist named John Kavanagh, has studied the physics of human combat and collision for decades, and even he can't explain why the five-foot-nine McGregor can hit as hard as he does. The hardest hitters usually have long arms, which McGregor does, and they usually have big fists, which McGregor does, but there's something else in him, some mysterious and extraordinary combination of desire and angle and speed, that makes his punches land like bombs.
McGregor, who is also extremely Irish, has an upright stance when he fights, a style that is both entrancing to watch and almost comically traditionalist. "He looks exactly like the Notre Dame logo," says Dana White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, referring to the university's ornery bare-knuckled leprechaun. Watching McGregor fight brings to mind ancient words like fisticuffs or donnybrook. He makes the delivery of knockouts look like some time-honored craft that occupies the space between art and science, like barrel making or leatherwork. A former plumber, he makes fighting seem like a trade.
When ordinary men land a punch, it lands with a blow, a seismic shock, like a hammer's thud. Most punches blemish. When McGregor lands a punch, his fists behave more like chisels, like awls. His punches cut. They don't bruise the skin; they break it. By the second round of their fight, Dennis Siver didn't look as though he'd been battered so much as he'd been glassed. His face was full of tiny holes.
"IF YOU PUT ME FACE-TO-FACE WITH FLOYD MAYWEATHER I WOULD KILL HIM IN LESS THAN 30 SECONDS."
Whatever reason McGregor's punches are different, they have made him his sport's newest darling, the culmination of a two-year rise from obscurity to headliner to crossover star. He will fight Brazilian champion Jose Aldo for the UFC's featherweight belt in July, and White believes it will be his organization's biggest fight of the year, "a global event," in large part because of McGregor's ability to seem more giant than he is.
But the twenty-six-year-old McGregor doesn't want to be regarded as peerless in only a single facet of his occupation—as just a puncher. "I don't look at a man who's expert in one area as a specialist," he says. "I look at him as a rookie in ten other areas. If you can box, what happens if I grab hold of your legs? If you put me face-to-face with Floyd Mayweather—pound-for-pound boxing's best—if I fought Floyd, I would kill him in less than thirty seconds. It would take me less than thirty seconds to wrap around him like a boa constrictor and strangle him."
McGregor sees the human body the way he sees fights, the way he sees this New York bar in which he's sheltering from the cold, the way he sees existence: Each is a collection of openings and avenues, roadblocks and hurdles. He always sits, as he is sitting now, with his back to a corner; he has scouted the exits; he has several routes of possibility mapped out in his cartographer's brain, every available advance and retreat. "I have a self-defense mind," he says. "I've had it all my life."
The way even the most successful still covet, McGregor dreams of possessing the ultimate trapdoor, of mastering the decisive submission that would finish any opponent: the rear naked choke. He has never managed to apply it during a UFC fight. He talks about it the way any of us talks about an object of desire that eludes us.
"It's the most dominant submission," he says almost wistfully. It isn't an arm or a knee bar or an ankle lock, each of which leaves its victim the opportunity to survive, however slight. And it isn't a punch that can be slipped or countered. The rear naked choke is almost a metaphor for the consequences of our most calamitous mistakes. "You can do nothing to me, but I can do whatever the fuck I want to you," McGregor says. "I have complete control."
He's not sure he's making himself plain enough. He wants you to understand the feeling of true hopelessness, the sensation of every last door closing to you. He wants you to hate that feeling, which will make you appreciate more deeply the moments you are free. His longtime girlfriend, Dee Devlin, sitting beside him in the bar, does her best to explain his intentions. "He wants you to be better than you are," she says.
So under the bright lights of a photo studio, he strips down to his underwear and jumps on you from behind. You feel his weight lean into you, 170 pounds walking around—he can cut more than 20 pounds in the week before weigh-ins—his pectorals fitting into the tops of your shoulders like puzzle pieces. His broad chest is painted with a giant tattoo of a gorilla eating a human heart. It's not some cartoonish representation of a human heart, either, but an illustration ripped out of a medical textbook, with ventricles and veins. It is a drawing of your heart, and now you can feel his, beating through the ink and into your back.
McGregor's legs hook around your waist, anchored in place by his huge ass. "Glutes are a motherfucker," he says. "Glutes are power." The sole of his left foot presses against the point of your hip; the heel of his right foot digs into your groin. Almost by instinct, your hands find that leg and try to remove it, but legs beat arms almost every time, the way arms beat necks. His right arm wraps around your throat, his thickly veined forearm locked under your chin. His left arm crosses over his right wrist and tucks behind your head. And then he begins to pull back his right arm while he pushes forward with his left.
It doesn't hurt. That's the wrong word. You're uncomfortable. McGregor knows the feeling. The last time he lost a fight, the sixth bout of his career, back in 2010, it was in thirty-eight seconds, and it was to a choke. He was so averse to the sensation, he tapped out before he lost consciousness, one of the great regrets of his life. "That ate me alive," he says. "After that, I said I was going to fight to the death. You're going to have to kill me."
The rear naked choke is oblivious to such resolutions. Your body, like nearly everything you do with it, has imperfections that can seem like evolutionary carelessness. There are the few square inches of your liver that lie exposed, wide open under your ribs, a four-lane expressway to your central nervous system. There are the underengineered flying buttresses of your knees, waiting to snap. And there is your carotid artery, conveying massive volumes of your blood to your brain, close enough to the surface of your neck that you can see and feel it coursing, as though a salmon might run up it. Because that artery means life, it also means death. There is no way for you to strengthen it, to shield it, to mitigate the effects of pressure put upon it. Now McGregor squeezes, in two directions at the same time—again pulling with his right, pushing with his left—his arms like the blades of dull scissors. Your eyes are drawn down, leading the way for the rest of you, to the tattoos on his left wrist: a mustachioed gentleman in a top hat, and one of McGregor's principal mantras: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. He doesn't have to squeeze very hard, and he doesn't have to squeeze very long.
One second, two seconds, three seconds . . .
"Once the blood cuts from the brain, it's over," McGregor whispers.
It is. You are.
McGregor has lived his entire life in pursuit of the opposite sensation: limitlessness. For as long as he can remember, he has been obsessed with movement and its endless opportunities. He has studied animals for their advantages—gorillas, lions, crocodiles—and in Kavanagh's Dublin gym, he tries to find their secrets in himself. Kavanagh has given him a key to the place, because McGregor will get the urge, as irresistible as a choke, to move at all hours of the day and night, slithering and monkey-stalking across the mats. Devlin routinely wakes up to find her man shadowboxing in front of the mirror at four in the morning. He doesn't lift weights or put in carefully apportioned session work like most fighters. "Machines don't use machines," he says, "and I am a machine." He doesn't recognize most of the modern walls we have built around ourselves. "Ritual is another word for fear, manifested in a different way." He doesn't believe in time, or at least he won't submit to it; he recognizes that clocks exist, but he sees no reason to obey their demands. He eats when he wants, he sleeps when he wants, but mostly he moves when he wants. For McGregor, death would be stillness—if he believed in death.
"Even in death, they say your vision, you can see everything," he says. "It's almost like you're evolving to the next stage. It's like a different plane of existence, just another form of movement, now we're moving through the fucking universe or I don't know what the fuck. Think of what's out there."
In some ways, it's hard to bear McGregor's company, and not just because he might decide to choke you out at any moment. He is so confident and self-possessed, so in command of his body and seemingly of his fate, he fills you with doubt about yours. Most of our social interactions are based on the premise that we've all agreed to follow certain rules. McGregor has not agreed to those rules, he will not, which is unnerving because it makes his behavior unpredictable—you find yourself saying,"You can't do that" or "You must do this," and he does and doesn't do it—but also because he makes you wonder why you've agreed to those rules yourself. He walks down the middle of streets; he eats the way storms consume coastlines. He is exhausting as a lunch partner, just as he is inside the octagon. In both instances, he is an igniter of brutal self-examination, the most unflattering mirror.
"You tell someone the truth about themselves and they crumble," he says.
"It's life," Devlin says of her boyfriend's ability to create fissures. Their relationship predates his career as a professional fighter by two weeks. His loves are intertwined. "It's our life," she says. "It's not like it's on and then it's off. It's just the way he is."
He has been fighting in some capacity since he was a child, born a challenging presence. "I seem to have a face—I seem to attract attention somehow," he says. "For some reason, people want to try to come at me. They want to hit me. I just wanted people to leave me alone, basically. I didn't get into this to be somebody. I got into it to feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations."
He began by kickboxing and then boxing. Then he discovered jujitsu and its system of levers, how to beat a man even when you're trapped on your back just by applying a little pressure where pressure isn't normally applied. "It fascinated me," he says. "It fascinated me then, and it fascinates me now."
Then he sat in the stands at UFC 93 in Dublin in 2009. "That's when I could reach out and touch it," he says. He was still an apprentice plumber then, one foot in each world. To hear him tell it, he went back to a damp building site and looked at the masters, men old and shivering before their time, and he made the choice, as though it were a choice, that he would no longer abide. He put down his tools, because machines don't use machines, and walked away. He saw in fighting a nearly perfect freedom, a way to translate his love of boundless physical expression—in a sport where so long as you don't stick your fingers into eyes or open cuts, you're pretty much good to go—into that rarest of lives, he and Dee, soaring together, never to be caged again. "No matter what was going on in my life, good or bad, I always knew—we knew—that we would end up here," he says. "It was inevitable in my head."
He uses inevitable more than most people. For McGregor, his certainty about his rise, and its continuing, isn't bravado. He is doing you the favor of letting you glimpse a future that only he has seen. It's almost as though he can't help it, as though his jaw is just one more pressure-release valve through which he can vent his bottomless reserves of spiritual anarchy. Ask him about his reputation for trash talk and this is what he says, uninterrupted, it seems, even by breaths:
"Trash talk? Smack talk? This is an American term that makes me laugh. I simply speak the truth. I'm an Irish man. We don't give a fuck about feelings. We'll tell you the truth. People ask me a question about somebody, I tell them the truth. I don't have anything bad to say about Jose Aldo. It's pretty plain and simple. His time is up. It's done. There's somebody ruthless coming to get him. There's somebody cold coming to get him. I can look at him dead in the eye and say, It's done. You're over now. You're a champion that nobody gave a fuck about. Nobody cared about him before I came along. Nobody cared about the division before I came along. He's a decision machine. He can barely finish his dinner, never mind his opponent. And he's fought bums. He's fought little small bantamweights and he still can't put them away. Now he's coming in against a monster of a featherweight who hits like a truck. It's over for him. I don't need to say jackshit else. July is a wrap. It's inevitable."
Only two years ago, Dana White went to Dublin to accept an award from Trinity College. It seemed as though everywhere he went, every bar, every street corner, he heard Conor McGregor's name. White has been told about a thousand secret talents over the years; he has assessed an army of local heroes. You will never know their names. But White heard McGregor's name enough that it made him wonder. He flew back to Las Vegas and asked his matchmakers about this Irish kid. They told him McGregor had fought a little, nothing especially noteworthy—fourteen fights, mostly against unknowns, mostly knockout wins, a couple of submission losses. Still curious, White brought his unlikely prospect out to the desert. He remembers driving up the Strip in his Ferrari and McGregor's energy competing with the engine and the lights. White signed him to a five-fight deal without ever seeing him fight.
"He's a penny stock that couldn't have worked out better," White says. "He's one in a million. He has that thing that you can't teach people, whatever it is that makes people gravitate toward you. He has that more than any fighter I've ever met. He makes you believe everything he believes."
Maybe it is a choice whether we abide. Maybe we don't have to be there at nine o'clock sharp. Maybe we don't die.
Conor McGregor has been damaged. It was during his first fight in America, in Boston in August 2013. In the second round against Max Holloway, McGregor emerged from a scramble on the ground with an unfamiliar feeling: He couldn't find his feet. Because he really believes what he believes, he still went on to win the fight, but he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. It's a devastating injury for any athlete, but for someone like McGregor, it was especially cruel. He was built flawed like the rest of us after all.
He was told to sit still. He didn't listen. "People will study my recovery," he says. He found new ways to work out, shedding the last of his conventional weights and routines. He pressed his body against itself, refusing every invitation to idleness. He did push-ups against hotel-room sinks. He did single-leg squats. He came back and won his next three fights: TKO (first round, eighteen significant strikes landed); TKO (first round, nine); and most recently, against Siver, TKO (second round, sixty-four). Each was the performance of the night; each made him more popular; each made him more certain. "I learned a lot more about how important balance is, how important control of the body is," McGregor says. "From the moment I open my eyes, I'm trying to free my body. I'm trying to get looser, more flexible, to gain control. Movement is medicine to me."
He studied footage of his fights and of animals hunting other animals, and he became closer to one of them than one of us. If he was a breed apart before his knee was blown out, he was his own species after, better than he was. White tore up his contract, and then he
tore it up again. In McGregor's fight against Aldo, he will see a cut of the pay-per-view for the first time. Because its outcome is inevitable, and because he has a self-defense mind, he has already begun thinking of what will come next. "I'm interested in movement, and I'm interested in money, and I'm interested in the movement of money," he says. "If I win that belt and we do a million pay-per-views, we can rip up that motherfucker right there and do what the fuck we want."
"Someone like him, the money just rains down," White says. "He's going to get everything he's ever wanted."
Earlier that freezing day in New York, McGregor and Devlin had walked into a Christian Louboutin store in the Meatpacking District. McGregor is a stylish man; for him, clothes are another means of applying pressure to other men. He tried on several pairs of sneakers, ridiculous sneakers, the sort of clown shoes that would get the shit kicked out of a kid who wore them to the wrong school. He got stuck on a pair of gleaming white high-tops studded with rainbow hunks of plastic, little pyramids and diamonds that fought with the smooth red soles for his eye's dubious attention.
"They're fucking out there," he said, looking at himself in a mirror. "Wouldn't see no one back home wearing a pair of these."
He looked at them some more, turning, convincing himself.
"If you like them, get them," Devlin said.
"If someone says something—whap," he said, and he began firing off kicks in the middle of the store, the taken-aback employees looking at him and his cauliflower ears anew, doing all the mental arithmetic that men do when they're ranking themselves within the orders of other men. "Just snap them in the face," McGregor said, kicking again at the mirror.
"I don't know about them, I have to say," Devlin said.
"If I'm not going to wear 'em out of the store, I'm not getting 'em," he said. Then he nodded to himself. "I'm wearing 'em out."
Devlin laughed and paid for the shoes: $1,700. The leather boots McGregor had worn into the store went into the bag. The new sneakers went out into the snow and slush. They flashed like sirens.
Then a strange thing happened. A family with young daughters walked up to McGregor and asked for his picture. Then a construction worker broke from a road site and asked for one, too. Then a small crowd began to assemble in the cold on the cobblestones, inexplicably drawn to this man, to this machine, wearing shoes that somebody could wear only if he were somebody. McGregor was surrounded, just like that, made captive by his otherness.
He is aware of the irony. "If you're not in the humor of it, it can be heavy," he says, back in his corner of the bar. "People can become familiar with it, like they've known you all your life. That's weird for me. The reason I got into the game was so that people would leave me the fuck alone." He stops, his flashing black eyes looking at how many of the faces in this room are looking back at him. "It's backfired on me," he says.
And then McGregor is what he so rarely is: He is still, and he is quiet. You get the sense that he's recalculating, looking for different exits. He says he has not wondered once whether he might lose to Aldo—"If I entertain things, they tend to come true," he says—but sitting there, in the silence, he feels as though he has it in him, whatever the result, to disappear one day, maybe on a day not all that distant from today. He knows we'll swallow him alive if he stays; even he can't fight all of us off. The only way he'll have complete control is if he leaves. Maybe that's the future he's seen for himself all along, a great train robber's last big score before he makes good his final escape, vanishing into the jungle with his girl.
"We're the only animal that wakes up and doesn't stretch," he says, coming around.
"Look at your dog," Devlin says.
"Wake up and stretch," McGregor says. "Start there."
Start there and end up with everything you've ever wanted. To demonstrate, he announces that he's going back to his fancy hotel and falling into his cloud of a bed. It's three o'clock in the afternoon.
He won't sleep well. He hasn't worked out in two days, and he's edgy about it, as though he's taking his gifts for granted, as though he's forgotten those dark times when he felt trapped. He'll wake up at two in the morning and start prowling around his hotel room, padding across the thick carpets like a jewel thief, climbing the furniture, scaling the walls, walking upside down across the ceiling, learning how to move through the universe.
A few hours later, you'll wake up, the shadow of his arms still pressed around your neck. You'll get out of bed, and you'll stretch.
Published in the Esquire May 2015 issue.