BOSTON – On Tuesday, Conor McGregor arrived at Peter Welch’s South Boston gym just as fresh as Irish Spring. Dana White was there, along with some local and national media and a throng of fans. Everyone was standing ringside to get a good first look at this Irish kid, who showed up like a rock star in tight red jeans, as he went through an altered capoeira routine like a carnival strongman on display.
"How crazy is this?" he said, looking over the turn out. "This is the first time I’ve experienced one of these media workout things. I’m living the dream right now. Combat sports has given me the chance to live my dream."
It’s not novel for the UFC to go in for pageantry like this on a big fight week, but it’s a little unusual when one of the principals is a prelimist with 67 seconds of Octagon experience. McGregor is walking on a red carpet made out his charisma, our strong hunches and a general sense of "big things to come." To use his term, he is just "floating along." And it’s not lost on McGregor that White has taken a "little shine" to him after his quick TKO of Marcus Brimage in April. At this point, pretty much everyone has, and he appears genuinely in awe of it.
He knows the other thing, too. Fair or unfair, he’s carrying Eire on his back as he heads into Saturday’s fight at the TD Garden with Max Holloway, and that’s something that Boston and its Irish heritage can appreciate.
"You know, you can’t help but pull for an Irishman," a local fan with roots in Galway told me while watching McGregor spar. "They’re born scrappers."
This sort of thing was echoed by others. Shamrocks have always gone over big in Boston.
And McGregor, with his "Notorious" nickname, does seem to embody the Irish prizefighter stereotype in his featherweight frame. He has that old Donnybrook thing going on, that little Notre Dame Fighting Irish mascot with his dukes up and ever-ready. People love it. As he weaved his arms with the UFC’s first Irish fighter, Tom Egan, as part of the open workout session, people were rapt. There’s something in his work ethic that everyone is picking up on. "I am like this 365 days a year, 24/7," McGregor says waving a hand down his physique. "I’m always ready—I don’t have an off-season."
At 25 years old, McGregor doesn’t shrink away from the circumstances he’s had to overcome to arrive at this moment. A few years ago he nearly gave up MMA before he truly got started. Back when he was fighting for Cage of Truth - a Dublin promotion ran by his still trainer/mentor John Kavanagh - he sold tickets for an upcoming card he was headlining to his friends and pocketed the proceeds.
"Chasing the martial arts’ dream, it is a struggle and you go through tough times, there’s not a lot of money out there - outside the UFC, there is no money," he said. "I had some tough times like everyone. I fell into a little debt with my coach. I sold a lot of tickets and I spent all the money."
Though that old debt might seem a pittance these days - somewhere in the range of €600 - it was everything to McGregor at the time. He walked away from the fight game until his mom ringed up Kavanagh herself, and asked the coach to help persuade her son to keep fighting.
"Again, my coach, he understood," McGregor says. "He came over and took me under his wing and he said, ‘don’t worry about it, let’s get back to this dream.’ And again, he gave me a focus and a drive and showed me that we can build this here. I’m forever grateful to my coach. He stuck with me all this way. To be able to support the gym. After my first fight I was able to give some money back, and each fight it’s going to be the same. I’m going to give back and hopefully build a big facility instead of the little shack we’re in now."
McGregor’s hype, of course, precedes him. When he arrived in Southie he was being shadowed by a Dublin-based documentary crew. They’ve been trailing him for a while now, and had planned to shoot him in Iceland training with Gunnar Nelson before visa issues redirected him to America earlier than expected. We caught portions of that episode when he filmed himself riding around with White - "The Don," as he calls him - down the Vegas Strip in a Ferrari. Things are on the uptick for McGregor.
What we knew of him heading into his UFC debut against Brimage was that he was plowing through the whole of Ireland and was therefore wildly popular. So much so that Ryan Tubridy - the popular host of "The Late Late Show" on Ireland’s RTE - called McGregor an "Irish Muhammad Ali." Pretty lofty for a fighter who is 13-2, even if he did make short work of Brimage and show uncanny poise and precision in the exchanges.
Not that he hasn’t notched some merits along the way. McGregor holds the distinction of having knocked out poor Paddy Doherty in four seconds when fighting in Letterkenny. That remains one of the fastest knockouts on record anywhere.
Asked to describe it, he says, "we went out and touched gloves, and then he threw a right hook, and I stepped out from the right hook and banged the left hook over the top, and he fell. It was three-and-a-half seconds."
In his familiar brogue accent it sounds like he says "tree-and-a-half seconds." Just like when he said he "tries not to think too deeply about any of the hype" it sounds like "I try not to tink too deeply." In fact, he adds, "I try not to tink at all."
All of it which goes into his charm heading into Saturday night, when he’ll fight in front of a partisan crowd. Should he beat Holloway, the pikelike 145-pounder who has taken the tougher road to get here, there are those who’d like to put him on the fast track in a fairly stacked featherweight class. It’s not that he’s on the prelims in the summer of 2013; it’s where he’ll be by the summer of 2014. What would we be doing if weren’t expediting our prospects into contention?
Not that McGregor minds. When asked about being fed to the wolves too early in a recent interview with ESPN, McGregor said simply: "I am the wolf."
He reiterated that in Boston.
"If you don’t think I’m trouble for any of these guys in the division then you really need to take a closer look," he said. "The opponent does not matter to me. It’s just another body. It’s just another set of movements. What’s on the line means nothing to me. This is just another chance to be able to support my family. I don’t think too far ahead."
Unlike some of the more seasoned UFC fighters walk through the open workouts as a duty, McGregor actually breaks a sweat. He sparred for half an hour with Kavanagh and Egan to the sounds of LL Cool J. This little circus tent that the UFC set up in Southie to come out and "behold the mighty Irishman" was more than an exhibition - it was an actual training session to him. Afterwards McGregor posed for pictures and threw out t-shirts to the crowd and answered questions into all the camera lens’ that were aimed at him.
Prelim fighters don’t get this kind of treatment. But McGregor has something that most prelim fighters don’t, and that’s the coveted "it" factor.
By Wednesday, Dana White mentioned McGregor in the same breath as Brock Lesnar. And so it goes.