The last time I spoke to Conor McGregor in person was on January 18, 2020.
It was moments after his electrifying 40-second TKO from Donald Cerrone in Las Vegas. We were in his locker room in the T-Mobile Arena. He was happy, but not overly. Excited. A little emotional. Most of all, he seemed to appreciate the moment after all of his trials and tribulations over the years.
One thing he wasn’t was content.
McGregor said several times ahead of this fight that he plans to fight at least three times in 2020. Quite an achievement in itself, considering he hasn’t fought three times a year since 2016.
He wanted to regain his easy title. He wanted to regain his status as the King of MMA. Heck, he even wanted to box Manny Pacquiao.
A few days later, still in Las Vegas, McGregor met with UFC President Dana White and former UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, who is still a close confidante of McGregor, to plan his busy schedule for 2020.
But that schedule – and those big plans – were canceled in March when the pandemic hit.
McGregor, whose 2019 was marked by legal troubles and a retirement, reinvented himself in 2020. He has become a passionate advocate of measures to combat the spread of the pandemic, including a strict lockdown on Ireland.
He filmed videos addressing his Irish statesmen and women who were almost statesmanship and encouraging them to stay home or at least keep social distancing and wear masks.
He donated millions of dollars in personal protective equipment to local hospitals. He filmed his home training. For the first time in a while, McGregor led by example, witnessing how many of his loyal Irish fans turned him on for his self-inflicted mistakes and legal troubles over the past year.
Then the fighting came back, but McGregor didn’t. He got frustrated. He withdrew again. He posted direct messages from UFC President Dana White. His “season” 2020 was this 40 seconds of fighting time.
It was all so disappointing.
When I practically sat in front of him on Thursday morning, me in New York and he in Dubai, I wasn’t sure which McGregor I would speak to when we discussed the UFC 257 main event against Dustin Poirier on Saturday. “Fight Island.”
I’ve spoken to McGregor since 2013 before his UFC debut. I witnessed and recorded the extreme ups and downs of the McGregor era, with each appearance revealing a different side to the self-proclaimed face of the fighting game.
To guess which page would come up this time, I would have said an irritated one. One who felt like he had just seen a major year go by. Someone who felt they were being put on a bench by the powers that be for no good reason. One who has also lost 155 pounds for the first time since 2018, that would of course also bring a certain amount of stress with it.
Boy was I wrong?
What I got was a relaxed McGregor. A limp McGregor without his familiar perfect posture. He was wearing a new suit – with slippers. His children were running around. His fiancée nearby.
He was happy to be back. Excited about the training camp, which seems to have him in good shape. And, most surprisingly, he wasn’t irritated at all. What it will mean on Saturday is uncertain. Is a calmer, more disciplined McGregor a better fighter? He was against Cerrone but Poirier is a clear step up. McGregor said his camp was undisciplined prior to losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018, and he put himself in the best position to succeed.
“I had a great 2020, I had a great performance,” said McGregor. “I opened the show, the highest pay-per-view, the highest gate, the fastest knockout of the main event and an extravagant blockbuster event that got the UFC on a groundbreaking run. And I’m very happy about it, very much proud.
“As you said, I was happy, but not overly happy. I was ready to move on, and it didn’t work out. I still have that inside me. I’m still ready to go. I have kept up my preparations and I’m back , and I’m very happy to be back in 2021. We’re going to do this again. I’m starting the year, the first pay-per-view of the year. And I’m really excited about that. “
Conor McGregor says it was all in the past and he is in a great place with Dana White. He also gives him credit for how he navigated in 2020.
From the beginning of the interview it was clear that he didn’t feel like playing last year’s drama. He kept repeating the word “positive”. He reiterated that he and White, who have bumped on the heads multiple times in public and private over the past few years, were in a great place echoing White’s recent testimony.
“We were probably the most we’ve ever seen in 2020,” said McGregor. “I felt like some things that were done to me were wrong. I sure did some things wrong. We took it off our chests and we’re back to where we are and I’m pretty happy with it.
“I have a lot of admiration for Dana. What he did in 2020 against all odds was pretty admirable. And, you know, I would have loved to have been a part of it more, but I’m glad I started the year. We got through and now we’re in a great place. “
McGregor didn’t even want to make a big deal of the fact that this fight wasn’t for the title, despite the champion Nurmagomedov saying he was retired.
“I think it should be a title, but I’m not surprised, not disappointed. As the year progresses, I don’t think I’d go for a title shot right away, you know?”
“I think it should be a title, but I’m not surprised, not disappointed,” said McGregor. “As the year progresses, I don’t think I would get into a title shot right away, you know?
“I’m happy to be back here. And I’m looking forward to getting in at night and taking part in competitions.”
Despite the positive energy, McGregor’s trademark Trash Talk wasn’t far from the surface, especially when it came to Nurmagomedov. Revenging losses is important for McGregor and he might not get that chance against Nurmagomedov, who retired on October 24 after defeating Justin Gaethje.
Nurmagomedov, who defeated McGregor on October 6, 2018, lost his father Abdulmanap to coronavirus-complicated heart disease in July and promised his mother that the fight against Gaethje would be his last. McGregor, who recognized Nurmagomedov’s family situation and wished him all the best, is unwilling to put the rivalry on the shelf.
“I think he’s scared to fight me,” said McGregor. “That’s damn sure.
“And I don’t blame him. I fought the best of him that night. He fought the worst of me that night. He knows that, I know that, his team knows. I have the answer, this one Destroy man. ” . “
But if I’m being honest, I haven’t gotten the feeling that McGregor itches to fight any particular person after Poirier.
He’s been telling us for years that the opponent doesn’t matter. Sometimes I believed him, sometimes not so much. This time? I definitely believed him.
In the end, I saw a motivated, calm, cool, and collected McGregor.
Even the idea of a largely empty arena without the rabid fan base that followed him around the globe did not disappoint. In fact, he hoped the Etihad Arena would be completely empty – there will be 2,000 fans – so that the sound of his punches and kicks could have more influence.
“I would have loved that,” he said. “There will be a few thousand fans, but my power will still translate. It will be like there is still no one in the arena.”
Last year, before the Cerrone fight, I noticed that McGregor was in a zen-like state. But it was a stiff zen-like state, if that makes sense. He had an intense energy to himself. This time I didn’t feel it. I felt pure calm.
Seven years ago, McGregor had to get past Poirier to be seen as a featherweight competitor.
He’ll have to get past him again on Saturday to be seen as an easy competitor.
There are similarities, but the differences are more dramatic. McGregor doesn’t bother with the trash talk he used in 2014 to disrupt Poirier’s focus. Instead, he promises to donate to Poirier’s “Good Fight” charity.
“How could I not respect Dustin?” Asked McGregor. “One for [his charity work]and two for how he dealt with the last loss and how he came back and how he got up and became a champion. That is admirable in my book, and I am very much looking forward to competing with him. “
Conor McGregor abandons the strategy he is infusing into his fight with Dustin Poirier and whether he would prefer a long slip over a quick knockout.
And McGregor doesn’t know what a perfect year it would be for him, like he did when we spoke last January. “It didn’t work out so well last time,” he said. “Let’s just say competition is what I’m striving for here, good competition.”
That doesn’t mean that he no longer thinks ahead. McGregor spoke about wanting to finish the Nate Diaz trilogy, possibly lightweight, and about boxing Pacquiao later that year, and he still hasn’t given up hope for the Nurmagomedov rematch. The goal remains to stay active, with three or four fights this year.
But that’s across the board. While he was talking about which opponent would be next after his victory over Cerrone last year, he now envisions a different scenario if his fight ends on Sunday morning, local time.
“When you go through weight loss, you crave certain foods,” he said. “I crave American-style pancakes. So I’ll have a nice big plate of American-style pancakes and some real Irish coffee after the fight, and I’m looking forward to it.”
After the turbulence of 2020, setting an achievable goal is probably not a bad idea.