“I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”
The days run together when you’re a full-time fighter. You train, you eat, you sleep, you string it all end-to-end in hopes it eventually leads you somewhere good. Sometimes, only the stretches of road between the routines provide any cushion from the grind.
Even the most single-minded fighters welcome a little diversion now and again. And when you’re pursuing a dream so ardently, the best diversions come when a piece of that dream slips across the border into reality. Earlier this month, that’s what happened to Conor McGregor.
“I was just finishing training when I heard the phone ring,” McGregor said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “The person on the other end asked me how I’d feel about making my UFC debut. I always teach myself calm and visualization stuff. One of the things I always visualized was getting that call one day and going from absolutely broke, like I am now, to being given a chance to make this into something real. It’s a shock, but at the same time, I saw it coming, if that makes sense.”
McGregor visualizes a lot of things. Things like his first turn in the Octagon, coming this spring in Sweden. Things like becoming the first Irish fighter to last longer than one fight in the UFC. Things like earning an honest-to-goodness living. Things like wearing UFC gold—a lot of UFC gold—around his waist.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve had a dream to make this a career,” McGregor said. “This is all I have. I train and I go home, and when I’m home, I think about training. That’s my life every day, and that’s it.”
At an age when plenty of young men still decorate their living rooms with frat paddles, McGregor was decorating his with title belts. Just 24 years old, McGregor is already 12-2 as a pro, with all 12 wins coming by stoppage. Eleven of those wins were by knockout or TKO, and only three saw the second round.
So, yes: the guy is a monster. An aggressive and at times brash fighter with a kickboxing base, McGregor is not afraid to fire off a spinning wheel kick in there, though his calling card is the pulverizing power in his fists. His every move in the cage seems calculated to inflict pain, instill fear, or both.
The latest case in point came New Year’s Eve, when McGregor, fighting for Great Britain’s Cage Warriors promotion, bullied and then crumpled Ivan Buchinger with a single left hook (see video). With the win, McGregor added the Cage Warriors lightweight strap to the featherweight version already in his possession.
Not long after that win, the UFC snapped him up. And not long after that, word came down that he would debut April 6 at UFC on Fuel TV 9 against streaking featherweight Marcus Brimage. And though he begins his UFC career at 145 pounds, that dual-division championship pedigree begs the question of whether he’s preparing a similar run for the UFC.
But you’d be wrong. He wants to surpass it.
Other division-shifters guard their next move like a state secret. Not McGregor. He lives and breathes it. He visualizes it. Does he visualize himself fighting in not two but three divisions, as he’s pledged to do before?
Does he, indeed, visualize himself holding three UFC belts?
“Every day,” McGregor said. “I want to go up and down. I want to compete. I don’t want to stick to one division. Competition gives me energy. It keeps me focused. I need to be kept busy.”
That’s where the dream meets the road of reality, and the relentless routine takes the shape of something bigger. McGregor, who said he walks around at 75 kilograms, or about 165 pounds, asserted he needs eight weeks’ notice to make a featherweight fight, as little as one week to make lightweight, and only a day’s notice to make welterweight.
“I’m always lean,” McGregor said. “I have a system down. I don’t ever stop working.”
Does he have designs on any specific fighter or division?
“Right now, it’s about my first UFC fight and just training. Marcus Brimage is a very tough opponent,” McGregor said. “Afterward, maybe I’ll have a few names in mind. I don’t know. I might be calling on a few people.”
Despite his spine-tingling potential, McGregor knows he’ll have a hole in his resume until he makes a mark in the UFC, which is teeming with top-notch wrestlers. Wrestlers have traditionally given good European fighters fits. As such, McGregor’s ground game and takedown defense would seem, on paper, to be areas a wrestler might look to test. McGregor, for one, isn’t worried.
“We’ll see,” McGregor said. “I know my wrestling is really good, and my jiu-jitsu is really good. I can fight off my back. I’m not afraid. But really, it’s something I’ll show, not something I’ll say.”
And of course, there’s the whole Irish thing. In his thick brogue, McGregor speaks proudly of his home, but it's not hard to sense the gulf between McGregor and that image of the Kelly green brawler of fairy tales, reeling around behind the shebeen.
No, MMA is science to McGregor and his teammates. As a teenager, McGregor linked up with Tom Egan, the UFC’s first and, until McGregor, only Ireland-born fighter. Egan finished 0-1 in his UFC career.
“He was doing jiu-jitsu at the time,” McGregor recalled. “I went to his house one weekend. He taught me jiu-jitsu and I showed him some boxing. We were punching the hell out of each other for the whole weekend.”
Now McGregor trains under jiu-jitsu ace John Kavanagh—the first Irishman to fight in a cage—and alongside current UFC welterweight standout Gunnar Nelson and others at the SBG Ireland gym.
It’s not that McGregor’s not proud of being Irish, it’s just that he seems to eschew the easy narratives afforded by novelty. He’s a real fighter, with real work under his belt. He has a dream, and he’s coming to get it the way anyone gets any dream: one day, one click, one visualization at a time.
“I carry the flag of Ireland all the time. I want to represent my country,” McGregor said. “I see myself as the best. I fear no one. I want to take the fight to my opponents. I’m going to run straight for them with my hands up.”
The Beaten Path is a new series of articles profiling MMA prospects from around the world. Scott Harris is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @ScottHarrisMMA. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.