When Conor McGregor felt his knee pop during his fight at UFC Fight Night 26 against Max Holloway, he instantly knew something was wrong.
The injured knee forced McGregor to abandon his striking game and instead drag the fight to the mat where it wouldn't be as evident that he was essentially competing with one leg at the time. The injury never became a factor in the fight and McGregor won a clean sweep across the board to get a unanimous-decision victory.
Just after the fight, McGregor appeared at the UFC Fight Night 26 post-fight press conference and relayed the news that his knee was banged up during the three-round battle. The initial diagnosis was a sprained knee, and the hope was that it would only keep him out of action for about four-to-six weeks.
The UFC doesn't play guessing games with the health of their athletes, however, so McGregor ended up going in just days after his fight for an MRI to get the full scope of what was wrong with his knee exactly. The final word was a complete tear in his ACL, which would put him on the surgeon's table and out of action for the better part of a year.
It definitely was not the news that McGregor wanted to hear. The young Irish fighter burst onto the scene earlier this year, and by the time he appeared for his second fight in August he was already a star in the making.
A brash, outspoken fighter with hard working Irish roots was the perfect person to help the UFC brand a new European name to their brand.
Following the results of the test, McGregor was immediately pushed into surgery where he had the operation performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache. If that name sounds familiar, he's the same doctor who handled Kobe Bryant's Achilles surgery as well as Tom Brady's knee surgery a few years ago.
He also happens to be the surgeon that completed the operation on an almost identical knee injury suffered by UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
"It's very early this soon after surgery, but I couldn't be happier with the way the rest of the knee looked," Dr. ElAttrache told Bleacher Report. "There was no other significant damage inside there just the ACL was completely torn. He has accomplished a lot in these few days after surgery. He's got all of his motion back, he's walking without needing any assistance, no crutches. He really doesn't even have a limp. He looks like he will get his muscle tone back pretty easily. Literally within 48 to 72 hours he was able to control his knee completely, that's always a good sign."
As disappointed as McGregor was about the fact that he had to have surgery in the first place, he's not allowing his mind to creep into negativity. Sure, he was already asking the UFC to give him a fight against Diego Sanchez on the upcoming UFC Fight Night card in Manchester, England in late October, but he had to immediately vacate that thought and put all of his energy into rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee.
There's a lot to be thankful for, McGregor reveals, because he's got a ton of support from his management team, the UFC and his doctors to ensure he's on the quickest road to recovery possible.
"It's tough on the mind at times. It's just as well, I have the best mind in the game," McGregor said. "It can be tough. I'm away from my family, I'm over here basically on my own, but I have my management team Paradigm Sports Management looking after absolutely everything and the UFC of course left no stone unturned. I haven't had to put my hand in my pocket for nothing, I haven't had to do jack s—t."
While some fighters might carry a downtrodden spirit with them after hearing the news about this kind of injury, McGregor looks at this as a best-case scenario situation. He could have easily had this kind of injury a year ago when he was fighting on the local circuit and not receive even close to same kind of care he's getting right now.
A knee injury like the one that McGregor suffered can be career threatening if it's not handled properly, and those are the kinds of nightmarish thoughts that put the Irish fighter in the right state of mind to tackle his rehabilitation with the same kind of ferocity he attacks an opponent.
"I take the positive from it. I could be not signed. I could be fighting on a local show. What would have happened if this had happened two or three fights ago? It's a career-ender then," McGregor said. "Where would I get the money to fund this? I would have been on a big waiting list, but I signed with the UFC and straight away the best surgeon is brought in.
"The guy who worked on Kobe (Bryant), who worked on Tom Brady, the guy who worked on Georges St-Pierre. Another positive, it happened during the fight. It could have happened during training. I could have lost out on a nice paycheck. There's positives to take from it. I still got the win, I pushed through it, all the way to the end and I overcame it. I try to look at the positives as much as I can."
Just days before he went into surgery and then began his rehabilitation in Los Angeles, he made a call to a new friend to ask some questions about the surgery he was about to face. The friend just so happened to be St-Pierre, and he was able to offer up some valuable advice about the surgery and what it was like for him to go through one of the toughest times of his professional career.
St-Pierre ended up visiting McGregor while he was out in L.A. for some business of his own, and he took some time to meet up with the young featherweight to give him some words of encouragement and advice to help him push through the rehabilitation he's about to face.
"Conor and I were introduced through our mutual training partner Gunnar Nelson," St-Pierre told Bleacher Report. "Conor called me before his surgery to ask me some questions about the surgery and the rehab process since we both used Dr. ElAttrache. He's a good kid and I hope his recovery goes as well as mine."
The meeting and conversation with St-Pierre did mean a lot to McGregor. It's no secret that since he's entered the UFC he's become a very outspoken person who is gunning for every top featherweight in the division, and that kind of pursuit doesn't typically end with a lot of friendships being made.
McGregor says hearing from St-Pierre was the exact kind of motivation he needed to not only know he could come back from this kind of injury, but he could return better than ever.
"Georges was here for the weekend in L.A. and came down to the doctor's office when he heard I was there and we met up," McGregor said. "He came out of his way to meet me and show support and give me some advice. He's a motivating field general, he's a humble warrior and for him to come out of his way like that and give me those words of advice. We had an identical injury—it was his right leg and he's an orthodox fighter, it was my left leg and I'm a southpaw fighter so it's basically identical. So I'm with the same people, I had the same surgeon, I'm going through the same rehab. Basically I have a blue print there for me.
"Right now he says it feels like it never happened. He was 10 months out of competition when he had the fight with (Carlos) Condit. He said it felt brand new like he never had the surgery. That was 10 months out, that was 10 months he was in competing. The doctor said he could have been competing earlier. They've also said my surgery was done a little better than Georges' even, the rehab people have been saying that, so I'm ahead."
Dr. ElAttrache echoes those sentiments because of St-Pierre's incredible work ethic, he would have been able to get back into the cage earlier than scheduled, but the key is making sure he didn't return too early and risk even more damage.
The good news is the doctor believes that with the path that McGregor is on thus far, he could easily walk into the Octagon on the same time schedule as St-Pierre if not even sooner.
"Georges is an amazing athlete and really was a model patient," Dr. ElAttrache said. "He was very intent and diligent with his rehab. He actually came back and was able to defend his title in the ring 10 months after his surgery. If you look at when he was doing full sparring and combat, it was far sooner than that. I want to make sure these guys are as good or better mechanically when they go back to their sport than before they hurt themselves.
"That sounds funny today, but really the more we learn and understand the mechanics about how to protect the knee, and how to rehab the knee, the better we can make these guys. Georges was very good about doing all of those things, and he coached Conor and is coaching Conor about what he's going to go through every step of the way. That's very helpful to have a guy that's gone through it talk to another guy that's involved in the same sport that's going to go through it. He's been very helpful to Conor.
"That's really the sign of the ultimate healing. When a person steps out on the field or the basketball court or in the ring as a fighter and the last thing on their mind is their knee. That's the absolutely evidence of complete healing."
McGregor's surgery may have only been just over a week ago, but he's already hitting his rehabilitation full force. He's in therapy multiple times per day and listening to his doctors for the advice they give him so he's not pushing it too hard.
It's hard to imagine McGregor hitting anything without unchecked aggression, but he's smart enough to know that coming back from this injury 100 percent is the difference between potentially competing for a world championship one day or becoming a middle-of-the-road fighter who is consistently dealing with ailments.
That said, the Irish fighter is looking to make the record books for his rehabilitation and return from this knee surgery so the next time an athlete has to go under the knife for a complete ACL replacement, they can say 'I can come back as fast as Conor McGregor!'.
"Watch when I come back—I'm going to make it look damn easy," McGregor said. "There's no doubt about it. This motivates me. I'm going to prove all the supporters correct, and silence all the hate. I've been there since day one. I'm looking forward to my return. I'd love to return in time for the Irish show. I'd love to get one in before that. What I do want for that Dublin card is a meaningful fight. I want a meaningful contest. Something that's going to prove what I already know—that I'm the best in this division and there's no one that can test me in that division."
McGregor is sending a clear message to the rest of the featherweights that he's coming back, and his absence from the division is only temporary. So for now Jose Aldo can hang onto his title while Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas fight over the chance to take it away from him.
McGregor will just be keeping an eye on things, and when he returns it will be with the singular goal of beating each and every one of them.
As for the knee injury, in McGregor's mind that's already a hurdle he's jumped. It's a formality that he's going to come back better than ever, and nothing is going to stop him.
"My mind is bulletproof," McGregor said. "It's another chapter, another thing I will conquer."
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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