Conor McGregor’s fists are getting closer and closer to my face.
Sure, there’s a phone between us because I’m taking a picture, and he’s throwing punches that he likely has no intention of landing on my jaw, but any regular guy would still feel threatened. And it makes sense: The 26-year-old, 145-pound featherweight has fought professionally since 2008, and joined the UFC a little over 18 months ago, making a name for himself as “The Notorious”. (“I talk a lot. I say it as I see it. And over the years it has gotten me into trouble.”)
It’s a cold morning in New York, and McGregor is making a quick stop in Midtown Manhattan before wrapping up more than five weeks of traveling. Tonight, he’ll finally head back home to Dublin, Ireland, back to his teammates, his family, his dog, Hugo, and his gym, where he’ll train to prepare for his first fight in 2015 against Dennis Siver. Today, McGregor looks confident and calm, even when talking about the future. “No one has done what I’ve done, the way I’ve done it,” McGregor says. “So I want to be known as a guy who defied the odds, who took no prisoners, and changed the face of the game. But as long as I’m known — and I’m already known by my close circle — the rest doesn’t really matter. That’s probably the way I’d want my close people to remember me: He did what he was not supposed to be able to do. And made it.”
We talked with McGregor about how he’s preparing for his return to the Octagon, the reason people are scared of waking him up, and why you should never keep your hands in front of your face during a fight.
What’s the secret to throwing a good punch or a kick?
There is no secret. It’s all about repetition. Repetition is the key. You show up and you put the work in. You will throw that sweet, sweet money shot every time.
Aside from keeping your hands up to protect your face, what would you say is the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re in a fight?
Keeping your hands up by your face, in my opinion, is actually a dated approach. You keep your hands close to your face and your opponent can come closer. I always stand wide and open. So if somebody wants to come close, they have to begin their move from here — from distance. And when they begin their move from distance, it’s seen so much more than if I was to put my hands up here and let him come right here. There’s more danger to it. That’s a boxing approach with the big gloves. There is no big gloves. It’s small. It’s a clean, small fist, and it can get through gaps here. But I keep wide. This is the approach.
Do you focus on anything else while preparing for a fight?
One of the most important things I’d say is as long as you train harder and you believe in your ability, enter the contest confident, enter the contest emotionless, you cannot have emotions in there. Emotions cloud reaction. If you go in there with an emotion of any kind, whether it’s fear, hate, love, all of these, and when you come in contact with your opponent and you try to move him a certain way and you try to throw a punch with anger — let’s say you throw a punch with anger — your body tenses up with anger. I need to hit him, I want to hit him so bad. Whereas if there wasn’t anger, there’s no emotion, if you were cold, feeling nothing, the shot will just ping. The most important tool in fighting I would say is calmness. You hear a lot about people saying his speed, his power, his toughness — these are things you hear over and over. One thing you don’t hear is his calmness. That to me is the sign of a special fighter — a man who’s able to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
How did growing up in Dublin shape your fighting career?
I grew up in a place known for trouble. Known for its gang activity. It’s a rough area, and as most boys in the area, we fight a lot. As a young kid, I got into a lot of fights, and it got stuck in my head. It drove me to martial arts gyms. I wanted to be able to be comfortable in these situations. These situations that kept happening, I thought about them a lot after they happened. What way should I have moved? What way should I have reacted? And that is that. I went to gyms to study for those situations, and the game took hold of me like it does most people who get involved in it. It takes over your whole life. You become obsessed with it. That’s what happened to me.
What’s your training regimen like?
With the UFC schedule, I must adapt to the situation because there’s so much media and obligations you have to attend to. I have been training on the road for the past four to five weeks, so I’ve been getting it in where I can. In Vegas they had a gym hooked up for me. I was going over there and getting some great workouts in. I would go over there and be in there for three hours and just hit the bag. I’d roll out. I’d work on my cardio, I’d work on whatever I could on my own. I figured out ways to exercise but still keep it combat-sport related. There was this thing that I was doing where I got two foam rollers and wrapped them around … as if I was going in for a takedown. Just little things like that while I’ve been on the road. But back home, which I go home tonight, I show up at the gym and I do all forms of training. I do jujitsu, I do boxing, I train kickboxing, I train wrestling, I train taekwondo, I train capoeira, which is a Brazilian form of dance fighting where they do handstands and unorthodox kicks. But I’m just trying to learn the different ways the body can move, and become more flexible and get more stable in all positions and carry on.
How many hours per day do you usually spend in the gym?
For me, I notice with other people, they have a set time — you need to be in the gym at 12, 12 to 1:30, then they go off and do something and come back at a set time. I don’t do that. I train when I feel like training. I operate on my own time. In the early days, I had regimenting, but I did not like it. Sometimes you go to the gym and you don’t feel like going to the gym. You’re not going to learn something in that time because your mind is not there, and you’re also risking injury. When you’re not all there and you’re not 100 percent up for it, I find that’s when injuries and you take little knocks and bruises — unnecessarily. So I just go to the gym whenever I feel like it lately.
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When I go to the gym, I warm up correctly, and I take a lot of time on my warm-ups, my prehabilitation. I warm up my glutes, I warm up quads, I warm up shoulders, I warm up everything correctly. I stretch out. And then I’ll begin to train. And then after training, I will do everything: I’ll roll up my quads, I’ll roll up my glutes, roll up my hip flexor, and just try to stay loose. And all that combined, it’s like a four-hour session. But it’s just a natural four-hour session. It doesn’t feel like four hours. I’m just trying to be in there, becoming more loose, and I find since I’ve been doing it that way, I’m happier, I enjoy it a lot more. And my body has never felt better. I think it’s important to operate on your own time. By saying that, it can mean you’ll end up in the gym at 2 a.m. And I come alive at night, so 12 o’clock at night, my brain switches on, and I’m shadowboxing in the room and go down to the gym at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., and do that, but it’s when I feel it, and I feel the best benefits from it.
You tore your ACL recently. What was your recovery like?
Yeah, I tore my ACL the last time I fought in boxing, which was August 2013. And I had the surgery in September. But it was eye-opening for me. It was a blessing in disguise, because I used to just show up at the gym, glove up, and fight. And that’s it. I put no emphasis on prehab work. I put no emphasis on warming up/warming down, and I put no emphasis on flexibility, on balance. This is what traditional martial arts is about: flexibility, balance, speed, fluidity. I was falling into a pattern like most MMA fighters do of showing up, sparring heavy, and lifting weights. And then you become stuffed; you’re not fluid in your movement. You’re not supple. And when I got that injury and was forced to build my leg back up, forced to build the muscle, I learned so much about the body, so much more about the way it needs to be for longevity. To have longevity in this career, you must become a master at this. So it was a blessing in disguise. I learned so much.
How are you preparing for your next fight?
Tonight I go home — finally. I’ve been away for five-and-a-half weeks straight. London, Brazil, Miami, Vegas, Boston, New York. And now I go home. I go home to my gym, and I do what I do — I go get my fill, I have my coffee, I listen to music, and I relax in the gym. The facility we have in the gym is welcoming. You can go, you can bring your fill. It’s a place to chill and relax. You don’t just have to go home and train and go into the environment. You are in the environment 24/7. So I stay in the gym all day. So that is what I’ll do when I go home, so I cannot wait to go home. I miss my gym, I miss my friends, I miss my teammates, and of course my family, my dog. I haven’t seen my dog for five-and-half-weeks.
What sort of diet do you regularly follow?
I’m not a morning person, so they’ve [his team] has been waking me up at like 6 a.m., they’re scared to wake me up. But they wake me up with a bottle of water, with an Americano, and a banana. I have my water first because you do not want to drink coffee first thing in the morning. You have some water first, make sure you get water. And then I have a banana, then I’ll maybe have some breakfast a bit later, then I’ll have my first coffee. So far I’ve had my water, I have had my banana, after this —
Oh, you haven’t had your Americano yet?
And then I’ll have my omelet and Americano. But that has been my routine here. I just try and eat clean. I don’t eat takeaways. I don’t eat none of that shit. I just try to eat clean. I have a sweet tooth — that would be where I’d put on some weight out of fighting is somebody brings in a pack of cakes and coffee. But the majority, I’ll eat good-quality meats, good-quality greens, good-quality carbohydrates like sweet potato and butternut squash, and that is it.
You’re a fan of custom suits and watches. Which are some of your favorite pieces that you own?
I have a lot of nice suits — damn nice suits. And when I was in Vegas I met with a tailor named David August, and he made about 10-12 beautiful suits with everything on them. Three-piece suit, waistcoat, big fat tie. I love a big fat tie. I think a big fat tie is the way to go. And the shoes, even the socks he gave me, the cufflinks — I got everything off of him. It’s really nice gear, so I think that’s my favorite I’ve got so far. But I love suits. I love clothes. I like the feeling of fresh clothes.
What do you think is the most important thing when it comes to buying a suit?
Fit. If it fits wrong, it looks ridiculous. You go from looking like a guy with a career, to looking like a guy with a court date. It’s like a slim-fitting custom suit, tight around the waist, the collar or sleeve comes 1-inch shorter; the leg is tight, hugs the ankle, it must be right. You must be picky with it. And then you go to the guy with the court date and it’s like saggy, the waist is wide, the arms come down too long, you can even see the shoulder, it’s absolutely ridiculous, so I think fit is essential. And then depending on your taste, preference, you pick your own, and the thing about a suit is you can be your own man, but it must fit.
So how’d you get your nickname?
The Notorious. I talk a lot. I say it as I see it. And over the years it has gotten me into trouble, so I was notorious for it. For putting my foot in it, so to speak. So it just sort of happened. My coach started calling me “Notorious.” And when I was supposed to make my second pro fight with my coach, I didn’t even have an interest in music, and it wasn’t official. And then my coach said “No-No-No-Notorious.” This is backstage, 10 minutes before I’m about to walk out. And then the DJ comes in and says, “What song do you want me to play?” And my coach picked “Notorious,” and it just fit. And I like rap as well, of course, and I love Notorious B.I.G.
What do you want your legacy to be?
As long as I secure my family’s future, as long as everyone in my family is set for life, and the next generation — I want to provide for the next generation of my family even, not just this generation. I don’t do it to be remembered, you know what I mean? It kind of got me thinking, if I did want to be remembered some way, I suppose it’d just be as a guy who defied the odds. I’m the first Irish guy to do it. No one has done what I’ve done the way I’ve done it. So I want to be known as a guy who defied the odds, who took no prisoners, and changed the face of the game. But as long as I’m known — which I’m already known by my close circle — then the rest does not really matter. That is probably the way I’d want my close people to remember me: He did what he was not supposed to be able to do. And made it.