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‘He’s cocky and arrogant, but you can’t take your eyes off of him’: How Conor McGregor became a fan phenomenon

The Irish fighter, who has just played the villain of the Prime Video hit ‘Road House,’ has won the public over him despite his image as a violent man with questionable taste

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor puts his feet on the table during the press tour for his fight with Floyd Mayweather in 2017.Matthew Lewis (Getty Images)
Eva Güimil

It is paradoxical that the first time Conor McGregor appears in Road House he is naked. If there is something that defines him outside the octagon, apart from his volcanic character, it is his original outfits. The McGregor style, so hypermasculine that it borders on parody, seems like it was taken from the story board of a Guy Ritchie film and could be defined as the perfect cross between a Peaky Blinder and a Versace fever dream.

As fond of tattoos as he is of accessories, preferably gold and not at all discreet, McGregor loves printed, ultra-tight three-piece suits, better if they are designed by Gucci, Dolce&Gabbana, or David August. The latter was responsible for the $10,000 suit that McGregor wore at a press conference prior to his high-profile fight against Floyd Mayweather and in which the pinstripe was actually a succession of letters forming the expression “Fuck You.” August is also his partner in August McGregor, a brand inspired by the fighter’s style because, as he has stated, “everyone wants to be a little like me. And I don’t blame them. If I were anyone else, I would also want to be like Conor McGregor.”

McGregor’s nudity in Doug Liman’s film does not last long. After a few trademark blows he dons a full, colorful outfit leaving behind him a trail of broken bones and minor fires. It’s a triumphant cinematic debut. The performance seems like a logical continuation of his career, says Iván E. Fernández Fojón, a film critic and expert in Asian martial arts and action films and head of the specialist blog Ronin.

“The Irishman’s magnetism and charisma is never in doubt. You either love him or hate him, and that is why Knox, his character in the film, is very close to the McGregor of the UFC. He’s cocky and arrogant, perhaps a little too much, but I think the film has a comic touch that helps Knox embody that. He’s an eccentric and aggressive spectacle. You want Dalton (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) to win, but you don’t want Knox to leave the screen.”

It is something to which the theatricality of Mixed Martial Arts contributes. It is both a sport and a vociferous, adrenaline-filled spectacle. “Let’s not forget that the UFC itself thrives on these doses of spectacle, with confrontations at the weigh-ins and the kind of characterization that recall the less realistic side of wrestling,” says Fernández Fojón.

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor, style icon in his own way in Monaco in 2022.Arnold Jerocki (FilmMagic)

The Irishman is one of the pleasant surprises in a film that can be considered a minor phenomenon, just like the 1980s original starring Patrick Swayze. Doug Liman’s film has become the most viewed Prime Video production in the platform’s history, which only serves to justify the director’s anger at the film’s inexplicable absence in theaters. For intents and purposes, the star is Jake Gyllenhaal, but in reality all eyes were on the only man who has won two UFC titles in different categories, and surely more than a few in the audience hoped he would fail.

He is not the first fighter to try their hand at acting. The Rock, John Cena, and Dave Bautista have already starred in some big movies, but none of them have a public image as polarizing as that of Notorious, the name by which McGregor is also known and who stole it from rapper Notorious B.I.G., whose songs he often listens to for motivation.

For Javier García, owner of the Kontact Sport mixed martial arts gym, where he has trained more than one Spanish champion, what makes McGregor special is that his way of fighting is like his way of being. “What makes him different from all the others is his perfect combination inside and outside the cage. He’s an unusual and very charismatic person,” says García. “He has established himself as a unique fighter. He is both loved and hated in equal measure, and that duality is what has established him as one of the best-known contact sports figures worldwide.”

Conor McGregor
A young Conor McGregor weighs in ahead of a fight in Sweden in 2013.Josh Hedges (Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

This visibility has helped to raise awareness of a sport that some question for its violence and that in Spain has achieved new momentum thanks to the figure of Ilia Topuria. The Spaniard of Georgian descent is the brand new featherweight champion of the UFC, the main mixed martial arts league.

Among those who do not appreciate either mixed martial arts or McGregor much, we find his compatriot Liam Neeson. “That little leprechaun, Conor McGregor, he gives Ireland a bad name. I know he’s fit and I admire him for that. But I can’t take it,” he told Men’s Health. ”UFC I can’t stand. To me it’s like a bar fight. I know the practitioners are like: ‘No, you’re wrong — the months of training we do...’ Why don’t you grab a beer bottle and hit the other guy over the head? It is the next stage of the UFC.” Contrary to what one might expect, McGregor did not show up at Neeson’s house with a baseball bat, he simply tweeted: “Proud to be Irish – always,” accompanied by an Irish flag emoji.

McGregor’s history of scandals is as long as his record. Explosive and cunning in the octagon as well as outside of it, he has been involved in some altercations that have ended up at the police station. In 2018, he broke into the UFC press room to try to attack his archenemy, the Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov. Given the impossibility of reaching his goal, McGregor chased his bus and destroyed a window after throwing a barrier, a shopping cart, and a garbage can at it. He injured two fighters and after surrendering to the New York police he was charged with three counts of assault and a crime against property. His sentence included making a public apology and undertaking anger management therapy. It was not very effective. The following year the fighter reached an out-of-court settlement with a man whose cell phone he had stolen after the man tried to photograph him. Months later he made the news again when a video was leaked in which he was seen delivering a brutal punch to an elderly man who did not accept his invitation to a drink shot of whiskey with him in a Dublin pub.

Conor McGregor
A mugshot of Conor McGregor after being arrested in 2019 in Miami.Kypros (Kypros via Getty Images)

“I was wrong, I had to come out here and apologize publicly,” he declared in a video in which he wore a shirt in his size for the first time. “This man deserved to have a good time in the pub and not end up the way he did.” Again, the purpose of sentence did not last long: in 2021 he got into a fight with rapper Machine Gun Kelly on the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards.

His criminal record does not diminish the fervor of his fans one bit. To understand him, it is as important to learn about his sporting achievements as the way he became an elite athlete. The young McGregor was going to be a soccer player, but the bullying he suffered due to his small frame made him focus on contact sports. He looked like a chimpanzee that turned into a gorilla, as stated in the documentary Conor McGregor: Notorious (available in Spain on SkyShowtime). At the age of sixteen he left school and began working as a plumber with his father. When it was clear to him that there was a future for him in mixed martial arts, he focused on the sport even though it was not a deep-rooted tradition in his family, his neighborhood, nor Ireland.

Dee Devlin, his partner, has always been present in putting the Irishman’s objectives into action and consolidating his achievements. They met at a party in 2008 and months later he sent her a friend request on Facebook. They have been together since then. They have four children and he is the great pillar in their life. “My girlfriend worked very hard throughout the years and stuck by me when I had essentially nothing. I only had a dream that I was telling her. If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” he confesses in Notorius.

Conor McGregor
Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor in 2017.Ethan Miller (Getty Images)

In 2013, during one of his exuberant speeches, he compared himself to Van Gogh. “I have lost my mind on this game. Like Vincent van Gogh dedicated his life to art and lost his mind in the process. That’s happened to me. But fuck it. When I have that belt around my waist and when my mother has a big mansion, when my girlfriend has a different car for every day of the week, and my kids’ kids get everything they ever wanted... then it will pay. Then I’ll be happy I lost my mind.”

Even for such an egomaniac, it would have been difficult to imagine that years later he would be the first UFC fighter to win the belt in two different categories and one of the most famous fighters in the history of mixed martial arts. He is also one of the wealthiest men. McGregor’s journey from his time as a young man starting out in the sport, who lived off a weekly welfare check of €188 euros (around $220), to appearing on the list of best-paid athletes in 2021 has been a whirlwind. And his wealth comes not only from the exorbitant sums he receives for his fights, but also for the success of business ventures such as his whiskey brand, which he launched in 2018 and sold three years later for €130 million (nearly $142 million).

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York in 2021.Theo Wargo (Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS)

McGregor’s career is full of great comebacks, almost like an action movie. There are epic moments: his debut, in which he won with a knock-out in the first round, his victory against José Aldo in just thirteen seconds, and his victorious revenge after the unexpected defeat against Nate Diaz. There were also dramatic times, such as the defeat against Khabib Nurmagomedov that ended as a pitched fight between both teams, and the serious tibia and fibula injury that has kept him in dry dock since 2021. But if something caught the world’s attention, it was the media circus around his fight against boxing champion Floyd Mayweather. It was an event that marked the Irishman’s debut in a sport he had only practiced as an amateur.

For many it was a pantomime. “The fight is an insult to the world of sports and to their respective disciplines. Every sport deserves respect,” protested the Mexican boxer Juan Manuel Márquez. It turned out to be a very lucrative pantomime for which Mayweather earned around $280 million and McGregor took home $130 million.

The attention generated by the personalities of both stars had a huge impact, and for some reason Dana White, the controversial president of the UFC, has a soft spot for McGregor. The defeat against Mayweather left deeper scars than many of his scars and showed the champion’s decline. Every week news emerges about his return that has not yet materialized. According to White, the problem is that Conor doesn’t need the money because he’s already “f***ing rich.” His opinion shared by Javier García: “He no longer has the hunger he had when he started, so it is difficult to see him again at the top of MMA.”

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal at the premiere of 'Roadhouse' in New York in March 2024.Dia Dipasupil (Getty Images)

Without a doubt, his return would mean talking about enormous figures again. Meanwhile, perhaps the success of Road House, which he has boasted about on his social media, will mark a new path for him. Another colorful sportsman, ex-soccer ace Éric Cantona, found a second life in the cinema with excellent reviews. The Irishman’s performance has also attracted praise. “McGregor, it turns out, is a natural at playing a devilishly flamboyant villain, at times stealing the show from a more grounded Gyllenhaal,” wrote Adrian Horton in The Guardian. Fernández Fojón also considers that this foray into cinema may not be the fighter’s last. “The fact that he has made his film debut in a movie like this is positive for the future. He can play a villain or a hero, although in this sense, due to his personality, I see that latter as more difficult.” McGregor knows that he doesn’t need to be a hero for all eyes to be on him. He just needs to be Conor McGregor.

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