What makes Conor McGregor so special? Authenticity, passion and a true love for fighting

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Conor McGregor has won fans over by being true to himself. (Getty Images)
Conor McGregor has won fans over by being true to himself. (Getty Images)

There have been trash-talkers in combat sports for as long as two people have squared off and fought each other. It comes with the territory.

Conor McGregor is far more than a trash-talker. He’s a brilliant marketer, as evidenced by the fact that he’ll have a massive ad for his newest venture, Proper Twelve Irish Whiskey, on the mat at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday during UFC 229.

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McGregor, the former lightweight and featherweight champion, will challenge champion Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight belt in Saturday’s main event on a show that seems poised to become the first UFC card to sell more than two million pay-per-views.

He understands how to attract attention and he knows how to leverage that attention like few have ever done.

But it’s not his words or his quick wit alone that have made him by far the biggest draw in UFC history and the top active attraction in any combat sport.

McGregor’s passion for the sport is what sets him apart. That resonates with fans, who over the years have always flocked to the fighters who were not only willing, but eager, to fight anyone, anywhere, at any time.

A fan of former UFC champion Conor McGregor shows his support outside Brooklyn Supreme court on June 14, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
A fan of former UFC champion Conor McGregor shows his support outside Brooklyn Supreme court on June 14, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

That more than anything describes his approach, and it’s allowed him to take his other talents and create numerous other money-making ventures.

His website, The Mac Life, is just such an example. It first promotes McGregor himself, but it also works in his products.

In a video interview he did with the site that was posted on Sunday, he gave an insight into the reason for his UFC return. And while his so-called feud with Nurmagomedov may have piqued the interest of some, it’s McGregor’s desire to throw down that is at the heart of everything.

He said he is “certainly itching for a fight,” and then spoke with passion about previous attempts to return to the UFC. He was complaining about being stripped of his titles — and not being taken seriously when he asked to step in on short notice to compete when other fighters fell out.

While some heard his words and saw him whining, what most heard was a guy who loves what he does eager to get back at it. There was a passion in his voice as he explained how the UFC wouldn’t agree to let him fight Frankie Edgar and Rafael dos Anjos on short notice.

“They refused me because they anticipated that it would have cost them too much money to have me show up with too little time to promote,” McGregor told Mac Life. “However, I was willing to take a pay cut. I am not in this for the money. I mean, of course I’m not going to fight for less than my worth, but in those instances, I would have. I just wanted to compete.”

Yeah, he’ll make an eight-figure payday for taking on Nurmagomedov. Yeah, he’ll give his whiskey brand a boost it could never have gotten otherwise if he weren’t competing at UFC 229.

But at his core, this guy is a fighter. He lives for it. One suspects that if he’d never given up on being a plumber, he’d be just as happy to step outside a Dublin bar to settle a score with someone.

At last month’s New York news conference at Radio City Music Hall, over and over McGregor returned to that theme.

And while training camp is a chore for nearly every fighter, McGregor relishes it. It’s a chance to compete, just without the bright lights, the crowded arena and massive paycheck.

Of course there’s hyperbole in his answer, and he’s selling UFC 229 hard, but his love of the game echoes through his every word. It’s hard to doubt how he lives for this when listening to him speak.

“It’s been a war zone in my camp,” McGregor said. “We have been preparing for war. All you have to do is look at the images and the videos we’ve already released through my team, McGregor Productions. We have released glimpses, only shown glimpses, of the true hard work we’ve put in for this camp.

“Broken orbital bones. Broken zygomatic arches [in the face]. Swallowed teeth. Broken fingers. This has been a war zone. We are coming for war. This fool [Nurmagomedov] keeps saying, ‘It’s going to be a looong night.’ Trust me, mate. I’m ready for a long night.”

That authenticity translates to the fan base. Many revere him and others despise him, but he connects with all who care about the fight game because he cares more than anyone.

He was on the Forbes list of the world’s highest paid athletes the last two years when he made in excess of $150 million. He’s got an infant son and a girlfriend at home and there is no need to be away for long stretches and put them through the trauma that comes with being the family of a high-level fighter.

He loves the spotlight. He craves the bully pulpit, and uses it well. At the end of the day, though, he is nothing but a tough guy who wants to challenge all the others on the block who believe they, too, are tough.

Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov pose for pictures during a news conference in New York on Sept. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov pose for pictures during a news conference in New York on Sept. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In New York, Nurmagomedov said, “You come for money. I come for legacy.”

McGregor seemed stunned.

“I don’t need money, I have money,” said McGregor, who was on government assistance when he first joined the UFC in 2013.

After hurling a slew of insults, he grabbed the bottle of Proper Twelve Irish Whiskey he’d put on the dais in front of him.

Speaking to no one in particular, he shouted, “This is a direct competitor to Jameson’s [Irish Whiskey]! I came coming to take over the whiskey business. Look at the noise it has made. This is a true, true beast I have in my possession here.

“I do not fight for the prize. I did not begin fighting for the prize. I began to fight because I loved it. That’s why I’m here now, because I love this game. I don’t have to be here. I’m set for life. Even without this [upcoming fight], I’m set for life. From the last match, I’m set for life. I’m here because I enjoy this. I don’t have to lick no one’s [butt] for a check. I loooove this.”

More UFC 229 coverage from Yahoo Sports:

McGregor’s trash-talk game is on point
10 moments that made McGregor ‘Notorious’
Khabib’s 10 defining moments en route to UFC 229
Dan Wetzel: This time McGregor isn’t faking the hate

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