Conor McGregor returned to the spotlight for his first major interview since his divisive appearance on ESPN back in August.
Speaking to Oscar Willis of TheMacLife, McGregor cut a more level-headed figure than we’ve been accustomed to seeing him as of late.
Whether it was just simply a case of catching him on a good day or in a state of post-workout clarity is anyone’s guess but all things considered, the Conor McGregor who spoke to Ariel Helwani a few months ago was one far removed from the man who gave us his thoughts yesterday.
Talk is cheap and, of course, McGregor is the best talker in the business but if you ask me, there was enough here to suggest that the Irishman is being honest and transparent in his assessment of himself.
Thankfully, we’re now just two weeks away from finding out exactly where Conor stands within the landscape of the sport from a competitive perspective but based on what he said over the course of the interview’s near-nine-minute run-time, there were a few things that stood out.
On the subject of his plans for 2020.
“I had a little gameplan. But the UFC were coming back at me so I have put it in the UFC’s hand. I do not care. I am back. I am back to who I am. I look forward to showcasing that on January 18th. Whoever is after that, it does not matter. I will be ready.
“People always say to me ‘don’t get involved in politics’, so I have taken a backstep on that. I don’t care man. The disrespect I have received from many in the business, sometimes it has caused me to react – I have reacted to disrespect. No more. I am focused on myself, on that belief in myself and I am back to who I am.”
This may well have been one of the most interesting segments of the conversation in my eyes. The power struggle that has existed between Conor and the UFC over the last five years has been almost as compelling to watch as the fights that he has fought inside the octagon.
Love him or hate him, the Irishman has been in a large way responsible for completely rewriting the script as far as the UFC’s relationship with the mainstream is concerned, but also with the fighters who occupy their roster.
We’re only really starting to see the ripple effects in the last year or two but the entire Conor McGregor phenomenon has in some ways allowed the UFC to understand the power of shamelessly making compromises with their biggest stars in mind in order to both give these assets a push while also generating the type of controversy that drives traffic in this modern era.
We’ve seen events uproot and move across an entire country on notice that can be counted in mere hours while also watching as USADA rulings were overturned in cases that would have resulted in withdrawals 99.9% of the time.
Conor’s role as an anti-establishment figure has no doubt contributed to change within the world’s premier MMA organisation and beyond but now, it appears as though he is content to take a back-step.
McGregor’s drive to push through boundaries has been a consistent theme over the course of his career but now, issues that plague him on a more fundamental level need to be addressed.
On Khabib Nurmagomedov and their UFC 229 clash.
“I’m just having fun with it all now. He is trembling. That man is trembling. He doesn’t want it. You know, you get it, but he doesn’t want to lose it again. Everyone wants it. The boss, Dana, wants it. We all want it. He can run but he can’t hide.
“In my mind, I won round one. I out-struck him three-to-one. Ok, he had position on the mat but I out-struck him three-to-one. What did he do in that first-round?
“That last camp was horrendous. I have no-one to blame but myself. And I did blame myself and I made the corrections. Thankfully, I have a strong team behind me that are pushing me and guiding me in the right way and I’m guiding myself. That’s the main thing.“
Where the intensity in Conor’s voice heightened in the very same interview at the very mention of his fellow lightweight contender Justin Gaethje, in perhaps an even more interesting turn, it did seem as though he was playing down the level of emotion he felt about his Russian rival.
If you’re taking Conor at his word, the last few months and the reflective zone he seems to have found himself in have been built around the idea of recapturing the mindset that led him to two UFC titles.
For all of the verbal barbs he threw at the likes of José Aldo, Chad Mendes, Dustin Poirier and Nate Diaz, it was still easy to tell that McGregor was very much in control of himself and the dynamic that existed between him and his opponent.
Coach John Kavanagh has spoken in the past about the moment that his fighter turned to him in the wake of the now-infamous UFC 202 press conference and said, ‘The illusion of insanity is over. Now it’s time for the gameplan.”
If you remember the bottle-throwing antics that dwarfed the presser’s meeting between Conor and Nate Diaz, you’ll remember the overwhelming sense that McGregor had finally grown emotionally invested – a prediction that instead would not truly come to pass to its fullest until last year’s UFC 229.
I believe that a large part of Conor’s battle for redemption will come through him cooling off after his role in creating one of the ugliest rivalries in sporting history.
Listening closely to him speak about the Khabib fight, it still appears as though its a fight he still has yet to move on from fully.
I’m not saying that he hasn’t made progress since his ESPN appearance back in August by any stretch, but everything about this interview suggested that the loss is still playing on his mind.
Fortunately for him, he has the opportunity to screw his head on straight and in some ways, temporarily move on from Nurmagomedov with this ‘2020 season’ until the time comes to run it back – if that’s how things do, in fact, play out.
We will likely see Khabib vs. McGregor II before all is said and done, but for now, the wound of the crushing defeat that he sustained appears to be one that he is very much still tending too.
On his relationship with his team and the state of his reputation in the eyes of the fans.
Like anything else, this climb, if successful, will be a long process but again, the quote below illustrates the fact that he is in acceptance of his own part in the state of his reputation and the post-UFC 229 relationship between him and his team.
“That [defeat] was after a horrendous camp where I was so disrespectful to the people that believe in me. I was disrespectful to my team with my lack of commitment, and I still went out and done that.”
“The forgetful MMA industry – it’s such a forgetful game. One guy can have a win or two wins and they’re on top of the world. Then a guy can have a loss and he’s on the bottom. I’m going to remind everyone and continue to climb, continue to get my sharpness.”
“You know, a lot of people forget about my skill-base. I’m going to go in there and remind them. I don’t feel as though these people are on my level. I have not been committed for a while – up until a year ago. I look forward to going back and showcasing my skillset to the people.”
“I’m back in my old frame of mind. I just want consistency. I want competition. It’s what I love to do. To be in that healthy state of mind. In my body also. Whoever, wherever.
“Gold. Silverware. I say ‘silverware’ because that BMF belt is a silver one. It’s not the best-looking belt. I don’t really care about that one, to be honest. I want the gold. I’m after the gold. 155lbs. 170lbs. They’re the belts I am chasing right now.”
You’ve likely already made up your mind on Conor as a person at this point and to be honest, it’s even quite likely that your opinion on him has been irreparably damaged in the last year or so.
Still, we now find ourselves at the point in his story where he is teetering on the edge of the place that most call ‘rock bottom’.
He’s not there quite yet but this year will probably stand as the most pivotal in the story that will be told about this man in the years that follow it.
From where I’m standing, our views on this athlete on a personal level will be secondary to the overall narrative that his career follows when the history books are written.
The man has transcended the sport in a way that few would have thought possible prior to his rise and while a lot of you now instantly turn your nose at the mere mention of his name, this, for me, is by far the most interesting time in the story of Conor McGregor.
His desire to remind the world of his undeniable talents, the reignition of his vast professional ambitions, and the sheer hunger you could see in his eyes as he spoke about these things were the clearest indication to me that he is in a state of acceptance of that fact.
What happens next will allow us to gauge exactly how fit for the task he actually is.