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The life and times of Conor McGregor -- how social media changed UFC fighter

On Saturday, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone readies for the biggest fight of his career against the UFC's ultimate villain, Conor McGregor, who returns to the octagon after a lengthy hiatus

Posted: Jan 17, 2020 12:40 PM
Updated: Jan 17, 2020 12:40 PM

Whether it's trash-talking an opponent or fighting in a Dublin pub, Conor McGregor is a man that makes headlines.

He hasn't won a UFC fight for over three years, but McGregor remains one of the sport's top draws and after over a year away from the Octagon the Irish fighter will make his long awaited return Saturday at UFC 246 when he faces Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone.

The 31-year-old Irishman shot to prominence due to his unique combination of explosive fighting ability and extremely direct candor.

Prior to his 2017 boxing fight with Floyd Mayweather, McGregor told CNN he was "always thinking about fighting. It's just in me. I cannot stop thinking about it.

"Certain sequences, certain movements, certain ways to prepare. It's a 24/7 mindset. That mindset has got me to where I am today."

If McGregor has experienced extreme highs -- knocking out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds to unify the UFC Featherweight Championship -- his career has also been blighted by controversy.

And as the professional fights have decreased, the frequency with which McGregor appears to get himself into trouble has only increased.

During the media tour ahead of the bout with Mayweather, the Irishman was accused of racist behavior after taunting the American boxer, saying: "Dance for me, boy!" McGregor later called any suggestions that he's racist "stupid" and "ridiculous."

"Around the Mayweather fight, I always thought he was walking the line of racism very closely," Irish sports journalist Ewan MacKenna who is the author of "Chaos is a Friend of Mine: The Life and Crimes of Conor McGregor," tells CNN Sport.

"Whether he meant it or not, his fans absolutely loved that, it was the white guy who could out-trash talk the black guy, who could beat up the black guys in the ring, who was kind of this strong man hero for the right wing.

"He was brash, loud-mouthed, ignorant and he'd never make any apologies for it. And his success, in his case be it his bank balance, was always a justification for anything he did."

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Changing face

MacKenna's book made the Irish Times' list of top 10 sport books published in 2019. However, the journalist says he was repeatedly denied access to McGregor whilst writing the book, though he did interview the fighter back in 2013, at around the time that Irishman made his UFC debut.

Asked for a response to MacKenna's book, a representative for McGregor said in a statement sent to CNN: "His opinions are his alone and not based on any confirmed information nor fact. He has no relationship with Mr. McGregor.

"Mr. McGregor's fight next Saturday will provide a better story and more copy than you would need."

According to MacKenna, McGregor circa 2013 was a very different type of man than the one the world sees now.

"I found him to be very intelligent and he was talking about the books he read on spirituality, on different fighting techniques from right across the world," reflects MacKenna.

"He was genuinely studying, be it fighting techniques from Thailand to Brazil, from Japan to Mexico. He was really engrossed and he was fascinated by it. And it wasn't about the money at the beginning. It was about being the best he could be."

McGregor later appeared on "The Late Late Show" in Ireland, and rather than discussing more cerebral topics, the fighter projected a very different image, according to MacKenna.

"He was like a clown. He was making a middle class audience laugh with pathetic jokes, and they were lapping it up and they wanted more of it," says the author, who is a former winner of the Irish Sports Journalist of the Year award.

"I think at that point, he realized this is what works. He would have been anything we wanted him to be and this is what we paid for."

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A modern world

Combat sports have a tradition of competitors playing the part of a 'character' that is quite different to their day-to-day personality to help promote fights or their brand.

Prior to social media's advent, athletes could quite easily perform that role in public, but then revert back to normal in everyday life.

"It used to be just for the hour of a magazine interview or the half an hour you were on TV, and no one had access to you outside of that," MacKenna explains.

"Whereas in McGregor's era, it's 24/7. And people demand what they're paying for, they demand this character constantly, they demand always that he is outrageous and outspoken.

"I guess when you're trying to live up to that 24 hours a day, when you're waking up first thing in the morning and you have to be that on social media, you can lose yourself in that very quickly. It's as if he held up a mask one day and if he ever takes it back down, there's nothing behind it."

McGregor collected $47 million in earnings in 2019, according to Forbes, and now has 7.8 million Twitter followers. As his success and notoriety has increased, his entourage has increased exponentially.

"In the fighting game, we've seen them for years upon years, but as the money goes up, the entourage gets bigger," said the author.

Mackenna says the group of hangers-on around the fighter come and go, but one source close to McGregor provided this anecdote for the Irish journalist's book, to show the growing extravagance surrounding the fighter.

"For example, McGregor employed one of his old friends for about $40-50,000 a year to look after his socks," MacKenna explains.

"We've seen it with a million boxers over the years, we've seen this with the entourage who tell their hero that they can do what you want and that's okay.

The Mayweather fight gave McGregor a new enhanced financial status within UFC -- Forbes estimates he pocketed $85 million from the bout ---and according to MacKenna when that happened the Irish fighter could "afford a bigger group of hangers-on, you can give them more and therefore they're more reluctant to tell you when you're wrong."

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Still an influence

Away from the Octagon, McGregor has spent his time focusing on his various business interests, notably his website The Mac Life and a spirits brand -- 'Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey' -- but the Irish fighter's spectre has continued to hang over the series.

"He's got a good, positive impact in the sales department because he's the biggest seller of all time," former UFC welterweight and middleweight champion Georges St-Pierre told CNN. "He's got that charisma, he's a character and everything he fights, everything sells.

"All the businesses are running, everything that is attached to MMA is running. Even me, even when he fights, I have more reporters asking me for interviews. He is the athlete that has the most impact on the sport except Royce Gracie, for me.

"He's the number one guy after Royce Gracie in terms of popularity, in terms of having the impact, in terms of popularity, he is number one without a doubt."

According to McGregor, money is no longer a motivation for him given his wealth.

"It used to irritate me the way certain narratives are spread and the way words are twisted, I had to just disengage from it," McGregor told ESPN this week.

"When I came into the game, it used to happen and I'd just laugh it off and play up to it and do my thing. Then it just kept up going on, on, and on. It got a little much and I reacted to disrespect. But no more.

"For me, it's not about money. I'm in a position where it's forever money now. This is not for money for me. No amount of money will stop my hunger for this and my hunger to compete and to entertain and to live my life the way I want to live it.

"Too much money and without an awareness of it in the past could be dangerous. There's no limits. There's no boundaries. You can do anything. But I know what I want to do and what I enjoy doing and this is what I enjoy doing."

Despite the length of time since his last fight, MacKenna believes that McGregor still holds massive sway over the future of fighters everywhere.

"Regardless of the fact he doesn't have any belts, regardless of the fact he hasn't won a UFC fight in three years now, the pay-per-view numbers are still there," said MacKenna.

"And that's ultimately what it comes down to. And Dana White and the UFC have always been willing to back him, no matter how wrong he was, as long as the pay-per view-numbers are there," adds MacKenna, referring to the UFC President.

UFC did not immediately respond to CNN for comment.

Mackenna added: "So even the guys who say: 'I don't want to fight him, I don't want anything to do with him,' I think when it comes down to it and the paycheck is put in front of them, they absolutely will."

McGregor's draw is reflected in those pay-per-view figures. The two UFC events with the most buys -- UFC 229 and UFC 202 -- were headlined by McGregor.

Although McGregor was clearly one of the best UFC fighters for a time, that was not the only draw.

A media conference or interview with him was always likely to produce a good headline or soundbite for fans to spend time discussing or consuming on social media.

Highlighting McGregor's lasting influence on the sport, MacKenna points to "a lot of mimicking (of McGregor)" currently in the UFC, specifically the often brash behavior of contestants such as Colby Covington and Khabib Nurmagomedov.

"(Covington) was talking about how the UFC saw him as very, very boring and had no real interest in him, even though he was winning bouts," MacKenna outlined.

"And then he was in Brazil a few years ago, and he started mouthing off in a press conference and he started getting racist towards the Brazilians. And he basically came up with this character."

Covington was forced to surround himself with security while in Sao Paulo in 2017, after he called the country a "dump," and referred to the country's fans as "filthy animals."

"And since then, he's now one of the biggest draws in the UFC."

Covington later denied being a racist, claiming on Instagram, "I'm not a racist I'm just a REALIST. Just calling it how I see it," he wrote.

McGregor's demeanor even got to the usually tranquil Nurmagomedov, as evidenced in their mass brawl after the Russian defeated the Irishamn. McGregor was handed a six month suspension, while Nurmagomedov was hit with nine months.

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"The very quiet Dagestani, very respectful Dagestani guy who's a brilliant fighter, but it wasn't getting him the paydays," said MacKenna.

"I think it's people want the WWE-style thing now. We've seen UFC lose its authenticity. The McGregor style makes them a lot more money. And you kind of get this Ultimate Warrior-Undertaker scenario that we would have grown up with in the 80s."

McGregor says he feels "happy" ahead of his return to the ring and whether he wins or loses, he'll no doubt be in the headlines.

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