One of my least favourite aspects of covering MMA has to be the professionalism required of me at events. There’s nothing wrong with a couple of beers and a burger at a small show in front of a couple of hundred people. In fact, I’d say it adds to the authenticity of reporting from a fan’s perspective.
But when you take a step up the ladder, a certain amount of decorum is required. No alcohol, obviously. It’s particularly bad form to stagger out of the press pit on the wrong side of nine pints at a UFC event, drape your arm around Dana White and shout into his (good) ear, “Fucking quality this mate, nice one! You should bring that Brock Lesnar back though, my mate Dangerous Barry reckons he’ll do 300 tickets and smash him.”
No alcohol I can deal with. But the absolute worst part? Impartiality. I am, and always will be, a fan of MMA before, above and beyond anything else. Fights excite me, and not being able to whoop and cheer at big shows kinda sucks. Instead, I sit back in my chair and applaud every fighter politely, win or lose. It’s a small price to pay for what is admittedly one of the best jobs in the world.
It becomes even harder when you’re watching a friend, training partner, or simply someone you like and, as a fan of the sport, admire. I find it harder still at Cage Warriors, because I’m not there as ‘press’ covering the show, I’m working for the promotion and as such, representing them.
Through my work with Cage Warriors, I’ve been introduced to a merry band of men from Ireland’s SBGi camp. I’d seen Cathal Pendred, Chris Fields, Artem Lobov and Conor McGregor fight before, but it was only last year that I met any of them personally. I don’t need to tell anyone what they’re about in the cage; if you don’t know Google them (but slap yourself first). What really struck me about meeting Ireland’s answer to the Ninja Turtles, and their Master Splinter John Kavanagh, was that they’re all really cool, nice, down to earth guys.
I first met Conor in Scotland at Cage Warriors 51 last October. He was supposed to fight in Jordan a month earlier, but an injury had postponed the bout until December. Regardless, he was in Glasgow to corner a teammate and do a few interviews to promote his rearranged title fight with Jim Alers. Tommy Lakes and I were filming an in-depth, sit-down interview with him, and I was really looking forward to it.
“Conor is crazy…” someone (I genuinely can’t remember who) told me, “…but in a really good way. He’s intense.”
When Conor walked into the room (complete with big gold belt over his shoulder) and plonked himself down in the chair next to me, I knew exactly what that person meant. There is an atmosphere, an intensity about him that is incredibly pronounced.
In an industry of professional ass-kickers, you get used to the fact that 99% of the people you work with can give you a pasting. It’s par for the course. Within seconds of talking to Conor for the first time though, I instantly felt sorry for any man who has, or will, find themselves staring across a cage at him. I immediately made a mental note to add him to my five-a-side fantasy MMA bar fight team.
The interview started a somewhat slowly. Truth be told, I was a little worried that it was going badly after the first couple of questions. But it was literally my first meeting with ‘The Notorious’, and I would learn that this is simply who he is when it comes to fighting; methodical, thoughtful and thorough.
I mentioned his love of football at one point; you could see the instant shift in his mood when he’s talking about something he does for a bit of fun. As soon as MMA was back on the table, so was the passion and intensity. You often wonder if it’s all for show; with Conor, I knew it wasn’t. It’s possibly my favourite interview to date.
Later in the hotel bar, Conor was regaling us with tales of eating a sheep’s head while training in Iceland. It wasn’t some kind of Jackass-like dare, he told us. He genuinely loved the pure, natural diet out there because it was the perfect way to fuel a fighter’s body. And that’s what this guy is; a fighter.
It’s a bit clichéd to call someone a ‘warrior’. Just look at any fighter’s facebook in the days following a fight and I guarantee you’ll see it posted ten to twenty times. With Conor there’s a definite truth to it. To steal a line from the movie Sin City –“He just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century. He’d be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face. Or in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him.”
The MMA geek in me is a huge, huge fan of Conor McGregor. What I like most about Conor the fighter is his cerebral approach to the game. It’s the same thing that endeared me to Randy Couture. When he tells you that he’s visualised every possible circumstance, eventuality and outcome of a fight, you genuinely believe him. His self-belief is such that you have no choice.
When he walked in for that interview I remarked that he’d brought the big gold belt with him. “Yeah..” he replied, before adding matter-of-factly “…and I’ll have another one to match it come New Year’s Eve”. He told me that in his mind, he’d already seen it happen. He knew what was coming. And he was right.
When that perfect hook put Ivan Buchinger to sleep in Dublin, it was genuinely one of the most electric sporting moments I’ve ever experienced. As I tried in vain to help hold back some of the legion of screaming fans rushing the cage to congratulate their hero, I remember thinking that all I wanted to do was join them.
So I’m glad that I didn’t take up the opportunity to head to Sweden and cover UFC on Fuel this weekend, and that’s not something you’ll hear me say often. Instead, I’m looking forward to sitting at home, with friends, cracking open a beer and cheering for a great fighter looking to make his mark on the biggest stage of all. So I take off my ‘journalist’ cap, and I wish Conor good luck.
Do I think ‘The Notorious’ one can go all the way and capture the UFC title? It doesn’t matter what I think, or what you think, or what his friends, enemies, or anyone else thinks. In Conor’s mind, he’s already seen that fight. He knows the outcome. He doesn’t doubt himself for a second, and neither should you.
It’s that simple.
Follow Conor on Twitter (@TheNotoriousMMA) and check out @MMABrad48 while you’re there.