Conor McGregor - Man, Myth, or Legend

When I began studying martial arts at the age of 12, it was not a way out of poverty, or a shot at fame, or a way to get rich. It was because the heroes of my generation fought for something greater than themselves and inspired us to do the same. Wether it was Bruce Lee teaching the spiritual principles of Krishna Murti, or Mohammad Ali fighting with Malcolm-X for the equal rights of African Americans, the heroes of that era were actually heroic. I learned martial arts in order to become a better person, to control my anger, to discipline my mind, and to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves. I’ve spent the last 30 years achieving black belts in Yoshukai karate-do, Olympic Style Taekwondo, and my brown belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. I was the body-guard for Charlie Sheen, the fight scene choreographer for Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 1 & 2, I trained Sugar Ray Leonard and 2x gold medal Olympian Kerri Walsh, and was the first person to integrate yoga, calisthenics and martial arts into a single black belt system called Budokon. I founded Budokon University in 2001 and since then I have seen enough athletes, martial arts and fighters in my day to distinguish between man and myth. 

To witness the rise of professional mixed martial arts and fighters like Conor McGregor, one has to keep a critical eye on what’s real, and what’s show business. This becomes increasingly difficult as the UFC grows more wealthy, which influences fight cards and ultimately the ability of the public to discern between legendary fighters, and legendary personalities. You don't have to know much about martial arts to appreciate a tale of power, fame and fallen heroes, and in the world of professional mixed martial arts, there is one in the making of Shakespearian proportion. This fable with its twists and turns reminds us how quickly we would trade the longevity and merit of legend for the sweet fleeting flavor of fame. With the biggest rematch in UFC history about to take place with two fighters careers and street cred on the line, I couldn’t help but deconstruct this tangled tale. 

Act One  

Conor (The Notorious) McGregor was once a skinny bullied Irish kid who was living off welfare, before becoming the UFC feather-weight champion of the world. He is the fight fan obsession of the hour, who arrives to engagements in his Roles Royce, wearing an oversized diamond encrusted gold watch. He is more than happy to let his over 5 million Instagram followers know just how much his money is on his mind. And like many of his peers, including Ronda Rousey, he believes the outrageous hype that leaps from his own mouth, in Ali like frequency, absent of Ali’s devotion to something greater than himself.

Fighters like McGregor appeal to a generation of people who buy into all that is instant, including fame and success. They need to see that the common person can rise up to be uncommon, even at the expense of integrity. Humans love underdog redemption, but not nearly as much as we love revenge against what we see as privilege. We love the idea that someone is capable of defying all odds because we need that hope for ourselves. McGregor is the new generation of fighter that has captured the imagination of an uninformed generation of fight fans who rather than learning lineage martial arts, troll youtube and idiotically debate topics of which they have no expertise. 

The Myth

McGregor’s absurd rhetoric and his borderline delusional pomposity aren't my reasons for criticizing him. I actually recognize his intelligence, sense of humour and see glimpses of his deep sincerity. He supports gay marriage, he’s stuck by his first training team his whole career, and he is known for treating fans and training partners respectfully. He’s cool, no doubt, but his career and his talent have been a cleverly constructed myth of greatness, rather than an earned place among the best. McGregor does indeed have talent, but like so many pop-culture icons, his potential is stunted by his own success. He isn't battle-tested like a Robbie Lawler, or had to defend his title for years like George St. Piere, or fought for the honor of his style and family name like Rickson Gracie. He has not proven he can withstand diverse competitors, nor has he matured enough as a fighter, or a man. This was painfully demonstrated by his loss to Diaz in UFC 199, his twitter meltdown threatening retirement from MMA, and his dishonest assessment of his loss to Diaz, insinuating he was just about to finish him when Diaz got in a ‘lucky’ shot. Right now, McGregor is more believable on the cover of a PlayStation Game, than facing the worlds greatest MMA fighters.

The Man  

McGregor is undeniably a gifted athlete with great mental steadiness. As a fighter, he is designed for the sport, with a fearless forward assault bereft of an identifiable concern for being damaged. He pressures his opponents with his relentless stalking and a demeanor seemingly impervious to destruction. He is physically agile and well balanced. His strikes and stance work are his assets; skillful at moving forward as he is backward, and being fast and accurate, as demonstrated by 17 wins from knockouts. He’s a south paw with a solid left hand, who confuses the distance and timing of many right handed fighters. His kicking arsenal is limited, but above average by UFC standards.

His head movement is stiff, and isn't even in the same universe as Floyd Mayweather, who he was rumored to fight. His ground game is terribly underdeveloped explaining why all 3 of his losses have been to submission. This fact alone would make him a ground-and-pound punching dummy for George Saint Pierre, who was also rumored to make his comeback in a super fight against McGregor. His arrogance has surrounded him with inexperienced coaches he can control, like John Kavanogh, who can’t develop his weaknesses because he’s busy exploiting his connection to McGregor by writing books suggesting we don’t really lose — we just learn. No John, professional martial arts is not a third grade track meet where every kid gets a participation award. There are real winners and real losers, and understanding the difference is the only way to develop a martial artist. 

Even if his training camp wasn’t too star struck by his meteoric rise to fame, they don’t have experience as top level martial artists to grow a fighter with McGregor’s potential. When McGregor boasts that he would run through the entire UFC fight roster at any weight class, one can only imagine that this would explain why he believes he can waste time with his movement coach, Ido Portal, who has no practical fighting experience of his own. McGregor genuinely believes that saying he is the greatest, is the same as being the greatest. No, greatness is truth embodied, its service in place of self importance. It has no need to be seen or prove itself outside of simply being. Too many young fighters are desperate to be some commercially constructed idea of greatness, when greatness is the person a fighter chooses to be in the face of their own limitations. And McGregor, rather than becoming a leader and innovator, has become an arrogant Kardasian-like personification of pop culture reality TV for MMA. 

The Legend 

What most fight fans don’t realize is that McGregor has dominated the UFC featherweight division at 145lbs, yet he is naturally a 170 pound welter-weight. So to shed light on what some fight fans simply don’t understand, McGregor drops almost 20 pounds and 2 weight divisions, to be the longer, taller, and stronger fighter. In the feather-weight division he has the longest reach of any top 10 fighter, plus the natural strength of a man 20 pounds heavier. Changing weight for fighters is certainly nothing new, but 2 weight classes down from welter to feather-weight is indeed rare, and stacks the cards heavily in McGregor’s favor. This is why his loss to Diaz at welter-weight didn’t surprise me at all. 

The Humiliation

I can honestly say I was shocked by the Jose Aldo loss, but I was completely prepared for the Nate Diaz win. McGregor was not just embarrassed by Diaz, he was humiliated. And by the look of vexation on his face at the post fight conference, he reminded me of a bully who’d slapped the shy kid on the playground, and found himself the unsuspecting victim of his own tyranny. 

First, McGregor’s attitude was beginning to reveal a fighter more developed as a rhetorician, than a pugilist. What was worse than the loss was the unrealized assault McGregor had predicted to unleash upon Diaz in the form of a first round knockout. His attempts to belittle Diaz’s skill by referring to his training of children in BJJ, his bike rides with the elderly, and his soft physical prowess, only served to make the loss that much more embarrassing. 

McGregor claimed he lost to Diaz for several bizarre and contradicting reasons. First, he claimed Diaz was bigger, but at weigh-in, McGregor was 168lbs, and Diaz was 169lbs, which is both close to their natural street weight. McGregor claimed he was out of shape, yet he had been preparing for his light-weight fight with Raphael Dos Anjos for months, meaning it was Diaz who was actually out of shape, as he had no camp, and only 10 days to prepare to fight. McGregor's most absurd claim was that a bigger man takes more power to knock out, which is scientifically inaccurate. It is in fact a matter of where the strike lands and how strong the neck muscles of the fighter are. If a fighter has powerful muscles around the neck, they can protect the head from the rotational force of a hit, which would otherwise cause the brain to short out and go unconscious. 

Translation, McGregor had all the advantage of better stamina, crisper timing, sharper strikes, and all around physical preparedness. So what happened? He bought into his own hype. He’s remained with a training camp where he is the biggest fish in a small pond. He has surrounded himself with yes men who don't want to lose their ride on the Conor McGregor gravy train and admit he needs another level of coaching. McGregor like his predecessor of undeserved fame, Ronda Rousey, are both victims of the social media self delusion that suggests they are in fact as talented as uninformed fight fans claim they are. It’s all showbiz baby, until you get your face smashed in and choked out. 

My Predictions for UFC 202

Leg kicks are the one and only strategy which could clinch the victory for McGregor, a strategy that he seemed to ironically abandon in the first fight in exchange for boxing, and bad jiu-jitsu. With McGregor’s superior kicking skills, and Diaz’s heavy lead leg stances, leg kicks are a sure advantage, which proved incredibly effective for Raphael Dos Anjos when he defeated Diaz at UFC in 2014. 

The second scenario, and the more likely, is Diaz winning in familiar fashion. McGregor’s grappling can’t improve enough in 3 months to stop Diaz’s BJJ black belt ground assault. His camp has brought in some young guns like Dillion Danis to help, but they don’t have the experience to teach the sport BJJ game as it translates to MMA. Second, the level of John Kavanogh’s training camp is too young compared to other seasoned teams like Greg Jackson’s for example. There aren't fighters or coaches at Kavanogh’s that can deconstruct a fighter's game well enough to identify and adjust their weaknesses at the elite level. His camp simply has no track record of developing MMA champions other than McGregor, and up to this point he’s not proven to be very durable. 

McGregor rarely goes past the first round, and clearly has never really trained for it. Not a promising sign for what’s to come against a fully prepared Nate Diaz, who regularly fights five full rounds, and competes in Triathlons for fun. McGregor's general stamina may improve, but three months doesn’t give enough time to improve cardiovascular conditioning to match that of Diaz. A professional fighter with as much kicking, punching and footwork as McGregor utilizes, needs a few more years to improve stamina for a five round match. 

The Wrap Up

McGregor could in fact be remembered as more than just a big mouth if he stopped acting like a celebrity - if he traded his hype for humility, and actually studied martial arts as a science and philosophy. He needs to study a lineage system, trade his gold belt in for a black belt. He has the athletic talent and eye for the fight game, but he needs to change camps and coaches and surround himself with seasoned fighters who can temper his arrogance and sense of entitlement. The reality is that after he fights Diaz, he will be forced to fight Jose Aldo who I predict will beat him the second time. Once McGregor’s mental strength is diminished by two back to back losses all that will remain is another tale of fame acquired too soon, and Conor McGregor’s idea of a legend he has constructed in his own mind.