The UFC’s new Irish superstar

Conor McGregor is not a man, he’s a movement. For proof, witness the scene when he choked out Dave Hill to win the Cage Warriors featherweight championship, McGregor hopping the cage, running into the crowd and being swallowed up whole by a frenzy of fans. Or the online campaign that pushed his UFC signing relentlessly for months, telling us we didn’t know what we were missing. Or when he made his octagon debut and starched Marcus Brimage in 67 seconds and the rest of the wider MMA world who hadn’t seen him did a collective jaw-drop.

Now headed for UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen, where he will face Max Holloway, the expectations following McGregor are enormous, and seemingly growing by the day. Sometimes, it’s even of his doing. He has said he’d fight at 145 pounds (his current weight class) or 155, and that he’d fight on regular notice, short notice or none at all.

You want big expectations? How about this?

"Give me that title and I swear to God, I’ll hand it back and start asking for the second one," he told FOX Sports.

If there is a fight, McGregor wants in. For him, this isn’t a career; it’s an obsession.

"I always remind myself to keep that focus and to dream," he said. "My dreams are seeming to become a reality at the minute. I can’t stop it. I can’t do nothing to stop it. I don’t think there’s a man alive that can do something to stop it."

McGregor’s always dared to dream big. As a young boy, it was soccer — football as they call it in his native Ireland — that captured his interest. Even then, he could visualize himself growing up to play as a pro, a left wing lighting up the net. It’s an interest that he took with him through the years. Until the time he signed with the UFC, he played with a local team. But somewhere along the way, it was combat sports which grabbed him.

Looking back, he thinks it might have to do with his size. He was always the small one being picked on, trying to compete. He vividly recalls measuring himself daily against a bannister at the bottom of the stairs, hoping to see some growth but with little movement. The need to defend himself drew him to kickboxing, and in short order, he was hooked.

Since then, it’s been the same way, all competition, all the time, even when he was made to sign up for social welfare to get by. Fighting has a hold of him. Sometimes, in his quiet moments, he is pulled to do more, often reaching out to recruit training partners who may well be relaxing from a previous session.

"I can’t really rest," he said. "I get fidgety. I can’t not do it now. If I don’t, I don’t know what the f— is going to happen. I can do nothing else. This is all I know and all I want to do. It’s 24/7 for me."

His addiction has taken him down some uncharted roads, some unusual places. He’s taken moves from movies and tried to replicate them. He’s studied Bruce Lee, he’s trained capoeira. Recently, he’s become enamored with watching nature documentaries, and guess which part has captivated him?

He’s watched giraffes and gorillas and other animals fight, and while he knows it might sound unorthodox, the way he sees it, anything can apply to his line of work. Every species fights. Why wouldn’t it be possible to learn something from it? Why should it be wrong to at least accept the possibility that you could?

"Some coaches have a real small-minded way, they’re stuck in that way where nothing else but their way works," he said. "At the end of the day, everything does work. I’m on with every style. Honestly, everything works and I’m looking to soak it all in and adapt it and use it in the cage. There is a time and a place for every move."

The 25-year-old has become renown for his striking, with 12 knockouts in his 13 pro win, but he wants to learn everything, become well-rounded, accomplish things yet unimagined.

In Holloway, he is facing another talented young striker who had won three straight before suffering a split-decision loss in May, a result which was disputed by a significant portion of media and fans. Many observers view the McGregor-Holloway matchup as a battle between future top contenders — maybe even champions — but McGregor doesn’t even care who’s standing across the cage from him.

Refusing to even name Holloway, the Irishman believes the outcome is solely dependent on him.

"I don’t feel any bad feelings or good feelings towards him. I feel nothing towards him. He doesn’t exist," McGregor said. "This is my time. People are here to see me. The other guy doesn’t come into the equation. I respect anyone, I respect any man, no matter what. I respect people out there chasing their dream, but that changes nothing of my emotions towards any of these guys. I choose to have no emotions towards him. If you’re not part of my gym, if you’re not part of my team, you don’t exist to me."

On Aug. 17, the McGregor movement threatens to become a U.S. invasion. Boston, a city with the highest percentage of Irish-American population in the country, is expected to turn out in droves to support him. McGregor can’t help but smile at the thought: an Irishman in battle, proving that with a little obsession, an open mind and hard work, the final product can surpass even the highest of expectations.