As he continues to spiral out of control, we look at whether Conor McGregor is heading down the same dark path that once destroyed "Iron" Mike.
Over the past couple years, no-one has diced with the unsavory fall from grace quite like MMA superstar Conor McGregor. Lauded as the biggest box office draw in the sport’s history, the cocksure Irishman took the UFC to unforeseen heights through scintillating performances in the octagon and a propensity for trash talk that would leave Hollywood scriptwriters envious. Co-opting the swagger, Coogi sweaters and lavish furs of mid-90’s New York hip-hop, “The Notorious” brawler from the satellite suburb of Crumlin achieved the unprecedented feat of becoming a “double champ” in the UFC by the age of 28. Captured after he handily dispatched the veteran Eddie Alvarez within 2 rounds, Conor’s attainment of the UFC Lightweight Championship cemented him into the annals of sports history and was capped off by his typically inflammatory declaration that “I’d like to apologise… to absolutely nobody. The double champ does what the f***k he wants.”
In the wake of his momentous victory, Straight Blast Gym owner and Conor’s long-time mentor John Kavanagh saw him at a function and took his prized fighter aback. Speaking on an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, the acclaimed coach and third-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu explained that he sincerely thought it was the end of the road for McGregor. “I shook his hand and said, 'Right, you're done. All the best. Enjoy the rest of your life”, Kavanagh told Rogan. “He was kind of shocked I was saying this to him. But I was like, what else are you going to do? You're the two-weight champion and you've got out of the other end of this grind - this meat-grinder - with no damage. You're in a very small percentage. You've made plenty of money. Off and enjoy yourself."
Fast-forward to 2019. Is McGregor is still enjoying the high life, or is it’s slowly devouring him from the inside? 1011 days since he last found himself in the win column, Conor has been in a personal and professional tailspin. Following a seemingly endless promotional run for his Proper Twelve Whiskey, arrests, personal scandals and back-to-back defeats at the hand of boxing icon Floyd Mayweather and MMA adversary Khabib Nurmagomedov, everything seemed to come to head in a Dublin pub.
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Wearing the same outfit that he’d donned at a charity boxing match the previous night, an impaired Conor McGregor took exception to a 51-year-old man turning down a shot of his “shit whiskey” and blindsided him with a punch to the face. Immediately hauled off by his entourage, the Conor of today seems almost indistinguishable from the cocky but no less laser-focused fighter that ran roughshod over the UFC’s featherweight division. And what’s more, he’s beginning to exhibit stark similarities to another decorated champion that besieged the world with his skill and unique persona before imploding before the public’s eyes.
Unlike McGregor, “Iron” Mike Tyson had been arrested 38 times by the time he was 13, and criminality was an integral part of his life. However, both men were victims of bullying in their adolescence and thus took to learning how to defend themselves for solace. Nurtured into an unstoppable, one-man wrecking crew by the late, great Cus D’Amato, the boxer once known as “Kid Dynamite” would take the amateur ranks by storm, winning two Junior Olympics gold medals before debuting as a pro in 1985. From there, “Iron” Mike was born. Sadly, the juxtaposition between his in-ring pre-eminence and the tumult of his personal life would come to the fore shortly after he captured the unified heavyweight titles from Trevor Berbick within two rounds. By the time that the “Baddest Man On The Planet” lost his belts in dramatic fashion to rank underdog Buster Douglas in 1990, the Brownsville, NY boxer involuntarily became the poster boy for self-implosion.
A heavy drug user that has since admitted to fighting high, even using a “fake penis” in order to trick athletic commissions into thinking he was clean, the Mike Tyson of today speaks with complete clarity about the forces that led to his dramatic fall from grace. “I think I was insane for a great period of my life, he told The Independent. “It was just too quick. I didn't understand the dynamics then. I just knew how to get on top, I didn't know what to do once I got there." As infamous for the antics that derailed him as he is for his unequaled ferocity between the ropes, his admittance of instability bears eerie familiarity to comments that McGregor has made about the sacrifice he’s willing to make for greatness.
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In a 2015 documentary on Ireland’s flagship TV station RTE, Conor drew a straight line of equivalency between himself and one of the art world’s tortured geniuses. “I’ve lost my mind doing this," said McGregor. "Like Vincent van Gogh. He dedicated his life to his art and lost his mind in the process. That's happened to me.” Insistent that he’d “die a crazy old man” if that’s what it took to provide for his loved ones, he reiterated these sentiments during his time as interim UFC Featherweight champ in 2016: “I feel to be at the pinnacle of any game, you have to be a little bit gone. You're not all there. You've got to be almost insane to your craft.”
As proven by Iron Mike, the same zealotry and determination that brought him to the top of his field is transferable to more corruptible forces. Although it remains in the realm of rumor and innuendo, fans and critics have widely speculated that 31-year-old Conor McGregor is a cocaine user, with alleged Irish and American eyewitnesses claiming to have partied with the illustrious fighter. If that wasn’t enough to contend with, there have also been reports that “The Notorious” has not only cheated on his childhood sweetheart Dee Devlin on innumerable occasions but that he was under investigation for sexual assault in his native land. Brought to the mainstream press around the same time as his supposed retirement from the sport, Conor’s public descent into chaos has left many wondering whether we’ll ever see him recapture his former glories.
For Kavanagh, who is equal parts a coach and rock of stability, he believes the answer to getting Conor on track is to get back-to-basics and recapture his tenacity. “Get me, Conor, Artem (Lobov) and Peter (Queally) and that kind of crew, and just disappear for three months," he said during an appearance on ESPN’s Ariel And The Bad Guy. “And really put in an old-school training camp; a nightmarish training camp. If we are going to do it again, that would be my requirement… From the limited amount of chat we've had about it, he wants to do that again”
By stripping away the convolution that comes with the spotlight, Conor could steer around the looming iceberg that’s coming his way. While Mike Tyson’s fall from grace was aided and abetted by cutting ties with D’Amato’s second-in-command Kevin Rooney, McGregor still has his team’s full support. There’s still time to tap into his mind frame of the past before he extinguishes every vestige of the man he once was. Otherwise, he may end up looking at life with the same regret-tinged wistfulness as Iron Mike himself: “I’ve learned to live a boring life and love it. I let too much in and look what happened.”