Travelling through the outskirts of rush-hour Dublin one gets no feeling of recession. Packed highways and commuter bustle signal a defiant end to the post Celtic Tiger slump. A tangible new era characterised by progression and fortitude is in its embryonic stages. Sited in this heart of Dublin’s commercial hinterland is SBG Ireland. Having moved at the turn of the year to new state of the art premises, this gym is symbolic of the way in which Irish industry and indeed Irish MMA is confidently baring its chest to the world.
The popularity of mixed martial arts in the country has been an open secret for years. Indeed UFC brass spoke fervently following UFC 93 of the “pound for pound best fans in the sport”. With the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion set to return next month to Dublin’s O2 Arena featherweight star Conor McGregor is perfectly positioned to headline with aplomb.
McGregor himself credits SBG’s new facility with creating the perfect back-drop to what will be the biggest fight night of any sort to hit the capital in quite a while:
“This gym is amazing. I’m here for eight hours a day. Everything is here under one roof, I don’t need to leave to do anything its all here. I’ve been doing the rehab work on my knee here and of course training my whole body. Since the injury I’ve become much more aware of injury prevention and maintaining your body while you are training really hard. I’m back fully, training 100% with no limitations. I feel like a better athlete since I’ve come back. I’m always working my game trying to evolve it”
That “game” as he puts it has led to him mesmerising his two Octagon opponents to date with Marcus Brimage especially being exposed by fluid, evasive foot movement. McGregor himself refuses to be defined as being an exponent of any particular style:
“People say that I’m a boxer. I actually started with kick boxing and then I moved onto boxing and then I moved onto grappling. I’m just a martial artist, I’m looking to learn, I was always just looking to learn”
A lifelong martial artist, McGregor’s motivations didn’t lie in National titles or the searing spotlight which is currently focused on him:
“I never got into training to be an All-Ireland boxing champ or to win a belt. At the start I just got into it to learn how to defend myself when I got into situations. It wasn’t that I grew up in an especially rough neighbourhood. I was just the same as any other young boy growing up but it has stuck with me more than most. I don’t really train for sport I train for self defence I train for unarmed combat. I don’t even like training for set rounds, I like to spar and roll with no clock in its purest form the way that it would be”
We speak to McGregor just before he makes his latest trip to Iceland and its clear that his affiliation with the country goes from strength to strength. He and head coach John Kavanagh have moved camp to the frozen north once again as d-day in the O2 draws near;
“It’ll be my third time travelling out to Iceland. My team mate Gunni (Gunnar Nelson) is on the same card so it would have been either him coming out here or me going out there but the fact that the fight is in Dublin I would imagine that there will be a lot of hype in the build-up to it. It just makes sense to go to Iceland where we will be isolated. I’ve done it before I’ve always felt great over there. Its got great people, great food and more variety in terms of body types. I’ve had great training here and now I’m going to Iceland to get a different set of movement so ultimately it will make me more comfortable in any situation. Here in Ireland we have full time grapplers now, boxers, every type of sparring partner you would want. Iceland is just like here, healthy people, passionate people who are obsessed with martial arts”.
Perhaps prophetically given his recent change of opponent the former Cage Warriors champion spoke about how it doesn’t matter who he shares the cage with.
“It’s nothing personal in there. I see a blank face, it’s just another body. People speak about me fighting Poirier but I’m not looking past anyone I’m solely focused on Dublin. I’ve dreamt about fighting in my hometown. So whatever plans the UFC have for me, that’s for the future, right now I’m focused on Dublin. I know in my heart that the belt is mine by the end of the year. I know that, I can feel it. I spend eight hours a day here preparing not for somebody but for everybody.
When asked about whether he feels any added pressure from being main event billing in his home town McGregor is unequivocal;
“I don’t feel pressure in a negative way. I like pressure. I feel excitement and calm at the same time. No pressure, no diamonds. I want pressure, pressure creates drama, creates emotion”
There is an irrefutable calmness about McGregor when he speaks about his vocation. When asked about his attendance at the city’s last and only UFC event the 25 year old Dubliner’s face lights up;
“I helped my team mate at the last event and I was 100% sure that I’d be up there too. I was telling everyone “remember me”. Even at the weigh-ins I was telling people “I’m a lightweight, remember me”. I was already a world champion in my head. It took me a couple of years but now here I am”
McGregor is now a firm favourite on the Irish chat show circuit having featured last week on The Late Late Show, the country’s biggest platform. Whilst he may be the darling of Irish television his contemporaries in the UFC’s featherweight division haven’t been quite so enamoured by his penchant for a headline. I asked him about the banter that goes back and forth on an almost daily basis;
“I need them to hate me. That creates pressure, that creates drama, that creates emotion. That creates my path straight to the top.” When asked whether his reported comments that he will “annihilate Jose, embarrass Chad and break Cub” were personal “The Notorious” stated with a wry smile that
“That’s nothing personal, that’s fact. That’s what will happen when those fights go down. Fighting for me is never personal, it’s never personal no matter what is said. I’m just having fun”.
McGregor has spoken frequently of his desire to base his entire career in the main in Ireland. One reason for this and the reason why he returned to the sport as a youngster is the mainstay in his corner, long-time coach John Kavanagh. Kavanagh too was ebullient when the prospect of picturing one of his star pupils raising the roof in the O2 in a few short weeks;
“This is a dream come true to have one of my guys who’s been with me almost ten years, be not only in the UFC but main event in the UFC. For him to be main event not only in any UFC but main event in the UFC’s return to Ireland, its spine tingling stuff. I literally pinch myself at the idea of it. As a team we talk about the event and we have a feeling that it’s going to have that kind of Italia ’90 feel to it. This Summer is going to have a festival feel, everyone’s talking about it here, everyone knows Conor at this stage. As a team everyone is excited for the night, everyone is training hard and looking forward to putting on a good show”.
Kavanagh of course was a coach of undercard fighter Tom Egan when the UFC first came to town in 2009 but insists that on this occasion things are very different.
“Back then very few people knew what the UFC was. Even my mother is hounding me for tickets for this UFC (laughs) so it’s a completely different scenario. We were all very inexperienced in those days, all very fresh to it. Now we’re coming back from walking out in Boston, which is even bigger than the O2. Boston was like home, it caught me for half a second with the roar there, I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in Dublin”.
Spine tingling stuff indeed...