Conor McGregor believes in the power of words. It’s certain they carry no small amount of power. But it’s unclear when he says he smells the “stench of fear” on his opponent (and he has said some variant of those words in several of his prior UFC bouts) if he actually detects true despair or is simply manifesting the emotion, whether real or imagined, through repeating the phrase like a mantra. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working pretty damn well.
The Dublin native calls his shots. He predicted first-round finishes of Diego Brandao and Dustin Poirier. Even though he missed in his prediction of stopping Dennis Siver inside of two minutes, he still managed to dominate the German veteran en route to a spectacular second-round TKO.
McGregor’s current streak of 13 consecutive wins includes 12 finishes. He attributes the impressive run and his current status as the best fighter in the self-styled “McGregor division” to finally matching his combat skills with the philosophy espoused by coach John Kavanagh and giving himself “mind, body and soul” to the fight game.
The results are evident. Originally scheduled to face featherweight champion Jose Aldo, who had to withdraw from the fight due to a rib injury, McGregor will now face Chad Mendes for the interim title. Here’s what McGregor had to say about talking trash, his biggest influences in the fight game and his new opponent.
UFC Mag: You’ve spent a lot of time with Jose Aldo since the world press tour started in Rio. Have you learned anything new about him?
Conor McGregor: I’ve learned he’s afraid. I’ve learned he’s intimidated by what this fight brings—what fighting McGregor means. He’s intimidated by it.
What makes you say that?
I can hear it in his voice. It’s high pitched. I can see it in his eyes. They’re watery. I see it just in his overall demeanor and his body language.
You appear to be the first person to really piss off Jose Aldo. Do you like to see that you’re getting an emotional response from him?
Of course. Emotions cloud reaction. There is no place for emotions in combat. He’s built a career on beating short wrestlers who were afraid. I’m coming to get him.
How important is the mental warfare you appear to be waging on this press tour?
It’s just another day for me. I’m just being who I am, carrying on the way I am. If it has an effect on my opponent, that’s great. If it doesn’t, I would still whup him.
This isn’t something you’ve always done?
It’s something I’ve always done. I am who I am. But if an opponent shows me respect that I deserve and does not speak my name in vain, then it is fair play. But if you speak my name with disrespect I’ll get you everywhere.
Is there something in particular Aldo did to offend you?
Just the fact people on his side think it’s talk, it’s hype, it’s a joke.
Sin Nightclub in Dublin put up a mural of you with the belt and holding Jose Aldo’s severed head. How many McGregor billboards are up back home?
I am not sure how many, but there are a few. But that one’s my favorite.
Can you name some other Irish athletes who have gotten the same level of support at home?
No, I don’t think so. It’s inspiring, and it’s motivating me to come over here and take over the game. We’re the fighting Irish. It’s what we are known for. We are known for our skills in war all the way back. So it’s good that we’re on top in the fight game. There are many Irish athletes chasing the dream. I see the kids coming up now watching the sport on TV. The next wave will be something special.
It wasn’t so long ago that you were one of those young fans. There’s a great photo of you with Chuck Liddell at UFC 85 in London when you were 16. What role did that moment play in turning you on to the sport?
Definitely. To be up close and personal with the show, to see it with my own eyes for the first time, to see the stars and meet them—I just realized this is what I wanted to do. I imagine the kids coming up will be the same.
What was your level of fight experience when you meet Liddell?
I was training MMA and boxing. I’m not sure how many fights I had at the time, but I would have killed everyone in the division then as well. Funny enough, Dennis Siver was on one of the cards I went to in Dublin. He knocked a guy out with a spinning back kick. I remember seeing him in the hotel and sizing him up in the hotel all those years ago. I remember looking over his head thinking, I’d smash him up.
Dee Brown famously topped off his Reebok Pumps on camera before nailing a dunk to win the 1991 Slam Dunk contest. Have you given any thought to your iconic Pump moment?
I actually haven’t put any time into it. For me, to be a true moment in history it must be natural. It must happen and be caught naturally.
What kind of input have you had on the design of your fight week kit?
They’ve given me some options and designs. The contract was only just signed, so we haven’t gotten down to the details and true work with it. I look forward to continuing it. But 100 percent I want to create my own line with my own feel to it—something I’d like to wear and my fans will like as well.
When it comes to the mental game, is there a specific fight that you remember thinking you had won before the first bell?
That’s the way I feel about all of them. I feel stronger as I go. Every contest is a learning experience, and I will continue to grow. But I definitely feel victory constantly.
What fighters do you count among your influences?
I came up watching Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee. They are two iconic people. I like their approach to combat sports, I like their skills and I like their philosophies. I think skill and philosophy go hand in hand. You have to be the full package. I think Rickson Gracie is another one because of his understanding of the body and his focus on breathing technique. Breathing is an overlooked aspect of the game. If you can control your breathing, you can control anything. And Rickson was a pioneer of that.
How did Bruce Lee influence you?
His philosophy, his belief that there were no styles. If you were specialized in one style, you were a rookie in 10 other styles. He was formless. He adapted to everything. There was not one set pattern, movement or routine. He was ahead of the curve.
We just shot a cover with you inspired by Ali. What stands out to you the most about him?
I admired his evasive skills. He was the best defensive fighter ever. You could not hit him. Add that to his confidence, his beliefs, whatever he felt was right was right. I admire someone who believes in himself and believes in his ability and backs it up.
Re-creating the shot of Ali will draw some detractors. What will you say to them?
If anything, it’s a tribute to Muhammad Ali. People have made the comparison between us. Personally, I’m my own man, and I’m on my own journey. I cannot fully accept something like the comparison because I am me. But I definitely take pride in it that some people would compare us two, because the man is a legend—a living legend. I had fun doing it and was happy I got to do it. I think it will also be an iconic shot.
When did you start paying attention to the mental side of things and developing your own philosophy for the fight game?
After my second defeat I decided the mind needs to be fully committed, needs to be 24/7. You’re either all in or all out. I would fight it sometimes and not let it take over my mind.
What do you mean?
It was an obsession, everything to do with the fight game, but I was half in and half out. I wasn’t really serious. I wasn’t planning. I was just competing and training, just showing up to the gym, falling into routine and not really committing myself. I was having outside activities like playing football, doing this, doing that, going out. I was fighting the obsession. Then I decided I would just let it take over—and screw everything else. I don’t want nothing else. I want this.
What influence did your coach John Kavanagh have on the decision?
He had a big influence on it. I kept drifting off. If he didn’t keep reeling me back in, or allowing me back in, I wouldn’t be here. Most people probably wouldn’t even let me back in the gym, but John would still welcome me back in. He’s played a big, big part.
That second loss was to Joseph Duffy, who just made his own UFC debut in Dallas. Did you watch him compete?
I did, yeah. I thought he was OK. I don’t feel he’s there yet, but I respect him. He’s a good guy, he’s humble. I feel they are building him up into my shadow. We will see how it plays. If he makes the climb, we will go again.
You mention detecting fear in most of your opponents. Are you hoping to manifest it in your adversary or saying it just to motivate yourself?
It doesn’t even matter. It doesn’t matter how many fights they’ve had or how long they’ve been on top. It doesn’t matter what their career was before: It’s a new time now. And it’s my time.
We talked almost a year ago and you hadn’t cracked the top 10. Since then what more have you learned about balancing the art of fighting and the game of selling fights?
Just finding more comfort in the uncomfortable. I seem to be able to take it in stride now. There are a lot of people who crumble under the lights.
You’ve mentioned the power of words before. What’s a quote that holds meaning for you?
Win. I say it over and over. World champion. I say it over and over.
UPDATE: Below questions and answers originate from the UFC 189 media call on July 1, 2015.
Do you think Chad Mendes is a more difficult opponent than Jose Aldo?
I think Chad is a substitute, the B-level. I think he’s a wrestler with an overhand, that gasses. I think his body is in disproportion and I think that hampers him as a fighter. I think that’s why he gasses. That’s why when I’m pressing him on these exchanges and these scrambles his belly is going to breathing in and his body is going to be screaming for oxygen and I’m going to still be there in his face cracking him with everything I have, the knee, the elbow, the fist, every shot in the book I have. Eventually he will give, like they all do.
With Aldo withdrawing from the fight, do you feel this match is for the actual title?
He’s pulled out of contests time and time again. The medical report state he’s fit to fight. So there’s no more question, you’re fit to fight and you’re not going to fight. The belt rightfully should be stripped and this is for the real featherweight belt.
Photo Credit: All images by Jeff Bottari. Shot on location at the Clock Tower Building, Long Island City, New York, courtesy of Property Markets Group, Inc. and the Hakim Organization.