Conor McGregor stepped onto the scale at the ceremonial UFC 257 weigh-ins with his trademark flex and scream.
He then closed his eyes and tilted his head upward as if he was soaking up the moment. The Irishman patted his chest, clasped his hands over his head and calmly waved the sparse crowd inside the arena to cheer.
His opponent, Dustin Poirier, followed and took his place on the scale. After Poirier’s weight was announced, it was time for the final staredown before two of the top lightweights exchange unpleasant punches and kicks to separate the other from their senses.
Unlike their staredown 6 1/2 years ago, which included shoving and vitriolic shouting, the two took a fighting stance as cameras flashed.
And then they shook hands. Poirier reached into his pocket and handed his opponent a bottle of his Poirier’s Louisiana Style Hot Sauce. McGregor laughed and put his arm around Poirier, and the two smiled.
Who the hell is this Conor McGregor, and what happened to the old one? You know, the one who relentlessly chided his opponents and carried a massive chip on his shoulder heading into every fight?
This is what happens when you are at peace with yourself. And this could result in the best version of Conor McGregor that we have ever seen inside the Octagon.
But how did he get to this point?
McGregor’s rapid ascent in the sporting world started when he was still a man on welfare seeking to fight his way to success and fame.
Although he was one of the hottest prospects to enter the UFC in quite some time, McGregor needed to separate himself from the pack.
“We’re struggling, we’re broke as a motherf—er over here,” McGregor said to Ariel Helwani ahead of his UFC debut against Marcus Brimage in 2013. “All of us training over here and don’t have a pot to piss in. Not a thing going for any of us. I want to start getting paid. Maybe get myself a nice car. I don’t even have a car at the moment.”
Despite all of this, he projected that he would one day be champion and predicted how he would end his fights.
And then it happened. Again and again, McGregor dispatched his opponents with stunning ease. He’d predict the round and manner in which he would end the fight. Each proclamation was bolder than the last. And then he saw his dream materialize right before his eyes with one punch that ended Jose Aldo’s dominant featherweight title reign and cemented his place among the stars.
But he wasn’t finished. He dared to be great, and eventually he became the UFC’s first fighter to hold world titles in two divisions simultaneously. Then he turned it up another notch by challenging Floyd Mayweather to a boxing match. Although he came up short, he banked over $30 million for his efforts.
He made it. He had it all. And then he almost gave it away because he didn’t really know what he was fighting for anymore.
Arrests, controversies and various incidents culminated in a shameful scene following McGregor’s submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229. The bad blood between the two fighters spilled into the crowd after the fight as McGregor fought off members of Nurmagomedov’s team inside the cage.
Fortunately, McGregor was forcibly benched for his role in the brawl. That gave him an opportunity to reflect.
After dispatching Donald Cerrone with relative ease last January, McGregor finds himself opposite a familiar opponent at UFC 257. But again, this is a very different version of McGregor than the one who fought Poirier in 2014.
It’s almost as if Poirier didn’t know exactly what to make of McGregor during the UFC 257 press conference. Some tried to suggest that Poirier was nervous. But given McGregor’s volatile personality at previous press conferences, few knew what to expect and Poirier approached his interactions with caution.
Instead of hostility, the world got a chance to see a gracious, yet still extraordinarily confident, version of the former champion. He praised Poirier for his charitable efforts and applauded his venture into the hot sauce business, going so far as to say that he’ll exchange a glass of whiskey for a taste of his product after the fight.
There were no barbs exchanged. Instead, McGregor promised to win and deliver fans an exciting main event.
What we are witnessing is a McGregor who is at peace with himself and knows what he’s fighting for. He has fought his way out of poverty and accomplished all of the dreams he set for himself upon entering the UFC. He needed a chip on his shoulder to motivate him. But when you carry a “me against the world” attitude and don’t realize when the world is no longer against you, refocusing your energy becomes a challenge.
He never seemed to think about what he’d do after he made it to the top of the mountain. Once he got there, he had nothing to look ahead to. And a man who has everything rarely plans on how to keep it. Perhaps more challenging is finding a reason to keep fighting. Anger is manufactured to keep the fire burning. And that usually results in a man swinging in the air when his worst enemy has become himself.
Fortunately, McGregor has stopped short of falling off the edge, has seemingly collected himself and is now focused on establishing his legacy. He has outperformed his own dreams; now he is after greatness more than he is a check.
“All the money, all the belts, everything, it all comes and goes,” McGregor, 32, said during the UFC 257 press conference. “You know what lives on? Highlights. You look at Roy Jones Jr., Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali’s highlights and I still watch them today. I want my highlight reel to look like a movie. I want amazing highlights that I can sit as an old man with my son and just watch back while enjoying life.
“Please don’t try to get rid of me, guys. I love it here.”
With a third child on the way, McGregor no longer needs to find something to fight for. He now has it: He wants to set an example for his children. The last thing he wants them to see is a man who had it all and flamed out. He also recognizes that he no longer needs to do anything for attention. Instead, he needs to prove to the people who have believed in him that they were correct in supporting his endeavors for all these years.
“I’m just an insanely driven young man,” he said. “I’m passionate about what I’m passionate about. I give it my all. That’s it. I’m a hard worker through and through. If something needs to be done, Conor McGregor gets it done. Make no mistake about it.”
He has rededicated himself to the sport that afforded him all of these riches. And those riches have become an investment in himself. Like LeBron James, McGregor sees the value in using his income to assist in enhancing his performance with the best training money can buy. He spent 10 weeks in Portugal preparing for this fight and surrounded himself with a team whose sole purpose has been improving every aspect of McGregor’s craft.
He doesn’t have to worry about where his money is coming from. The fans will watch no matter what he says ahead of the fight. The only thing he has to focus on is his opponent. Trash talking and mind games won’t get him a victory against a man who has reinvented himself after losing to McGregor 6 1/2 years ago. The Irishman realizes that there is no reason for bad blood. Leave it all in the cage and show respect for the individual who agreed to exchange punches and kicks with you. It takes a special person to do that, and Conor McGregor is a special fighter.
“I feel like I’ve only started,” McGregor said. “Everyone says, ‘Hey, Conor. You’ve done it all. You’re so rich. What are you still doing here?’ I want to be here. I want to perform for the fans.”
Through it all, he has found a new purpose.
“What does the champ-champ do next? He does it twice!” he said. “I conquered it, so let’s conquer it again.”