SportsConor McGregor on UFC 202 and When He'll Knock Out Nate Diaz
Thirteen days before his grudge rematch with Nate Diaz—the one that will probably happen this weekend at UFC 202, not the one that didn't happen in July—Conor McGregor lies on a couch in a position of yogic recline, soles of his feet near touching, his legs making a diamond shape, one arm under his head. Three minutes into this interview, he's already comfortable, the way people who walk around mostly in shirts and training pants that resemble boxer briefs are generally comfortable in most situations. Modesty does not seem like a priority for him. His Calvin Klein underwear pokes outside of his Louis Vuitton terry shorts. He is burdened with no other fabrics.
His skin smells like the sun. Conor has just come in from the desert outside, where he was working out on the pads with one of his sparring partners. He's got ten of them—experts in jiujitsu and kickboxing and boxing and grappling—and he's rented this beige house down the beige road from his own beige house for all of them to stay in while he trains. His girlfriend, Dee Devlin, stays in this house (not in Conor's house) and is here preparing Conor's meals and being wonderful. His coach and his videographer live in the guest house, still on the property, next to the gazebo. Usually fighters stay near their gym to train and then travel to Vegas during fight week. Not Conor. "This is a $300,000 training camp," he says, all out of his own pocket. "You don't see camps like this in MMA."
He's resting here in his rented gated mansion that Liberace might describe as tasteful. There's a screening room and a pool with a waterfall. The ceilings are painted as meticulously as the Sistine Chapel, except they're so high up I can't tell what the scene is supposed to be. There is furniture from an era I'll call early-hideous. There are chandeliers. There are more chandeliers. Pretty much every lightbulb has its own chandelier. There are approximately 10,000 bedrooms.
He's been here four months now, determined to stay because Vegas is a climate you need to become accustomed to. "I've come out late before, and I get off the plane and two days later you feel it in the chest, you feel it in the throat, the nose, the eyes. You need to be here a long time beforehand, you need to get accustomed to the air." At least I think that's what Conor said—he's a little bit of a low talker, believe it or not, plus the TV is tuned to Olympic beach-volleyball preliminaries, and there's some hip-hop I can't identify playing, and there's endless blender action in the background.
Either way, McGregor learned his lesson from his last fight here in Vegas. That was in March, when he was supposed to fight Rafael dos Anjos at 155 for the lightweight title, but then dos Anjos broke his foot just twelve days before the bout. Well, Conor, being the biggest (male) star the UFC has ever seen (yes, I know, Georges St-Pierre was good, but he is not the multifaceted complete-package star that Conor McGregor is), he and the UFC didn't want to give up all that pay-per-view loot, which is fair, nor did they want to let down the fans, which is also fair. So they tried to replace dos Anjos. They called José Aldo, who said no. They called Frankie Edgar, who said no. Who would say yes to this? Then comes a tweet from Nate Diaz—scrappy and lovable and filthy-mouthed Nate Diaz, born with both middle fingers blazing, the closest thing UFC has to a star who seems more like a street fighter—and even though they're in different weight classes, he offers to fight Conor. Boom.
Conor assumed a win was in the bag. Sure, Nate was bigger and taller—McGregor would have to add 15 pounds in twelve days, and then adjust his fighting style to match his new weight, none of which is easy. And sure, Diaz has a stalwart's heart and a brawler's brain. But Diaz was no Conor McGregor—Conor was a massive favorite—and unlike Conor, Diaz hadn't been training for weeks. He had twelve days. He couldn't even get down to Conor's weight class. Conor had to go up, just for it to be fair—a bold and almost gentlemanly move designed to level the playing field. (Weight classes exist for a reason, and by gaining the weight, McGregor, already a title holder at 145, was risking a real reduction in his agility.) Anyway, Conor was ready; all he had to do was gain some weight. Nate was not ready. He barely had time to sober up from his endless stream of marijuana. No way Conor could lose.
And so, inevitably, he lost.
Nate Diaz is a black belt in jiujitsu who just loves to stand there and strike. He's one of MMA's best boxers, and has such limitless energy (and such a deep-seated fear of being thought a coward) that he can just keep punching. Conor kept going for a knockout, but a 170-pound fighter can take the kind of punch that a 145-pound smaller guy can't. And so Conor, who is usually smart and conserves energy, ran out of gas in the second round. He was too tired to hold his arms up to protect himself, and Nate had punched him in the face so many times he was disoriented. He went for a take-down, but his wrestling isn't Conor's strongest skill, so it backfired and he had to tap out to Nate's ground submission rear naked choke. All those tweets trash-talking Diaz—"I was just giggling at his soft little body"—all those pronouncements about what a winner he was…and Conor tapped out—tapped out!—in the second round.
The thing about Conor, though, is how gracious he was afterward. Word is that Ronda Rousey is broken, that she still hasn't recovered from her very surprising loss to Holly Holm nearly a year ago. But Conor isn't Ronda. He'd lost before, unlike Ronda, as he climbed the ranks. And so he put on a suit and showed up at the press conference and stood there next to Nate, eyes sad and searching, but there.
"He's a solid guy, he's tough, durable," he says of Diaz now. "He's not the most skilled. I mean, he's experienced and durable. He's got the weight, the height, the reach. So he has some attributes that I have to be aware of that I didn't give respect to the last time." He's been training with heavier people, and tougher ones. Last time he was caught off guard by how tough Nate was. "I didn't think he would be that tough. I overthrew my shots. I underestimated my opponent's durability. And that was it. That confidence is not shook. I still feel I am the better fighter. I was winning most of the contest. I feel he got lucky. Now I will address that and correct it."
A rematch was scheduled immediately for July: UFC 200. This time McGregor was leaving nothing to chance. And so in July, when he was in Iceland training at a sister gym to his home gym in Ireland, he didn't want to leave. "The fresh air, the clean water," and also the peace and quiet that don't accompany a man as famous as Conor, are either in Ireland or here. His UFC contract stated that he had to fly to Vegas for a pre–UFC 200 press junket, and his answer was no. You do 16-hour days of interviews and photo shoots and radio and TV and blog and podcast appearances, "and then get your ass whooped, and then all of a sudden you gotta take a look and say, well, maybe I shoulda been training instead of promoting, and that's where I was at."
Still, UFC demanded he return to the States, and it was then, in April, that Conor sent the tweet heard round the Octagon.
“I have decided to retire young.
Thanks for the cheese.
Catch ya’s later.”
It was retweeted 162,142 times and liked 174,846 times.
He's still surprised his tweet, which was half bargaining tactic, half tantrum, got taken so seriously, how it so intensely rattled the massive audience waiting for this fight.
"I was never really retired," he says now. "That was more just a negotiation type thing. It was a little bit of a joke, to be honest. And then it just blew the fuck up."
So it did. UFC poobah Dana White was determined to teach him a lesson, one that would warn other back-talkers in years to come, and pulled McGregor from the card. Conor says now that he tried to get back on: "People spend a lot of money to come see me fight from my hometown, and they had already purchased tickets, so I wanted to get back on that card. They weren't having it. They didn't put me in the card—that's okay—and the card bombed. I was ringside. The fights weren't great, but now here we are."
So now, instead of UFC 200 in July, he's the main event for UFC 202 on August 20. And he regrets nothing. "If you don't put your foot down," he says, "it can drag you left and right. Now my opponent is getting dragged left and right, so I'm happy about that. I've done enough. I'm chilling here. Everything's on my clock now."
Dee alerts him that she's finished making lunch—a pile of rice, olives, cabbage, and salmon so bountiful that I went up a weight class just watching him eat it. Good, he says, "I'm hungry as fuck."
After he eats, I ask if he'd like to make a prediction. Conor McGregor, a born prizefighter, loves to make predictions. "I'll knock him out in the second round," he says. This seems significant—he fell to Diaz in the second round, though by submission. No kill shot. So I ask: Why that outcome in particular?
"Because I usually knock ’em out," he says. Then he smiles and turns and walks down an endless hall. It's time for his nap.