Dublin's own Conor McGregor is by far the brightest star and biggest draw in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, best known as the UFC, which earlier this year sold for $4 billion, a sports history record.
But to his legions of fans, he’s still and always will be Conor from the block, a charismatic showman who, no matter how much dough he makes – and he’s made millions as the UFC’s top draw – will always be their working-class hero who just a few short years ago was a plumber with a dream to be the best mixed martial arts fighter in the world.
McGregor has achieved that and so much more, and on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden he’ll top the first-ever UFC fight night in New York State, which legalized professional mixed martial arts bouts in March. His traveling band of obsessed Irish fans who have followed him to his fights in Boston and Las Vegas are poised to turn the Big Apple green this week, with several thousand making the trip from Ireland, not to mention McGregor’s massive fan base in the U.S. which will also fill MSG and every bar around that will televise his match against Eddie Alvarez.
Irish bars around Madison Square Garden and throughout the city, many of which are showing the fight live on pay-per-view, are preparing for St. Patrick’s Day crowds in November. “It’s going to be very, very big. Not everyone can get into the Garden, but they all want to be around,” one local publican says.
For Dubliner Tadhg Ennis, McGregor is a way of life – or Mac Life, as McGregor christened his new website www.themaclife.com.
“He’s one of us,” Ennis, a graphic designer and part-time bartender in New York, told the Irish Voice.
Ennis has been following McGregor since the beginning and relates to his fellow Dub for many reasons. “Here he is, one of the biggest stars out there, and he started out as an ordinary guy from Crumlin in Dublin. He’s a humble guy, a proud Irishman who hasn’t forgotten where he came from,” Ennis said.
Though he’s never met his UFC idol, Ennis – like many McGregor fans, it seems – has had a close encounter. Before Ennis married his fiancée Ashley Brown last year, he had an unexpected surprise thanks to a friend in Dublin: a personal video from McGregor congratulating him on his wedding.
Before moving to New York Ennis worked on the Irish TV show Ireland AM, and McGregor happened to be a guest in the days before the wedding. A friend of Ennis’s who still works on the show asked McGregor if he wouldn’t mind making a quick video greeting for one of his biggest fans in New York, and “The Notorious,” as McGregor is known, happily obliged.
“It was great, such a thrill. That’s the kind of guy Conor is, always taking time out for his fans,” says Ennis.
“We find him inspiring, the way he works, the way he sets goals and achieves them. His hard work, his brashness, and his pride in being Irish – we love it.”
The McGregor effect is rubbing off on the youth of Ireland, Ennis adds. “My parents are here with us now from Dublin on vacation and my father says it’s noticeable how many young people are running and shadow boxing in the streets and keeping themselves fit thanks to Conor. They want to be like him. He’s a role model. He’s given them someone to look up to.”
The UFC is not for the squeamish, and many detractors lash out against the raw brutality. Scripted endings such as the ones in WWE have no place in the UFC, and Ennis is fine with that.
“It’s not any more rough or brutal than American football or rugby or something like bobsledding which to me is incredibly dangerous,” he says.
“Conor is a machine, a trained fighter who conditions his body in so many different ways including mentally. He knows what to do.”
Ennis is currently in college and won’t be attending his idol’s fight at MSG – “I wish, but I’ve got tuition bills to pay,” he says – but he’s housing friends from Ireland coming out for the weekend, and will watch live on pay-per-view like millions of others who are expected to help the UFC set another record in that department too.
Patrice Cunniffe, originally from Co. Roscommon but now living in Melbourne, Australia, has traveled a long, long way see McGregor on Saturday. It’s nothing new for Patrice and her husband Paul – they’ve also journeyed to watch their hero fight in Las Vegas and Boston. Paul was unable to make the trip to New York, but Patrice will be at the Garden with other friends from Ireland.
“We love his dedication and passion. And we love that he is still Irish all the way no matter how successful he’s become,” Cunniffe told the Irish Voice.
Cunniffe also admires the showman side of McGregor, who’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind…and then some.
“He’s quite smart. Psychologically he’s great at getting to his opponents,” she says.
Ticket prices for the UFC’s debut in New York are steeper than McGregor’s other fights in Vegas – the sold-out tickets are going for a minimum of $615 on StubHub, with the most expensive nearly $20,000 – and Cunniffe feels that some fans who would have otherwise traveled from Ireland were priced out. Cunniffe paid $807 for her single ticket.
“I know more people who would have come if the tickets were cheaper. Last December in Vegas some friends traveled from New Zealand and then were able to fly to Ireland for Christmas, all for the same price that a trip to New York would cost this time around,” she said.
Wes Curran, a native of Co. Kildare, has lived in New York for four years. He is a champion muay thai fighter who was once coached by McGregor when Curran trained at the SBG gym in Dublin, which to this day remains McGregor’s base.
“I liked him. He was a totally nice guy,” Curran told the Irish Voice. “I think I was more of a punching bag for him, truth be told!”
Curran has followed McGregor’s career from the get-go. “It’s great to see a mad young fella from Crumlin make such a name for himself. He’s got talent, he’s got attitude and he’s got the skills to back up everything he says.”
Curran won’t be attending the fight on Saturday, but will watch on pay-per-view with friends and others out from Ireland who don’t have tickets but want to soak up the atmosphere regardless.
“I know lots of people coming from home,” Curran says. “New York is the place to be this weekend. That’s what Conor does. He makes everything special.”
McGregor himself has been tooling around Manhattan this week in a customized Rolls-Royce Ghost worth more than $400,000. He’s shopped at Cartier on Fifth Avenue with his long-term girlfriend Dee Devlin, and has mingled with his fans.
"I run this whole s---. I run New York. I'm the reason we're even here in the first place,” McGregor told Rolling Stone.
“I'm the reason this whole thing is happening. If I wasn't here, this whole ship goes down. And that's the truth. That's facts. There's no one else out there. There's no one but me."
His fans would totally agree.