December 1, 2023

Humble Thyself or Get Humbled

‘Humble yourself or you will get humbled’, a lesson that may be as old as time, but often needs reiteration.  Case in point today is MMA superstar Conor McGregor.

Conor came from humble beginnings: a plumber apprentice, collecting Irish welfare, not to mention the audacity of even dreaming of becoming a MMA superstar coming from a country (Ireland) where that was unheard of. All these factors against him did not deter Conor, in fact it made him grind harder. In this early video from 2008 (5 years before his first UFC fight) Conor predicts his future with the utmost clarity.

In the video we see a 20 year old McGregor who is hungry, focused, and humble to the game. He has set high goals for himself, but he had embraced the grind needed to accomplish such lofty dreams. Fast forward 5 years of grinding and dedication later, McGregor gets his big break: his first fight in the UFC against veteran UFC fighter Marcus Brimage. This was no easy entry for Conor. Brimage was an aggressive fighter that liked to wear Dragon Ball Z scouter headgear to face-offs (which always made me a fan of his, alongside his aggressive fight style), and more importantly was on a 4 fight win streak.

Yet, Conor made it look easy, TKOing his opponent in a little over a minute into the first round.

Now the flood gates opened up for Conor; the hype behind him going into the fight started to magnify at a rapid pace. To get his shot at the belt, his dream, he would go on to a 5 fight tear through the division taking out notable opponents Max Holloway, Diego Brandão, Dustin Poirier, Dennis Siver, and Chad Mendes. During this run, we got to learn a lot about Conor and his mentality. He had what is called a “white belt” mentality: always learning, always improving, being a disciplined student of the game. He would speak of things such as not training for a specific opponent but rather training for himself: the constant battle for self-improvement, mentally and physically. That is the true opponent, not whoever the person he was fighting in the cage.

He would now get his chance to make his dreams become a reality with his title shot against Jose Aldo, a champion who had not lost in 10 years! Needless to say, many people outside of Ireland thought Conor was crazy: still just a “loud mouth” with no chance. But on the night, it was his moment. With a mind-blowing 13 second knockout of the seemingly unbeatable champion, that Irish “nobody” plumbers’ apprentice with a wild dream became champion of the world.

As warned in the 1982 movie Conan, “Success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary.”

It was then after Conor’s greatest victory that his accomplishments starting sprouting the seeds of arrogance which would later come to haunt his career. There was just one part left to this crazy kid from Ireland’s dream: to be the first ever UFC double champ. It was something he had been predicting since the beginning (like most of his predictions, many just rolled their eyes at even the thought). The head person at the UFC, Dana White, gifted him that opportunity, immediately setting Conor up for a match with Lightweight Champion Rafael dos Anjos (RDA). But then the MMA Gods intervened, RDA broke his foot while training for the fight and Nate Diaz stepped in to fight at a catch weight (170 lbs). Since Conor was not fighting at his champion status weight (145), his belt was not on the line, but his undefeated run in the UFC was.

It was here when his arrogance started to take over. The hype train and trash talk that had been used so masterfully to build up his brand and to ‘get into the heads’ of his opponents was now even being believed by Conor himself. He had gotten into his own head. Now it was simply about him, not the never-ending path of the warrior that leads to success, but him. He started to lose sight of what got him there and bought in to his own hype. He did not take Nate Diaz serious; he thought he could beat Diaz by just simply being Conor.

The build up to the Diaz fight was filled with moments like Conor rubbing his belly as he bragged about eating steaks for breakfast every morning or saying his left hand could knock out an Elephant…Be that as it may, it couldn’t knock out Diaz. When Conor hit Diaz with the shots that were putting away 145ers only to see him still coming forward, bloody faced and all, it broke Conor. He started to get hit now and started fatiguing so much that out of desperation he clinches with Diaz (something he lambasted his opponents for). Diaz ends up on the ground on top of Conor raining down punches until McGregor gives up his back to get choked out. It was his first loss in the UFC.

Dana White gifted an immediate rematch at the same weight for Conor. He humbled up a bit, took Nate Diaz seriously, and trained hard for the 2nd Diaz fight, and won a close decision. Now that that wrong was righted, Conor would get his shot to be the first ever UFC Double Champ. A match was set up with new Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez. Conor would go on to outclass Eddie and finish him in the 2nd round. He was the first ever UFC Double Champ. Now, all the crazy dreams of a working class kid from Ireland had come to fruition. In his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, Conor correctly proclaims “I dreamt this into reality” as he is holding 2 championship belts around his shoulders.

As if it was rewarded by Fortune herself, McGregor was then blessed with the opportunity to enter the boxing world to box undefeated and filthy rich champion Floyd Mayweather. Losing that match would bring more than 100 million dollars into Conor’s bank account.

While Conor was taking his sabbatical from MMA with things like boxing, starting his own whiskey brand, and becoming one of the top paid athletes in the world, there was another fighter who also had great dreams and humble beginnings. While Conor was away from MMA, Khabib Nurmagomedov was climbing the ranks dominating everyone he was facing. Khabib, coming from a small Dagestan village, had the dream of retiring an undefeated champion and through his rise remained a humble student of the game. He knew he would beat you, not out of arrogance, but because the path traveled to ensure victory.

The UFC eventually stripped Conor McGregor of his belts due to inactivity. Khabib seized his opportunity and became champion, prompting Conor to return for a mega match that was filled with bad blood. During the fight build up Conor would mock Khabib for his religion, insult his country, people, and family. It was not the Conor we were used to, the one who used his “trash talk” to build his brand and to get in his opponents heads. This was personal, and he looked for every way to make it personal for Khabib. But the first and foremost disrespect to Khabib was not the insults about his family, but the arrogance to think you could take 2 years off and beat the top guy in the world.

Once again he had fallen for his own hype and Khabib humbled him that night. McGregor would end up tapping out to a neck crank in the 4th round. A little over a year later McGregor would return to fight an aging and declining Donald (Cowboy) Cerrone, much more suitable for a return fight, and Conor looked good because of that, finishing the match in 40 seconds.

Now comes the Dustin Poirier saga.

After McGregor’s win over Cowboy Cerrone, he started to dip his toes back in the boxing world again looking for possible money fights. Eventually a money fight with Manny Pacquiao was put into motion. While the agents and lawyers were all figuring out how to make the money fight happen, Conor decided to take a warm up MMA fight with a southpaw, like Pacquiao was. In comes Dustin Poirier, who has since his loss to Conor 7 years ago, climbed the ranks and come out on top of some wars with the best fighters in the world. Since their first meeting in 2014 Dustin had gone 12-2 in his MMA career, and Conor had gone 6-2. None of this mattered to McGregor. He had beat the “pea head” Dustin before, so he could easily beat him again. Once again much like with the first Nate Diaz fight, McGregor insults himself by not taking his opponents serious. Because he did not take Dustin serious, and was filled with that typical arrogance that shows it head every time, Conor is about to fall. He mainly trained boxing for the fight with Dustin…The result: Conor got his legs kicked to shit and then got knocked out on his feet in the 2nd round.

Much like the first Diaz fight, arrogance had replaced confidence: Confidence earned by the work, the grind, the permanent “white belt” mentality; Arrogance created by an unchecked ego. But much like the 2nd Diaz fight, Conor took this trilogy match much more serious. He focused and trained hard, showing unspoken respect to Poirier by doing so, but showed no respect in the trash talk during the build up to the fight. This time Conor’s “trash talk” seemed desperate and manufactured, like he didn’t even believe the things he was saying. Like the Khabib ‘trash talk’ build up, Conor tried to make it personal, bringing Dustin’s wife into it (claiming she was in his ‘dms’) making Conor look even more desperate. Conor McGregor was no longer that fanatic idealist brimming with confidence on a mission to turn his dreams into reality.

Today, he is like an old washed up 80’s hair-band back on tour doing a sub-par performance of the old hits. Before the fight he proclaimed “whoever shoots first is a dusty bitch”. That “dusty bitch” turned out to be Conor, as he shot first. He also said Dustin would be leaving on a stretcher, and it was in fact Conor who left on a stretcher after breaking his leg. The game humbled him again. Conor has possibly two “big money fights” left (Diaz 3, Poirier 4). After that his star will have shined out enough where it would not be financially worth fighting, with no realistic chance of ever being in the hunt for the championship again.

Conor’s story show us that through will, dedication and a respect of the process one can achieve their dreams. But what then? Once you reach your goals can you keep the same hunger for new goals? The path is a constant struggle, the never-ending climb. It’s only when you think you have reached the peak is when you set yourself up for the greatest falls.