Allegations, controversies complicate Conor McGregor's return

DUBLIN -- Conor McGregor's coach, John Kavanagh, apologizes right away for the chaotic state of his office. He doesn't let many people back here, he says as he strolls toward the back of the Straight Blast Gym in Inchicore, so there hasn't been much incentive to keep it tidy. Everything else about the building looks like it just got a fresh coat of paint, but not his office. This will be a glimpse, he jokes, into the gritty reality of a fighting gym.

When Kavanagh opens the door, it's clear that he wasn't kidding. It's low-grade chaos. There is a large hole in the drywall, still waiting to be patched up, and you can catch a glimpse of the plumbing. Kavanagh's desk sits at the center of the room, and a swirl of books, coffee pods, trophies and paperwork surrounds it. It sounds like the room is crawling with locusts, and Kavanagh explains the noise by pointing to several terrariums in the back of the room. That's where he keeps his four pet spiders. The locusts are their lunch. One of the spiders, he warns, is quite dangerous.

"That's an Indian Ornamental," he says, gesturing toward one of the tanks. "It would have a pretty nasty bite. It's to keep you on your edge. If you see a leg starting to come out, then the interview is over."

Kavanagh smiles, but the tarantula is a fitting metaphor for the moment. The Indian Ornamental could easily be McGregor, whom Kavanagh has trained since the Irishman was a teenager. At the moment, all is calm. The spider is confined to its cage, where it can inflict pain only in a controlled environment. You can even admire its lethal abilities -- from the outside looking in. But let it outside the cage, and it just might unleash chaos.

The same, especially recently, has been true of McGregor.

McGregor returns to the Octagon this week for his first fight in 15 months, and no one is quite sure what to expect from the former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion. His opponent, Donald Cerrone, is a formidable challenger, having won more fights than anyone else in UFC history. But Cerrone is being viewed, for now, as a steppingstone on what looks like a slickly marketed redemption tour for McGregor, meant to change the narrative and win over fans -- including those in Ireland -- who have begun to sour on him. After claiming in March 2019 that he had retired from fighting, McGregor now says that he hopes to fight three times in 2020. He's already eyeing a rematch by year's end with Khabib Nurmagomedov, who beat him soundly in UFC 229. McGregor appears to be trying to create momentum for that by claiming that Nurmagomedov is frightened to face him again.

"He's trembling. That man is trembling. He doesn't want it," McGregor said in a recent interview posting on his website, TheMacLife.com. "He's afraid, and that's it. But everyone wants it. The boss wants it. Dana [White] wants it. We all want it. He can run, but he cannot hide."

How much of it is showmanship and how much of it is McGregor knowing that he needs to change the narrative remains to be seen. In the past 21 months, McGregor, 31, has been involved in three violent incidents outside the Octagon: once for smashing the phone of a fan in Florida who claimed he was only trying to take McGregor's picture; once for smashing a dolly against the window of a bus inside the Barclays Center that was carrying Nurmagomedov; once for sucker punching a 50-year-old man in a Dublin pub. McGregor pleaded guilty and paid a fine in the bus and bar incidents, and Miami prosecutors dropped the charges against him in the phone incident after the victim stopped cooperating.

Even more seriously, McGregor has been named by The New York Times as a suspect in two separate sexual assault investigations in Ireland, and though he has not been charged in either, both investigations remain open, according to the Times.

In a recent interview with ESPN's Ariel Helwani, McGregor was asked if he denied the allegations. "Yes, of course. Of course," he replied. "Yes, f---ing hell, Ariel, come on, seriously? Time, please, that's all. Time will reveal all. Time will tell all," McGregor said when pressed.

McGregor's denials and partial apologies during his comeback have meant that those around him have been tasked with explaining or rationalizing some of his worst behavior.

"Conor is like a kid brother to me, and you don't like seeing your family in trouble," Kavanagh says. "You don't like seeing your family make poor decisions. He made some poor decisions, and he's had to deal with the consequences of that. And I think in the same ways he deals with losses in combat sport, he didn't go around pointing fingers. He took on board and said, 'Right, I messed up. What are we going to do?' Is he going to move into a cave and just avoid the world? Or does he go on? And you say, 'I man up, and I apologize for what I've done in those situations. I want to learn from it. I want to stop reacting to every stimuli with the wrong way.' He's working on that. So far so good."

Once beloved in his home country, seen as a symbol of an evolving and increasingly confident Ireland, McGregor's recent string of behavior has widely damaged his reputation in the city he still calls home -- perhaps beyond repair. He remains a curiosity and a draw to many, but it's clear that the warmth his countrymen once felt for McGregor has waned dramatically.

"If you went around Ireland a couple of years ago, this was a guy who was celebrated. Everybody loved him," says Irish journalist Ewan MacKenna, who wrote a book about McGregor titled "Chaos is a Friend of Mine." "He could do no wrong, and people justified everything he did based on his earnings, but that's taken a turn. He's seen his reputation in tatters, both in the ring but more so out of it."

MacKenna, a columnist for the Irish Independent, is one of the few journalists who have witnessed the entirety of McGregor's career. Their first interview, in 2013, took place in a McDonald's in Crumlin, a suburb of Dublin, back when McGregor didn't own a car. He had just gotten off of Irish social welfare, thanks to his first UFC win, and he was still trying to process what it felt like to survive on more than 188 euros a week.

"He was roguish in a good way," MacKenna says. "He was like the kid making jokes in class, and the teacher is trying not to laugh. He was breaking the rules but in quite a good way and quite a funny way. And very intelligent as well. He read a lot, studied a lot about different fighting techniques around the world. There was a humility there."

That version of McGregor feels long gone. McGregor has always been a skilled fighter, a lethal puncher who could knock an opponent down with one vicious blow to the head, but his greatest talent is arguably his ability to sell a fight and his willingness to slip fully into the "Notorious" character he created. He talked his way into championship bouts by treating the UFC like it was professional wrestling: insulting opponents, goading them during weigh-ins, frequently using racist phrases and imagery, all in the name of promotion. The line between what was real and what was showmanship blurred over time.

"I think it was like he held up a mask, and now if he ever takes it down, there is nothing left behind it," MacKenna says. "People told him no matter what he did, what this character did, that it was OK, that it was morally justified because of the money he was making. And he lost himself to that."

The UFC has been uninterested, thus far, in taking any sort of moral stand with regard to McGregor's behavior. UFC president Dana White says that without any formal charges, the sport has no reason to bar McGregor from fighting.

"He hasn't been charged with anything," White told ESPN. "Listen, has Conor made a lot of bad decisions over the last few years? Unbelievable amount of bad decisions. But how you going to stop a guy from making a living when he hasn't been charged?"

In Ireland, rumors continue to spread about the two incidents. Unverifiable details of the alleged assaults have been shared widely on social media, and much of what allegedly took place has been covered extensively in Irish newspapers. But because Irish libel law protects both the accuser and the accused, names can't be attached to any allegation until there is a conviction, unless a media entity is willing to subject itself to a potentially costly lawsuit for breach of privacy. Thus far, The New York Times is the only news organization that has named McGregor, though most of the Irish papers have run stories stating that a "famous Irish sports star" is under investigation for multiple sexual assaults.

"If those New York Times allegations ... if they are true, you cannot come back from that. It's irredeemable. ... Your reputation is done." MacKenna says.

Walk the streets of Dublin these days or pop into any of the city's iconic pubs, and you're far more likely to find people disappointed in McGregor, if not outright disgusted by him. Several of the murals around the city that once celebrated his rise have been painted over.

"He was the embodiment of Dublin, the embodiment of Crumlin, one of the people, working class, he was a role model," says Zach Douglass, a Dubliner having an afternoon drink in a bar that once had a McGregor mural. "And I have to say, now, it is the absolute mirror image of that. He doesn't represent Irish people. He doesn't represent Dublin people. He's everything that's wrong with our society. He's all flash, no substance, cares too much about selling whiskey rather than his actual job. He portrays an image to young kids that once you get to a certain level of fame, a certain level of success, you can treat people any way you want. He lives in his own reality."

Eoin Condron, who was getting a haircut in Jack's Barbers in downtown Dublin, says he admired the way McGregor talked his way into getting a bout with boxer Floyd Mayweather in 2017, a fight that netted the Irishman an estimated $100 million. "That was the greatest heist of all time," Condron says. "It wasn't a competition. It was a heist. And that's not a criticism of him."

But for Condron -- like dozens of Dubliners who spoke to ESPN -- the incident in which McGregor punched a 50-year-old man in the face in a pub because he declined to drink a glass of McGregor's personal brand of whiskey was the final straw. When TMZ acquired video of the incident and published it in August 2019, there was no way for McGregor to spin the incident any other way. It was right there on video. "He's not a good representative of the country," Condron says. "His behavior in public is atrocious by any standard. I hope Americans don't think we're all like that."

Condron, an amateur rapper, was even inspired by the incident in the pub to write a diss track about McGregor that he quickly sent around to his friends.

McGregor, the whole country thinks you're a wanker
With the arrogance and money of a Wall Street banker
In your pinstripe suit; who gives a f--- about your loot?
You used to be cute with your online disputes
But then you lost your flavor quicker than a Juicy Fruit

McGregor seems aware of the support he had in Ireland, acknowledging in his interview with ESPN that he has been trying to refocus his life. "I've made mistakes," McGregor said. "I've been man enough to admit them and correct them. ... I think the people who believe in me and support me, they deserve better. And I wish to give them that."

One of the few places in Dublin that remains steadfastly loyal to McGregor is the Black Forge Inn on Drimnagh Road. The establishment bills itself as "The Home of Conor McGregor" and hangs a colorful banner saying as much on the outside of the building. An elderly man named Michael, one of the bar's co-owners who declined to give his full name, said McGregor drops in once every two weeks, often buying a round of drinks for the entire pub. The bar will likely be packed on fight night, when McGregor takes on Cerrone, but on a recent afternoon it was mostly empty, with just a handful of silent customers watching "Judge Judy" on a small television. "Conor is a nice fella, but I'm not interested in talking," Michael says. "I don't want you asking the customers any questions about him, either."

Kavanagh admits that he thought he was finished training McGregor. He decided that he would always care about him and always hope the best for him, but the madness surrounding McGregor -- the entourage of enablers, the temptations that came with wealth and fame -- had become too much to bear, particularly as McGregor's bank account swelled and his motivation waned. They had been to the mountaintop together, feeding off each other's skills and expertise and hunger to build a business and a brand. Why tarnish it? Kavanagh says he had no interest in continuing the partnership if the only thing holding it together was a quest to vacuum up more money. "I infamously said I wouldn't corner him again unless he had a very good reason," Kavanagh says. "And if [money] had been the reason, I wouldn't have been a part of it because he's comfortable. He's got more money than [most people] will ever have. So I wanted to know what his motivation was."

That wasn't clear -- at least not right away. But McGregor kept showing up at Straight Blast Gym, eager to train. Gradually, days in the gym turned into weeks in the gym, and McGregor was able to convince Kavanagh that he was serious. He even taught a few classes for Kavanagh, happy to be back in a familiar environment, surrounded by teenage fighters who reminded him of his younger self -- hungry, penniless and dreaming of glory. "Rocky speeches don't do it for me anymore," Kavanagh says. "You've just got to do it. Every day. Like on his first title run. Every day, showing up, and he's on the mat with the team. There's no big airs or graces, no big fan parade."

McGregor admits now that he wasn't focused in the training leading up to his most recent fight, that he squandered any chance to show Nurmagomedov his best. He was unfocused and drinking alcohol frequently. (He says he hasn't had a drink in several months.) "It was a horrendous camp," McGregor told TheMacLife.com. "I was so disrespectful to the people that believe in me, so disrespectful to my team with my lack of commitment." It will be different, he says, if he gets another chance to face Nurmagomedov.

In the fall, word began to trickle out that McGregor was prepping for another fight, and Kavanagh was forced to close the gym to non-members. There had been too many strangers dropping by, hoping to catch a glimpse of the comeback. As a result, just how prepared McGregor will be for Cerrone remains shrouded in mystery. Kavanagh insists that McGregor looks as sharp as he has ever looked, and he is back in the Octagon for only one reason: He loves the sport.

"There's a great monologue from [British author] Alan Watts," Kavanagh says, trying to explain one final time why McGregor is climbing back in the Octagon. "Watts talks about 'What would you do if money wasn't an object?' Initially, what would we all do? You're going to want to party, and you're going to want to buy houses, and that will be fun for a few months. You'll go to the best restaurants. After a year of it, you kind of go, 'Well, all right, I've done that. What do I want to do now?'

"And you'll find you start doing what it is you really like doing. I don't know what that is for everybody. It's fishing for some people. For Conor, it's fighting."