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Dublin: 12 °C Monday 1 June, 2020

How a spectacular ending to his last lightweight fight earned Conor McGregor a place in the UFC

Nearly four years later he’s finally back at 155 pounds.

– Paul Dollery reports from New York

ON 13 DECEMBER, 2012, an e-mail landed in John Kavanagh’s inbox from Halli Nelson — the father of UFC welterweight Gunnar Nelson — who was acting as Conor McGregor’s manager at the time.

The subject of the e-mail was ‘Introducing Conor McGregor’ and the content was a forwarded response from UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby. McGregor was the Cage Warriors featherweight champion and Kavanagh and Nelson were keen to ensure that he was on the UFC’s radar.

But Shelby’s reply wasn’t encouraging, as he explained that the organisation’s featherweight division was already over-populated: “I’m not looking to sign anyone else for a while but hopefully it will clear up soon and guys like Conor will get the opportunity.”

Screen Shot 2016-11-05 at 22.56.37 A sign of things to come? Conor McGregor with the Cage Warriors featherweight and lightweight belts. Source: Dolly Clew/Cage Warriors

Eighteen days later, McGregor fought for a second Cage Warriors belt. Originally he was due to make the first defence of his featherweight title against American challenger Jim Alers at The Helix in Dublin, but Alers pulled out due to an injury.

It was the second time that the fight had fallen through. McGregor was forced to back out four months earlier after a feisty sparring session with Artem Lobov left him with a fractured cheekbone.

Five weeks out from Cage Warriors 51 on New Year’s Eve, Alers’ withdrawal meant that McGregor was without an opponent. But Kavanagh, McGregor’s head coach at Straight Blast Gym, came to an alternative arrangement with Cage Warriors officials.

“I was aware that Cage Warriors were trying to put a lightweight title fight on the same card. The belt was vacant and a Slovakian fighter, Ivan Buchinger, had been handed a shot. But his original opponent had backed out,” Kavanagh writes in his autobiography.

“With both Conor and Buchinger in need of opponents, I suggested a match‑up between the pair of them for the lightweight title. The proposal was given the green light and Conor was pleased.

“Now, fighting at 155lbs instead of 145lbs, he could enjoy a much bigger Christmas dinner the week before the fight. It was also a chance for him to become the first fighter to be the champion of two unified weight classes in Cage Warriors simultaneously.”

Source: Cage Warriors TV/YouTube

McGregor’s performance against Dave Hill to win the featherweight title six months earlier had left the majority of observers in agreement that an Irish fighter with the ability to pick up a few wins in the UFC had finally emerged.

After the Buchinger fight, the expectations were upgraded substantially. With a spectacular first-round knockout victory, McGregor delivered a flawless performance to grab the attention of the MMA world. By the time he got home to put the second belt on his mantlepiece, the video of the KO had gone viral.

“Conor put on an exhibition of striking, an absolute masterclass, as he knocked out Buchinger with a stunning slip-counter-left-hook after three minutes forty of the first round,” writes Kavanagh.

“As Conor walked back to the changing room after the fight with a Cage Warriors belt draped over each of his shoulders, I felt certain that the next time he entered the cage it would be for his UFC debut.”

Source: Training Base/YouTube

A few short weeks after McGregor’s moment of magic, the UFC reached out. Perhaps they could find a spot for the young Dubliner on the roster after all. He was offered a featherweight debut for the organisation the following April against Marcus Brimage in Stockholm.

The UFC debutant and Kavanagh push-started McGregor’s girlfriend Dee’s Peugeot car in order to get to Dublin Airport for the flight, but not without stopping at the post office in Lucan along the way to allow for McGregor to collect his dole.

Kavanagh: “For weeks leading up to the fight, he had been all over Irish TV, radio, websites and newspapers, as they reported on the much-hyped young Dubliner who was aiming to become the first Irishman to win in the UFC.

“Yet here he was, queuing up in his local post office en route to his UFC debut, waiting to collect the €188 that he couldn’t afford to be without. While I was panicking in the car, certain that we were going to miss the flight, the other people in the queue were asking Conor for photos and autographs. Thankfully, we just made it to the airport on time.”

Having taken a detour on the way to Sweden for the sake of €188, McGregor returned home to Dublin with a cheque worth €76,000 in his back pocket courtesy of his ‘Knockout of the Night’ defeat of Marcus Brimage.

Source: BT Sport/YouTube

The rest, as they say, is history, and McGregor has been creating plenty more of it in the meantime. However, this Saturday night’s meeting with lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden in New York may prove to be the most historic occasion yet for the reigning UFC featherweight title-holder.

Extracts taken from ‘Win or Learn’ by John Kavanagh, which is currently available here.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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