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This time in 2012, Conor McGregor had just picked up his first win for Cage Warriors

From Cage Warriors beginner to UFC title contender in under three years.

17 February, 2012: Conor McGregor weighs in for Cage Warriors 45.
17 February, 2012: Conor McGregor weighs in for Cage Warriors 45.
Image: Dolly Clew/CageWarriors

IRELAND WERE PREPARING for the Euros, the Dubs were All-Ireland champions for the first time in 16 years, Leinster were en route to a successful defence of the Heineken Cup, and — unless you’re one of a handful of followers of domestic MMA — you probably weren’t aware of the existence of Conor McGregor.

January 2012 doesn’t seem like very long ago… until you look at what McGregor has achieved in the meantime. The speed at which the 26-year-old Dubliner has ascended the UFC rankings has been quite unprecedented. But there are also parallels to be drawn between where he is now, and where he was then.

McGregor was signed to Cage Warriors Fighting Championship, which is regarded as the leading MMA promotion on the European circuit and the foremost platform for fighters with aspirations of reaching the UFC.

He was being spoken of as a fighter with plenty of potential, but with his Cage Warriors record showing just one win (as well as a loss on his debut) — against an opponent who stepped in as an injury replacement on three days’ notice — McGregor was still to cement his credentials as a top prospect.

Winding the clock back to this time three years ago, the SBG featherweight was in the final stages of his preparations for a meeting with a highly-rated Englishman named Steve O’Keeffe in London. Coming into the bout on a six-fight winning streak, and with a solid grappling background, O’Keeffe was expected to ask plenty of questions of McGregor.

Facing Dennis Siver this weekend in Boston, McGregor will be rewarded with a UFC title bout if he’s victorious. As it transpired, a shot at championship honours was also on 0ffer when he faced O’Keeffe. McGregor would compete for titles in his next two Cage Warriors bouts — and then the UFC came calling.

SOK Steve O'Keeffe, who fought Conor McGregor in London in 2012. Source: Dolly Clew/Cage Warriors

“I knew going into that fight that I hadn’t trained hard enough because of other things that were going on in my life at the time,” O’Keeffe told The42.ie this week. “It turned out that my opponent was the last guy you’d want to fight when you’re not fully prepared.”

The fight lasted 93 seconds. McGregor immediately had O’Keeffe on the back foot, unloading a barrage of jabs, uppercuts and knees. The Englishman regrouped and forced his opponent up against the cage, but the takedown he was searching for just wasn’t there.

As O’Keeffe continued his attempts to force the fight to the mat, McGregor was able to land a flurry of vicious elbows which prompted referee Marc Goddard to halt the contest.

There were 1,200 people watching McGregor in the HMV Forum in Kentish Town that evening, and although his bout wasn’t the event’s headliner, there was only one man being spoken about afterwards.

“Give me that title shot. Cage Warriors are coming to Dublin this year so give it to me there. That belt is mine,” McGregor said in his post-fight interview. Sounds familiar, right?

Source: Cage Warriors TV/YouTube

Reflecting on the experience, O’Keeffe explained that what makes McGregor such an intimidating prospect is his unrelenting confidence, which can smother his opponents before the fight has even begun.

“It’s not just an attitude thing, it’s an actual aura he gives off and you can feel it straight away when you’re in his presence. It can be overwhelming, especially when I was at the other end of the scale and not feeling ready. At first everyone thought it was just all talk, but he backs it up every time.

“It plays a massive part for him. But there’s no taking away from his ability either. He’s an incredible athlete. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him looking uncomfortable in a fight. He never panics. He’s only coming into the peak of his talent and athleticism too. But it was clear even back then that he was going places.”

McGregor’s team-mates often speak of how powerful his strikes are, and O’Keeffe knows where they’re coming from: “He hits harder than some heavyweights. I worked really hard on my boxing for that fight but it just went to shit as soon as he threw that first combination. I’ve still got a lump on my skull!”

mc3 McGregor overcame O'Keeffe via first-round KO for his tenth career win. Source: Dolly Clew/Cage Warriors

One interesting memory of the fight that stands out for O’Keeffe is how well-rounded McGregor was as a fighter. Despite being a BJJ brown belt, he’s often accused of having a novice’s ground-game. But contrary to the views of McGregor’s detractors, O’Keeffe believes he has the defensive strengths to avoid being troubled in grappling exchanges.

“When I took him down he just sprung back up like a jack-in-the-box,” he recalls. “I grapple with very high-level jiu-jitsu guys, but not many people can do that. As soon as his bum hit the floor he just bounced straight back up on to his feet.”

O’Keeffe has since hung up his MMA gloves to focus on competing in BJJ and running his own gym in Kent. Being a former opponent of Conor McGregor’s isn’t bad for business either.

“I get a lot of people coming in to my gym asking about it. I’m like half a celebrity just because I’ve fought Conor McGregor,” he laughs.

McGregor ended 2012 as the Cage Warriors featherweight and lightweight champion. Less than a year after defeating O’Keeffe he was snapped up by the UFC, and a further two years on he’s only a couple of wins away from being the world’s top featherweight.

Let’s also not forget that he spent almost a year on the sidelines with a knee injury. Remarkable progress from a remarkable athlete in such a short period. But as Dustin Poirier discovered last September, McGregor likes to get things done quickly.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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