Inside Conor McGregor's early years before UFC stardom

From training in the Straight Blast Gym ‘shed’ to competing at Dublin basketball gyms and the gift from his sister that kickstarted his journey to UFC stardom… inside Conor McGregor’s early years

  • Conor McGregor’s lavish lifestyle is a million miles from his humble beginnings 
  • The Notorious’ coach, John Kavanagh, revealed he beat him up as a youngster 
  • McGregor competed in basketball halls in Dublin and trained at the SBG ‘shed’
  • A gift from his sister was instrumental in his rise to the top of the UFC

From cashing in unemployment checks to raking in over £100million from his mega-fight with Floyd Mayweather, Conor McGregor’s rags-to-riches story has underpinned the Irishman’s stardom ever since he broke onto the UFC scene.

The 32-year-old’s brashness on the microphone and audacious fashion sense have masked the humble beginnings from which McGregor grew up, a million miles away from the sort of fame and popularity he enjoys today.

A recent anecdote in which the Notorious’ long-serving coach, John Kavanagh, ‘beat the s***’ out of him when he first started out at Straight Blast Gym in Dublin, Ireland, serves to highlight that it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the former UFC lightweight and featherweight champion. 

Conor McGregor’s rags-to-riches story has underpinned his huge celebrity and stardom

The 32-year-old started out in humble beginnings before becoming a household name

‘It sounds worse than it was,’ Kavanagh told the Irish Independent. ‘He wasn’t hitting her [Aisling Daly] in the head or anything, but just happened to throw a body shot that hit her in the sweet spot, the solar plexus, and put her down. 

‘I got a little emotional because Ais had been with me a long time and the other guys would look after her.

‘But this new guy had come in and put her down, and my protective nature kicked in. I held him down and beat the s**t out of him, without putting too fine a point on it.

‘I kept hitting him in the body until he couldn’t breathe and then I looked at him: ‘What’s it going to be? We can train or we can fight?’ And he was OK from the next day.’

Under the stewardship of John Kavanagh, McGregor was fine tuned into a disciplined athlete

The talent was certainly there from a young age, and so too was the confidence. Kavanagh spotted enough ability in McGregor that he endeavoured to take him under his wing, with the youngster regularly getting the better of sparring partners in training.  

‘You could tell that he hit hard, Kavanagh said via The Sun. ‘And that’s difficult to teach. What made him different was he was obsessive.’

McGregor’s obsession was to escape the career that he had only just begun as an apprentice plumber after leaving school at the age of 17.

‘I hated every minute of it. You were talking 14 or 15-hour days,’ he revealed. ‘I was getting ordered around, getting people their lunch, all this crap. I just thought “this life isn’t for me, I’m going to pack it in. I’m going to chase my dreams”.’ 

Kavanagh was charged with keeping the young live wire in check as he developed in Dublin

‘My mum and dad used to give me grief about the fighting game as a career. I had some tough times with my dad. He’d say, “Get your a**e into a f***ing job. What are you doing? You are doing nothing with your life”.

‘They’d ask me what I was going to do when I lose a fight. I told them by the time I’m 25 I’m going to be a self-made millionaire.’

In 2008, Kavanagh felt his protege was ready to step up and face some real competition, outside of the gym. McGregor was scheduled to take on Garry Morris in his first pro fight at Cage of Truth 2 – hosted at a small basketball gym in Dublin. 

And the MMA guru was made to sweat over his fighter’s appearance at the event, with McGregor a no-show 20 minutes before his scheduled ring-walk. Just as the event’s organisers were preparing to move onto the next bout on the card, in walks the Notorious. 

McGregor’s striking coach Owen Roddy (right) recalls the Irishman’s explosive MMA debut

McGregor spent the early days of his professional career fighting at basketball gyms

‘He jumped straight into the ring,’ Owen Roddy, McGregor’s striking coach, told Bleacher Report. ‘Bounced around, cracked his man a few times, knocked him out, then bounced out of the ring.’ 

Confidence, understandably, was through the roof for the young Irishman. His win over Morris was followed up with a TKO win over Mo Taylor two months later, in May 2008, and all eyes were on his next bout with Artemij Sitenkov.

It appeared the makings of another easy night’s work for McGregor, with the Notorious in his usual brazen mood in the build up to the contest, despite there being no fans in attendance at the weigh in.

But McGregor was dealt the first major blow in his young career, with Sitenkov defeating him via submission in just 69 seconds. 

The Notorious was regarded as one of the hardest hitters at Straight Blast Gym in his youth

McGregor with fiance Dee Devlin after his first title win with Cage Warriors in 2012

‘Conor tried to get into my head during the weigh-in,’ Sitenkov said. ‘But I was not impressed at all because this is something we do in my country.’ 

‘Conor stayed on the ground for a few minutes. He was crying and he was completely devastated.

‘I had to go to his dressing room to try to cheer him up and he was still crying when I got in.’ 

That first career defeat hit McGregor for six, and when team-mate Tom Egan reached out to the youngster, he found him wallowing on his parents’ sofa. The confidence that had been brimming from the talented mixed martial artist had been sapped away. 

Kavanagh gave McGregor a job as a boxing coach while the Irish economy was in trouble

McGregor’s former team-mate Paddy Holohan (pictured) said SBG was like training in a shed

Kavanagh managed to get his starlet back on the wagon, but it wasn’t until six months after the Sitenkov defeat that he would fight again, and business was resumed when he knocked out Stephen Bailey in the first round. 

While McGregor was trying to forge himself a UFC career, the Irish economy was crumbling. Kavanagh gave his pupil a job coaching boxing at the gym, allowing McGregor to spend more time at SBG perfecting his craft.  

‘We turned up every day to John’s place,’ Paddy Holohan, McGregor’s team-mate, said. ‘We were just in this shed, closed off to the world.’ 

A gift from sister Erin (pictured) inspired McGregor and kickstarted his journey to stardom

‘The Secret’ helped McGregor visualise his path to the pinnacle of mixed martial arts

A win over Connor Dillon and a defeat, to Joseph Duffy, later, and McGregor began a winning journey that took him from fighting on lowkey events at venues such as the Millennium Forum in Londonderry and the National Basketball Arena in Dublin to the bright lights of Las Vegas, the world’s biggest stage. 

And it wasn’t a change in training method under Kavanagh, nor a change of diet, that saw McGregor emerge as the biggest name in combat sports, but a gift given to him by his sister, Erin.  

The Secret is an international best-selling self-help book by Rhonda Byrne, which outlines that a version of the law of attraction allows positive thinking to create life-changing results.

McGregor was able to use the tips from the book to visualise his journey to the top of the UFC

‘This is bulls***,’ McGregor said of his initial reaction to the DVD version of the book. ‘But then something clicked for me.’

McGregor visualised becoming two-weight Cage Warriors champion, doing the same thing with the UFC, competing against Floyd Mayweather and becoming the face of mixed martial arts. He made those dreams a reality.

It’s a long way away from the £165 benefits checks he was cashing weekly, and the hard hours training in the SBG ‘shed’ with Paddy Hoolahan, but the experiences of a young McGregor, guided by Kavanagh, were crucial in his success as a mixed martial arts phenomenon.   




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