What could be the appeal of something and someone so bombastic?
McGregor, in particular, has been viewed sceptically as a triumph of style over substance; after all, would the UFC have fast-tracked anyone else quite as blatantly, if they weren’t so glad to have an English speaker who could mix Irishwith the best (or worst) US west-coast hip-hop brash and trash talk and shift from one mode to the other in an instant, depending on the circumstance and chat show?
But now? After last weekend? You may still not like him but you have to respect him. You may still not appreciate or like his sport but you have to see him as a legitimate high-performing athlete, not just a high-profile one.
The UFC may have shifted him up the ranks because of McGregor’s own ability to shift seats and pay-per-view tickets, but even Dana White could only take him so far. When McGregor stepped into that octagon in Vegas against seasoned fighters like Chad Mendes and Jose Aldo, he was on his own. But that’s all he needed, and in the case with Aldo, just the 13 seconds.
After the fight, he didn’t just give great copy. He gave some top advice and insight into elite performance.
After graciously acknowledging Aldo’s record and standing in the game, McGregor spoke in an immediate post-fight interview about the value of precision and timing over power and speed.
He’d elaborated on this theme with this column a month before the fight. That just as multiple rugby and GAA teams across this country emphasise intensity over skill and experimentation, so do too many fighters. He knew, because earlier in his career he used to make the same mistake.
“People are afraid to almost move in a new way because there is so much intensity in the gym,” he’d say. “So they don’t actually learn. [If you do that] Your skill level remains the same... You might be tough but you can only be so tough for so long, you know what I mean?
“...But anytime I’ve trained that way, I’ve actually been a little bit flatter in the fight. And the knockout shot hasn’t come. It’s almost because my training has been too hard. But since I’ve trained where I hold the trigger on every shot? Say I just put my foot right at your chin and hold it and place it back down, but then on fight night when it’s time to pull the trigger on that kick? It goes through the guard.
“Nobody can take it.” It was the same with that left hook last Saturday night. By using it so sparingly in sparring, he’d more energy to unleash it on fight night.
The first specialist to look into the field of mental toughness was a guy called Jim Loehr, a sport psychologist to multiple tennis stars of the late 80s and early 90s, most famously Martina Navratilova.
Something he identified as a hallmark of mentally tough performers was that they were terrific managers of energy.
McGregor in training conserves a lot of physical energy, while also expending an awful lot of it to be in the shape he is in.
On fight night, he shows the same capacity. While other fighters burn up too much psychic and physical energy through competitive anxiety, McGregor seems totally at ease in that octagon. “Freedom,” is how he described in that interview being in that octagon, partly because of how he views it. Upon his arrival into the octagon for previous fights, he’s breezily remarked to his corner man and coach John Kavanagh, “A day at the gym,” helping to illicit the right level of composure and activation.
In the scientific disciplines of general and sport psychology, that skill – for it is a skill – is called self-talk. Yesterday Ken Early of, whose dispatches from Vegas for the past two McGregor fights have been excellent, dismissed some of McGregor’s utterances as being straight out of the bible of pop psychology, Rhonda Byrne’s .
Certainly sizeable chunks of such a book and its ilk should be viewed with scepticism. Of course it’s not just enough to think and say what you want to create a “law of attraction”.
But does picturing and saying what you want to happen significantly increase the chances of it happening if you’ve also put the work in? Countless studies show it does. To use another scientific model, the University of Miami’s Robin Vealey’s sources of self-confidence in sport, there are multiple ways you acquire robust confidence in sport. One’s physical condition is regularly the largest foundation of athletic confidence, a box certainly McGregor feels he ticks. There’s your skills work, which again, he prides himself on, believing he has an edge on his rivals here. There’s past accomplishments, lifestyle preparation (sleep, nutrition – again, energy management ) and environmental comfort – Vegas is literally a second home to him now.
But above all, what the research literature in self- efficacy and confidence, most notably by Albert Bundara, shows is that your self-image is largely shaped by what you think and say about yourself.
Practical service providers like Bob Rotella preach the same. “Your brain is a faithful servant,” he’s observed. “On some level, it remembers all the things you think about yourself.” When the heat is on, when the bell rings, you generally cannot outperform your self-image.
Consider Andy Lee, who steps into a ring in Manchester next Saturday. He is a remarkably modest gentleman. But he is also a quietly confident one. He knows he has a more devastating punch than Billy Joe Saunders, one that can stop him. He knows he’s the more experienced fighter. And while a part of him will sometimes have the odd doubt and wonder about Saunders’ energetic, combative style, he will counter it by reminding himself of who he is, what he’s done, what he’s going to do.
What distinguishes McGregor from Lee and virtually every other sports performer is that he is so public in much of his self-talk.
But that doesn’t mean it’s mere trash talk. Or bullshit.
A bullshitter is the last thing he is. He walked the walk after talking the talk, knowing the two are hardly unrelated.