Years ago, before Conor McGregor was the international superstar that he is today, he had a sense that he was standing on the precipice of something big. His ambition, however, stood in direct contrast to what was his reality at the time. He had no job to speak of (at least in the traditional sense of the word). Late notices from debt collectors were raining through his letterbox like confetti.
Nonetheless, his dedication to training and the betterment of himself as an athlete continued at the pace of someone at the very top of their game even if the infrastructure to support such endeavours wasn’t fully in place. For instance, McGregor’s longtime training partner Cathal Pendred, welterweight champion of Cage Warriors at the time, couldn’t afford a headguard for one sparring session featured in the documentary. Moments later the film cuts to Pendred tearing a borrowed headguard from himself, blood pouring from nose after a sparring session with McGregor.
It is these type of scenes in Conor McGregor: Notorious which give the most honest portrayal of the man ever committed to film. Long before ‘Mystic Mac’ began making his Rasputin-like predictions for the future of his own career, McGregor toiled away in an enclave of similarly committed athletes and coaches and all the while had the foresight to identify his ultimate destination and navigate the sometimes stormy seas towards it.
As if to emphasise that point, a camera crew (feat. director Gavin FitzGerald and SevereMMA founder Graeme McDonnell, among others) was given unprecedented access to McGregor throughout his rise to the summit of the sport. It is clear that McGregor’s ease with McDonnell and the other filmmakers led to starkly revealing footage, capturing both the highs and the lows of his journey through the ranks of the UFC.
The danger for a documentary such as this, particularly when McGregor is listed as Executive Producer, is that it could present a micro-managed, blinkered look at its subject. Any such concerns are swiftly forgotten as Notorious presents an unflinching look at its central character, capturing the type of footage that would land on the cutting room floor in a UFC Embedded editing suite, for example.
One such instance shows a visibly emotional McGregor weeping backstage following his victory against Chad Mendes, an action made understandable by exactly what McGregor went through to get into the cage that July night in Las Vegas. Weeks prior McGregor sustained an 80% ACL tear, an injury which would lead to most fighters tearing up their bout agreement but that wasn’t an option given any consideration whatsoever. Under the watchful eye of a physical therapist, McGregor engaged in what appeared on screen to be an eye-watering series of exercises to strengthen his damaged ligament to ensure he makes the walk to the cage.
One of the film’s most riveting scenes shows McGregor rolling with a training partner in advance of his fight with Mendes when he hears an audible pop come from his already injured joint and even with all his bravado and bluster, the look of concern on his face is difficult to dismiss. It is the one and only time in the entire film when McGregor asks the camera crew for some room to breathe.
The film traverses McGregor’s fight career, showcasing his UFC debut in Sweden along with his bouts with Max Holloway, Diego Brandao and Dustin Poirier in a montage sequence before settling on the Mendes fight and, after that, his battle with then ten years undefeated José Aldo. In some incredible footage (and long before the now infamous locker room video), McGregor can be heard predicting how the fight will end with almost supernatural accuracy.
McGregor’s pair of bouts with Nate Diaz serve as the centrepiece of the movie, presented with an unobstructed look at the highs and lows that athletes in mixed martial arts endure. The first Diaz fight, which follows swiftly from the all-conquering footage captured in the wake of his title victory against Aldo, shows McGregor consumed by the hollowness of defeat. Walking in to his dressing room after the fight, the first words he utters to his awaiting team are ‘I’m sorry’. We then cut to McGregor sitting staring blankly ahead declaring to no one in particular, ‘I pussied out.’
He doesn’t have to wait long for redemption. The Diaz rematch is presented without any pulled punches, showing McGregor’s early success but also showing Diaz rallying in the third round in unsettling, slow motion HD — wobbling earlobes and all. It is footage like this where Conor McGregor: Notorious really shines. The documentary could easily have been presented as a puff piece, designed to pander to fans and inflate egos but the most interesting aspects of the film show McGregor with his immortality stripped away but the crew, along with its star, refuse to take the easy way out.
McGregor said following his historic victory against Eddie Alvarez last year that he dreamed his journey into reality. It turns out it makes one hell of a documentary too.