Conor McGregor’s management says the UFC star is looking the best he has in almost a decade as he prepares for next month’s comeback against Dustin Poirier – with all roads leading to the bout taking place in Abu Dhabi.
The Irishman, who retired in the summer having grown frustrated with a lack of options presented to him by UFC, returns to the octagon on January 23 for a rematch against Poirier. The lightweight tussle headlines UFC 257, which is expected to conclude a three-event International Fight Week in the capital.
A former two-division champion, McGregor has not fought since January's 40-second victory against Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone in Las Vegas. He defeated Poirier at featherweight in 2014, prevailing by first-round TKO.
Audie Attar, the founder and CEO of Paradigm Sports Management that represents McGregor, landed in Dubai on Tuesday having spent a week with his client at his training camp in Portugal.
In an interview with The National on Tuesday, Attar said: "This is the best Conor I've seen ever, and I've been with him almost a decade now. It's the mental fortitude, the emotional intelligence, the self-awareness, the time he's spending with his kids in between sessions and what that does to him.
“It's the reflection of everything that’s happened to us to date – the good, the bad and the ugly – having a level of wherewithal and foresight to understand what we need to do going forward to achieve the goals we have now.
“I’ve never seen Conor like this. It’s about the challenge, the competition, being the best version of ourselves. Not just the body, but the mind and the soul as well. And that’s fun for me to see.
"The guy doesn’t have to work a day in his life. He made more money this year not fighting; that’s how good business is. So to see him hungry to compete, hungry to continue to evolve, hungry to prove all the naysayers wrong and hungry to prove who his really is, not only athletically but as a businessman and as a human being, that to me is exciting. That’s a driver for me; it fulfils my purposes.”
McGregor, 32, has been training extensively for his competitive comeback for almost 10 weeks, and plans to fly back to his native Dublin for Christmas before heading out to Abu Dhabi – should the fight be staged there – midway through next month.
“The skill level is on another level,” Attar said. “It really is, on all fronts. The chemistry within the team, the coaches and the coordination.
“Because it’s never lineal; you’re going to run through different things, particularly towards the end of the camp. It’s like you haven’t fed the dog, and he’s ready to go. He’s ready to fight now.
“But that’s what happens in camp. How do you break through those moments? How to make sure you don’t fall by the wayside or veer off and effectively let camp fatigue or training fatigue, which is natural for everybody… how do you make sure tomorrow when he comes in he’s even more motivated and pushes himself even harder? And that’s what’s been exciting for me because that’s what’s been happening on a daily level.”
Should McGregor defeat Poirier at UFC 257, calls for the former lightweight champion to contest the title will only strengthen. At present, Khabib Nurmagomedov has not relinquished his crown, despite retiring undefeated from the sport immediately following his successful defence against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi in October.
However, Attar says McGregor, the division's No 4-ranked contender, is not looking past the No 2-ranked Poirier.
“He’s focused fully on the task at hand,” the Iraqi-American said. “And you can see that. If you look at images of him today, and images of him from the Cowboy camp most recently, or even the Khabib camp or the [Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2017] camp, he just looks different.
“And I can tell you, he doesn’t post sparring sessions online – he may post a little a little bit here and there – but he’s a different beast right now, as it relates to his athletic ability, his fighting skills and his fight IQ.
"Whether it’s MMA striking, his boxing, his wrestling, his jiu-jitsu, his strength and conditioning, it’s on another level now.”
UFC president Dana White said recently that McGregor-Poirier was “99 per cent” likely to form part of a third Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. The promotion spent three weeks in the emirate in July, and then five during September and October.
“Dana White has come out publicly and said this is going to happen in Abu Dhabi, and my conversations with the UFC echo that as well,” Attar said. “It hasn’t been confirmed 100 per cent, or publicly, but all signs are pointing to that. That’s my assumption and that’s what our camp’s assuming.
“Conor's excited [at the possibility of fighting there]. You saw when one of the UAE soccer players [Al Wasl’s Ali Saleh] did the Conor strut recently and posted the video, Conor was like, ‘See you soon’. And that blew up. It’s cool to see.
“The one thing I could tell you about Conor is he doesn’t like fake stuff, he doesn’t like to force things. This is all going down in a very organic and natural way as it’s meant to happen, so it’d be a great opportunity for him to come to the region and see the region.
“To me, the UAE’s been really a trailblazer and thought leader and cultural leader for the entire Middle East region and it’d be just good for him to start here. It’s exciting times, and who knows? It could be the first of a couple of, or a few, events here in the region next year.”
One of those events could constitute a crossover bout with boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao. In October, McGregor posted on social media that he was set to face the eight-division champion in the Middle East, with Pacquiao later confirming his interest in the bout. Both athletes are signed to Paradigm.
“Both fighters want it,” said Attar, who launched Paradigm’s international office in Dubai in August. “There’s no way Conor’s looking past Dustin, so he’s just trying to focus on what he can control. But the fans want it – there’s serious interest from all fans from all around the world – and both fighters want it. It’s hard not to make it happen.
“Manny Pacquiao sees Conor McGregor as a real threat and a real formidable opponent. And he has his own plans politically; he’s a machine in what he does. Either of them isn’t trying to go fight YouTubers next.
“At the end of the day, I don’t see why it shouldn’t happen. As we saw in 2020, you can never count anything out any more, but right now the intention is for that to happen in 2021.”
On whether that could also take place in the UAE, Attar added: “There’s definitely interest from within the region; there’s interest from all over the world: Asia to America to this region.
"We're very fortunate to be speaking to some really good people, quality organisations, individuals and groups all over the world. It’s just about finding the right partners. There's a lot of moving parts with this thing.
“Ultimately, you can’t count the region out at all – a case in point is what they've be doing in all combat sports the past two years – the UAE, Saudi Arabia. So you can't rule out the strong possibility of it potentially taking place in this region.”