Why did you choose MMA over, say, football, in Ireland?
As a young boy, there were just two things that were really important: Can you play football and can you fight? In the early days I used to play football, and I was obsessed. I’d kick the ball and run off and celebrate, visualizing I was scoring a goal in a stadium. As I ventured outside my [Dublin neighborhood], I started meeting more people and as a young boy you get into fights, and I realized it’s really important to be able to defend yourself. Self-defense is why I got started, and then, of course, it becomes an obsession. You realize, hang on a minute, running around and kicking a ball into a goal—that’s not a man’s sport. Fighting, pure combat, is true sport to me. That is a true test of will and mental strength, and that took over my life.
So there was no one specific bully when you were growing up?
No, where I came from, these things happen. You could be playing football with a group of friends against another group, and all of a sudden a fight breaks out. Where maybe these things would happen and other kids would just completely forget about it, I went off and sat and thought, “Mmh, maybe I should have moved this way or maybe I should have reacted that way and it would have been better,” and eventually I realized that this was all I could think about.
You were a plumber for a time. What was that like?
Instead of going to college, most kids would get a trade—a plumber, carpenter, electrician. I got an apprenticeship and worked in a freezing cold building. Basically I was a slave, up and down the site, getting this, getting that, getting bossed around. I’d be looking around at the fully qualified guys, the older men who were on the building site. Just looking at their life and their bodies, I thought this was not for me. I packed it in and decided to pursue [fighting].
It was hell when I quit the job. My dad wasn’t happy. We’d have full-on fights over it: He wanted me to work. He didn’t know what I was going to do. “What? You’re going in the cage. … No, that’s not happening.” Instead of fighting in a cage, I fought with him. Over time, with hard work, true discipline, true dedication, [my parents] supported me bit by bit. And now I’m chilling in a presidential suite in Las Vegas, sending them pictures, saying, “I hate to say it, but I told you so.”
When was the last time you got your ass kicked?
I get my ass kicked every day in the gym. Every martial artist knows this: To get to a higher level, you must get your ass kicked. You get beaten a lot, you lose many times—and I’m no different. I’ve lost so many times in the gym, but ultimately that makes me better, that sets me on the path to victory.
How does surfing at an aquatics center help you train?
Any style of exercise is good—variety is the spice of life. Surfing definitely helps with balance, and [developing] balance is one of the most underrated exercise methods. When you are born, the first thing you learn to do is to stand, and then you’re learning your balance and then you’re learning to walk. You’re evolving and if you keep evolving, not only will you get a better understanding of your own body and your own movements, you’ll get a better understanding of other people’s movements and their situations.
What did you learn from the time you knocked out an opponent in less than four seconds?
I learned to be grateful I never have to go into the octagon and face myself.
You’ve attended a UFC card in Vegas, but have never fought here. What do you expect?
I was here for Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks [UFC 167, Nov. 16]. It was phenomenal. It was a dream come true to be in the arena to take it all in. It will be a different kind of atmosphere, an atmosphere UFC has not felt before, because the Irish let ourselves be known. I know the Irish people who will be coming over here to support me, and I know the American people will support Dustin [Poirier]. And it will be a mix of energy that’s going to blow the roof off the place.
Dustin Poirier (16-3) vs. Conor McGregor (15-2) on the main card, $78-$803, Sept. 27, MGM Grand Garden Arena, UFC.com.