Conor McGregor. If you haven’t seen the fights, you’ve heard the legend. McGregor ascended the walls of the UFC octagon faster than one of his patented knockout punches. At the same time, he’s built a personal brand quite unlike any other in MMA.

He’s become an accepted part of the mainstream cultural canvas. Yet, he’s an agitator, someone who rejects societal norms with punk attitude. Not for nothing is the 2017 documentary about him called ‘Notorious’. Being notorious is a badge of honour McGregor wears with pride.

Whether you’re a fan or not doesn’t matter, you have to be impressed by his marketing savvy and the success of his ongoing campaign.

McGregor: Enter the Dragon

He caught the eye of the UFC in 2013 and, in just three short – unbeaten – years, rose to become the most famous fighter in the world, with tens of millions in the bank, and both the Lightweight and Featherweight titles to his name – making him the first fighter to simultaneously possess the belts of two weight categories.

For marketeers, his meteoric rise deserves examination. He is a master of mixed marketing arts.

For the most part, McGregor walks the walk and talks the talk. It’s a uniquely dynamic combination. History suggests athletes are either great athletes or great talkers. Put the two together and you have a winning combination. Comparisons with Muhammad Ali are not misplaced.

Like Ali, his success is considerable, whether the gloves are on or off. The saying goes that any press is good press and The Irish Man is at a stage in the narrative arc of his career, when his exploits outside the octagon are getting more of the media spotlight than when he’s in the octagon.

McGregor’s Grudge Match

His fists and mouth go together like a knife and fork. How? Because the guy has a plan. A business plan.

A marketing strategy that was driving forward in top gear when, in 2016 – he tapped-out to Nate Diaz – ending an unbroken run of fifteen wins. People thought the wheels had come off, but McGregor hit the gas and set off in a different direction – to enjoy even greater success. As he puts it himself, “Keep a beginner’s mind and rise up.” His attitude – like that of many successful business people – is to see every day as a school day, and every obstacle is an opportunity.

Six months later, he was facing Diaz again, had the fight of his life, and won.

The end. Credits.

If McGregor’s life were a movie, that, right there, is where they’d end it. The scrapper had come back, faced down his demons, and won the day.

But McGregor is only just 30. This is only the end of his first act!

McGregor: Kung-Fu Hustle

Great brands aren’t built overnight. They take time. Just ask McGregor.

And not the McGregor you see today, but that of 2008. Even with a 4 and 1 record, a confident McGregor predicted, “without a doubt you will see me in the UFC in the future”.

The aforementioned documentary frames the two Conors perfectly. It starts with him emerging from his millionaire mansion, dressed like James Bond, off to fight Diaz with the words “Let’s f#@&!n’ school him.” A picture of supreme self-confidence. Then the film rewinds just three years to find him living in his mother’s spare bedroom with his constant companion – his girlfriend, Dee – deep in debt, and borrowing equipment because he can’t afford his own. He had the confidence then, too.

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Yo, Adrian, it’s me, Conor! Notorious feeds the fire heating up the McGregor Myth.

But the documentary frames him as the underdog. The scrappy back-street kid who did good. Essentially, it portrays him as MMA’s answer to Rocky Balboa. It comes as no surprise to learn that McGregor produced the documentary himself; that he was instrumental in creating this mythologised version of his own rise. Even when he was that scrappy back-street kid, ten years ago, he understood the importance of controlling the narrative and of creating his own brand.

Since the film was released, Mystic Mac has gone on to achieve movie-star levels of fame, with a reputed $85 million payout for his boxing bout against Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather.

That’s the kind of CV that lands your mug on the cover of Time Magazine… yeah, that happened too. But how? Simple: get the people behind your brand. Speak in a language they understand. Appeal to their wants, needs and desires.

“We’re not here just to take part; we’re here to take over,” a jubilant McGregor professed to rapturous applause from a not-entirely impartial home crowd. He was speaking after his UFC Dublin win in 2014. He’d knocked Diego Brandao out in the first round.

McGregor was originally slated to fight Cole Miller. However, Miller pulled out due to an injury, and was replaced by Brandao. McGregor’s ‘beat anyone, anywhere, anytime’ attitude only solidified his brand presence. It’s one UFC president, Dana White, often trots out as part of the legacy building campaign.

With the precision of his now-legendary left hook, he tapped into the collective conscience of his Irish brethren. The Notorious McG became a working class hero – a talisman for, at first, Irish folk to aspire towards and now, with global fame, back street heroes the world over look to his example.

And people were watching – and they bought into the myth. The McGregor brand voice had come of age.

McGregor’s Great White Hype

Back in February 2013, a visibly excited McGregor made a guest appearance on MMA Fighting’s show ‘The MMA Hour’. According to the then host Ariel Helwani, thousands of fans had been rabble-rousing for McGregor’s presence. Thousands, rather than millions, please note.

Cut to 2017, and Helwani himself would travel to Manchester to present ‘An Experience with Conor McGregor’. The Irish Man had gained a new level of fame. Now the media came to him. He’d pulled back, controlling his own exposure – partly because he was saving it for the movie, but also because leaving the crowd wanting more has been a smart move since the days of P.T. Barnum. McGregor was puppeteering his own discourse. Did this deter the media from talking about him? Far from it. In the absence of facts, they filled the void with speculation. This amplified McGregor’s mystique and his stock rose.

McGregor’s tattoos are a very personal part of his personal branding. They are, you could argue, his work clothes. When he joined the UFC he was an unknown quantity, a blank canvas. That changed very quickly.

Although he claims there was no grand strategy in his chest tattoo of the black gorilla, with a crown on its head and a heart in its mouth, but there’s no denying it makes a statement. Even if he isn’t sure what that statement is.

The tiger on his belly was, he says, a spur-of-the-moment decision, because he likes tigers. But it is very seductive to think of it as his interpretation of ‘the eye of the tiger’ – that symbolic animalistic drive that propels young and hungry fighters to the top.

The ‘McGregor’ and ‘Notorious’ tattoos that surround the tiger are more overtly branding. He wants every photo of his impressive physique to be stamped with his personal copyright.

Mystic Mac – then and now.

It is indeed a rare week when his name doesn’t come up on Luke Thomas’ ‘The MMA Beat’ – just ask former co-host Jeff Wagenheim.

McGregor’s narrowing of the media focus coincided with the launch of The Mac Life. The publishing platform professes to be “the #1 source for Conor McGregor News, MMA, Sport, Health, Fitness, Fashion and Style”. So, he made the next obvious step in creating the media narrative – he took control of the means of media production.

While this represents a further expansion his global personal brand, The Mac Life is also a chance for McGregor to surround himself more closely with the people who have been with him since the start – the people he knows he can trust. Dee Devlin is listed as the business’s secretary, and it doesn’t get much closer than being the mother of his child. McGregor is loyal to those loyal to him. It’s an admirable quality and one which we marketers would do well to adopt.

Nothing happens in a vacuum (that’s where the dust gathers). Marketing, PR and brand building is a team effort – it smashes auteurist ideologies. So, value those close to you. Keep ’em in your corner. Help them out and, in theory, they’ll help you.

McGregor: Raging Bull

In today’s Brave New World, getting social with followers is the norm for sports stars, pop stars, and celebrities of every stripe and stratum. In doing so, meaningful content remains key. Even the most slavishly uncritical audience will eventually develop a sense of smell. They’ll recognise bull$h!+ if you’re shovelling it!

So don’t. Be authentic.

Whether it’s brand building, negotiating, pushing personal causes or product sponsorships, social enables sportspeople to parachute strategic messaging direct into the pockets of people around the world. It’s how they go from being athletes to influencers.

The UFC knows this. The organisation is even said to offer social media marketing training courses to members of its roster. But if they want a real lesson, they should follow McGregor. In the words of Montell Jordan, ‘This Is How We Do It’.

Where McGregor is excelling, outside of the octagon, is in harnessing his fight-fanship for his own personal greater good. The man is a side hustle magnet and magnate, using his social media juggernaut to drive forward endorsements, sponsorships and business ventures.

It goes to show that with clever strategy, not to mention persistence, you can really carve out an alternate career. The key to building a successful brand online, amongst other factors, is keeping a streamlined message so your audience fully engage with it.

Say the same thing and say it often.

One aspect Conor thrives on, is continuity. Although the content of his posts differ from day to day, featuring him training, traveling or with family, the content always revolves around the same thing: him. More specifically, the content always portrays him as a strong, successful character.

And that’s a message his fans want to see. They want the inspiration as much as the perspiration.

You’ve seen Rocky III. He gets beaten down by Clubber Lang at the end of act one. Everyone thinks he’s down and out but, in secret, he’s learning a whole different way of fighting. Then, when he’s good and ready, he comes back – hard.

That’s where we are, right now, waiting for McGregor to come back. You can’t have a comeback if you don’t go away!

McGregor: Million Dollar Baby

A social media study, conducted by Colin Oliver of ORACLE back in 2016 found that, between August 2015 and Aug 2016, McGregor was mentioned a jaw-dropping 6.4 million times across Twitter, in the news and on MMA-related blogs and forums.

Today, McGregor averages 1 million likes per Instagram post. This is no mean feat. The top dog is a social media hot dog. And McGregor continues to build and sustain his fight career on social media – which is quite an achievement, since he isn’t presently doing it on the canvas.

Conor McGregor - King of Mixed Marketing Arts (MMA). A snapshot of McGregor's Instagram feed. 11 million likes in 7 days.
A typical week on Instagram for McGregor, businessman, familyman and athlete.
This is what 11 million likes in seven days looks like.

Having 30 million Instagram followers opens more doors than a hotel doorman. McGregor’s social feed is a window to his perceived status as a pugilist, parent and personality – all his different guises and disguises. Occasionally he’ll break the fourth wall, offering sincere gestures to other colleagues.

For many, he’s an overhyped motormouth. For others, he’s a loveable rogue.

One thing’s for sure though: love him or loathe him, you know who he is.

All of which is purposeful. He is leveraging that notoriety into money. On the one hand, the UFC will publicly admonish him, but then pepper footage of his antics into their marketing. Almost as though this were by mutual agreement.

McGregor has become a social influencer, and brands are lining up to bask in his reflected glory. He has signed lucrative sponsorship deals with global names like Beats by Dre (which he wears when working out), Monster Energy, Reebok and Burger King.

But, of course, he hasn’t been slow in launching his own brands – his own Intellectual Properties.

McGregor: I.P. Man

Conor launched ‘McGregor Fast’, a fitness bootcamp which appeals directly to those who follow him for his physique. Given one of the most popular categories on Instagram is health and fitness, using the platform to develop new business strategies is extremely savvy.

He is also leveraging his Irishness – with his own brand of Irish whiskey Proper No. Twelve – the sales of which proved a knock-out in the run-up to Christmas 2018.

You remember that James Bond suit we mentioned? For his so-called “Money Fight” against Floyd Mayweather – McGregor wore his attitude on his sleeve, literally, with the (if you will) notorious pin-stripe suit, made from cloth he commissioned specially.

Conor McGregor - King of Mixed Marketing Arts (MMA). A close up of his suit sleeve with 'Fuck You' woven into the cloth.
Suits you, sir. This suit is, of course, available to buy.
Perfect for that meeting with your boss.

This led, inevitably, to a new business endeavour. In February 2019, McGregor launched his own line of clothing, including gym gear and sharp suits. News is still pending as to whether McGregor will open a chain of tattoo parlours. (This is a joke… but not really.)

Brands which fail to adapt typically lose in the end. You have to move with the times. You have to stay relevant. McGregor is a master at this, evolving his brand with Darwinian conviction.

Yes, he perpetually craves the spotlight. And, yes, in doing so, he flirts with overexposure. Gold watches, flash cars and the recent bad-boy antics do indeed threaten his status as a hero of his people. So, rather than fanning the flames of burn-out, he successfully turns the cooker down a notch or two just at the right time. Overexposure quickly cools into eager anticipation.

And now the ongoing saga has entered a new chapter. On Monday night, McGregor appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show, in a thinly-veiled advert for his whiskey.

In that interview, he says he is preparing for a comeback fight in July.

Then, a few hours later – he retired.

Conor McGregor - King of Mixed Marketing Arts (MMA). McGregor retires by Twitter

Does anyone believe this is final? Or, is it simply the next stage in the McGregor narrative; the next step in his strategy? Is the closing of this door merely the opening of a door into WWE? Speculation is rife.

After all, it’s not like he hasn’t retired before.

Also, when he goaded Mayweather out of retirement – they both made an insane sum of money. Now, the glove is on the other fist. How much will the UFC have to cough up to get McGregor to rewind his retirement and step back into the octagon?

Time, no doubt, will tell.

Because the world is about ready for the next act in the McGregor story arc: The Return of the Mac!