Interview: “Notorious” Director Gavin Fitzgerald on the rapid rise of Conor McGregor
A key factor of great reporting is setting yourself up to be at the right place at the right time. In 2012, documentary filmmaker Gavin Fitzgerald did exactly that when he stepped into the Straight Blast Gym (SBG) in Dublin, Ireland. There to film some established mixed martial artists, Fitzgerald met an unknown young fighter named Conor McGregor. The result of that chance meeting is “CONOR McGREGOR: NOTORIOUS,” a kick-ass new documentary that chronicles the four-year journey of McGregor from unknown to arguably the world’s most famous fighter. The film is currently available On Demand with the DVD coming out December 5.
“This is before Conor was even in the UFC. I went to SBG where he trains at. We were doing little documentaries on some of his teammates,” director Gavin Fitzgerald told me this week from Ireland. “Back then, the core were people like Cathal Pendred and Paddy Holohan. And Conor McGregor, who was a skinhead back then, kind of shadowboxing in the background. I guess he was wondering why the cameras weren’t following him. So we did a couple interviews with him. And immediately, he just grabs you. There’s something different about him. I remember asking him how he got into fighting. He talked about watching gorillas on the Nature Channel and taking from that. Taking their movements. It’s the kind of answer that you aren’t expecting to hear from a fighter. So immediately, he was captivating.”
Fans of McGregor, documentaries, and fighting alike will enjoy this film in large part because Fitzgerald brings a reporter’s eye to the proceedings. While the narrative of the film begins in the midst of McGregor hitting what might be his peak, the gathering of material began before he ever stepped foot on UFC soil. The film doesn’t feel like UFC or McGregor propaganda (McGregor is credited as an Executive Producer) but a rare insider record of the fight game and one fighter’s improbable journey within it.
“My dream is to be number one,” a young, pimple-faced Conor says into the camera in the film’s opening moments. “Notorious” takes us into the world of mixed martial arts from the fighter’s perspective and shows you how he gets there in real time.
“To be honest, I came into it with almost no knowledge of mixed martial arts. Nobody in Ireland was covering it at the time. It was sort of uncharted waters. I guess it is an interesting subject to cover because fights are so visceral. But also, fighters represent themselves as opposed to a team environment. You get more personalities in fighting. But it was unusual, I guess, when you go to make a documentary on mixed martial arts and happen to stumble upon Conor McGregor.”
Director Fitzgerald (who also shot the film along with Darragh McCarthy) never take “Notorious” into the rote interviewer and subject format. Because of that, the record of events doesn’t feel as if Fitzgerald was trying to impose a narrative on them as they unfolded. This approach serves to make the film a more visceral experience.
“We wanted to kind of present the most authentic version of him. And often when you interfere too much and when you do interviews with Conor, you’re kind of turned into media mode. And we wanted to kind of get away from that and be a bit more stripped back,” explained Fitzgerald. “We had a lot of footage to go through. We wanted to tell his whole story and try to find a more subtle, maybe human side of him that isn’t shown a lot of the time in the press conferences and the kind of bravado that you often see from him.”
What is striking about McGregor in the film is how consistent he is as a person. His self-belief is unflappable. The film opens with him heading from his mansion to a press conference. Non-UFC fans might assume McGregor’s evident self-confidence is born of his current success. But then the camera jumps back in time four years to reveal the same brashly self-confident fighter. McGregor quits his job in Ireland and moves to Las Vegas, NV to pursue his dream of fighting in the UFC and becoming the best fighter in the world.
As McGregor rises in fame and financial stature, he never seems surprised by it. Rather, whether it is when watching him buy a three-piece suit after his first UFC win or a car for his longtime love, Dee, McGregor gives the impression of a king formerly in exile returning to the throne he knew was his all along. He isn’t showing off but is simply claiming what was always his. It’s kind of crazy to watch how much of a natural McGregor is at handling all that comes with winning and losing at the highest level. He makes the transition from poor fighter living the simplest of lives to high-profile fighter shooting a big budget commercial look easy. But fame, especially the sudden kind, certainly has its price and “Notorious” catches that, as well.
“Sometimes, [fame] can be a little heavy on him. At the end of the day, he is only one person and there is a lot going on,” said Fitzgerald. “I think the bigger he got, the more private he became. I think he is kind of surrounded by so much that it can become a little too much at times. But one to one, Conor is very much the same person I met five years ago. The world around him has changed. He has a lot more money. He’s doing great. His life has certainly changed for the good, I think. It’s different. He can’t really walk out (in Dublin) without causing a storm. He has to be a little more secluded in his nature now.”
For the uninitiated to the hurt business, “Notorious” gives a rare look at the routine pain and suffering a fighter endures preparing for and facing an opponent. In particular, it shows that McGregor was seriously injured heading into one of his most important bouts.
“He kind of may have mentioned it in press conferences after the fight but the film reveals the true extent of [the injury], said Fitzgerald. “We were very much in his camp. It was actually very difficult for other crews to come in and film. Some people might have heard about the injury but it was all very hush hush. He spoke to us about it obviously. He told us and trusted us to keep the information secret. If that got out, it would have been used against him. It was tense times. He had a full blown ACL going into the fight, which is crazy. Most people certainly would have pulled from the fight. Especially when the opponent changed, he had an opportunity to get out. But he is committed to the fans; all the Irish fans that had booked flights to come over and watch him fight. So he was going to fight no matter what which is what makes him the best at what he does.”
“Notorious” takes you through several fight build-ups. The slight variations in Conor’s focus and mindset as he heads into each fiight is fascinating. He is clearly in the zone heading into his fight with Jose Aldo, unable to take his eyes off his own reflection, and it shows in the cage.
If McGregor is known for anything among fight fans, it’s for his gift of gab. To be a successful fighter, you can simply let your fists and feet do your talking. But to be a superstar as McGregor is, one must be able to stir the emotions of fans in and out of the ring. But sometimes, that can take an ugly turn as it has repeatedly for McGregor when it comes to trash talking to his opponents. Over the years, McGregor has made some questionable comments in regards to the race of his opponents. To be fair, when it comes to insulting his opponents, McGregor does appear to be an equal opportunity offender. I asked Fitzgerald for his take on what some might call McGregor’s racially insensitive comments to foes over the years.
“I suppose the Irish have a tendency to be less offended by things. We kind of tease each other. But you have to be careful especially in the current climate,” Fitzgerald explained. “During the Mayweather fight, Conor was on this world stage. Everyone was watching. He said a couple comments he didn’t mean or were taken another way. You have to be careful of that and be aware of it. But I don’t know him to be a hateful man or certainly not a racist or anything along those lines. I think he just, he basically, he kind of sees everyone equally if you know what I mean. So coming into [a fight], it doesn’t really matter if they are Asian, black, brown or white, he is going to find an angle and just go at them. Sometimes, that can kind of cross a line, you know? I think that is probably what has happened with some of his previous opponents.”
Fitzgerald and company have struck gold here. “Notorious” works because both the filmmaker and its subject are unflinching in their approach. It left me wondering if Fitzgerald had another McGregor on his radar.
“I am actually looking into developing some rugby ideas, which is kind of a passion of mine. I am a keen sports guy. I’ve made a few films on martial arts now. I want to explore a new field,” said Fitzgerald. “But I am sure I will come back to mixed martial arts, as well. You find such interesting characters in it. For the moment, I think Conor is as big as it gets. I would have to look out there for a while.”
“Notorious” is a Universal Pictures Home Entertainment release now available on digital and On Demand. The DVD comes out December 5.