Conor McGregor is always present. Even when he doesn’t have a fight lined up. Whether it’s as a businessman, a social media presence or as an influence on every fighter asking Dana White for “50 Gs, baby!” McGregor’s impact has been spoken about consistently across myriad mediums.
However, when Netflix approached Gotham Chopra about doing a docuseries on “The Notorious” one, Chopra couldn’t help but feel a pull to investigate the man behind all the bravado. Chopra has worked with some of the best athletes in the world, such as Tom Brady while directing Tom vs. Time and Man in the Arena: Tom Brady, as well as LeBron James on Shut Up and Dribble. While Chopra saw similarities between these elite athletes and McGregor, he also took note of some of the unique aspects of the former two-division champion.
“There's this part of him that’s very present and very there with you,” Chopra told UFC.com of his first meeting with McGregor. “There's this other part that's always close by where he just kind of goes inward, and he's in his own world. I think that's just different. It feels very different.”
And so came McGregor Forever, a four-part docuseries released on Netflix in mid-May. Working with Darragh McCarty (who directed Notorious in 2017), Chopra and his team started collecting footage and interviews in the lead-up to his venomous duel with Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018.
The timing couldn’t be much better for the docuseries. The finale leaves McGregor in the aftermath of his leg injury sustained at UFC 264 in July 2021, but McGregor’s return is imminent. He is set to coach opposite Michael Chandler on his second Ultimate Fighter coaching stint with a fight against “Iron” coming sometime in the future.
The early returns have been nothing but positive from both McGregor’s team, according to Chopra, and from Netflix’s internal numbers.
“We’re seeing that right now, just in terms of how this rocket ship here is doing,” he said. “I'm getting all the data right now from Netflix, and it's just popping off (everywhere). I was like, ‘Oh, right. He is popular everywhere.’”
One of the most alluring parts of the documentary is the never-before-seen footage. From McGregor dealing with a foot injury ahead of UFC 229 all the way through talking with doctors after breaking his leg against Poirier, viewers will see the raw emotions that permeate the fight game.
Conor McGregor | The Ultimate Fighter Highlights
Conor McGregor | The Ultimate Fighter Highlights
While they were allowed great access to training sessions, family time and post-fight locker rooms, Chopra acknowledged the difficulty that comes with wrangling an international superstar of McGregor’s caliber. Luckily, the wealth of McGregor coverage is as grandiose as the Irishman’s actual wealth, so they were able to dive deep into the archives to create a compare-contrast effect with the man on the rise versus the man who has the world in his hands.
Despite the major growth financially, Chopra still sees the same confident fighter coming up the ranks inside of the yacht-owning, whiskey-dealing multi-millionaire, and he hopes people see that same vision through the series he created.
“He's still the guy he was 10, 15 years ago,” Chopra said. “Not much has changed, and even though some of this stuff is a bit out there and crazy, it's also kind of refreshing. He hasn't changed that much. He's still that kid from Dublin who is just going to do whatever he wants.”
***This interview has been edited for length and clarity.***
UFC.com: What made you want to do a documentary on Conor McGregor?
Gotham Chopra: “I've been watching from afar for 10 years, that explosion onto the scene, and not just an explosion, but a phenomenon. He is just like a one-man circus. It is kind of amazing to believe how rapidly it all happened. I do think everyone else is watching it and fascinated by it. I can't say I was the biggest fan of MMA. It was just watching the UFC explode over time and this process for it to become this full-fledged, behemoth of a sports league, and I was fascinated by that.
“I'd say 2019, when we started, Conor had already had a project, and Netflix had done well. There was interest in doing another one. We work with Netflix now. They called and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in meeting Conor?’ I met with him, and I think that's when they really — what he had accomplished in the Octagon is fascinating. It's amazing, but it's like, ‘Oh, there's a human being actually here.’ He's pretty focused. When you have a conversation, he's very honest, very self-aware. We’ve seen glimpses of this, I think. I found it like, ‘Oh, that's really interesting. There's someone inside of this carnival at Mission Control. For me, as a storyteller, that's what's interesting. That's what you're looking for.”
You had some really great access in the locker rooms, throughout his training camps, and access to things that people don’t get to see. What were your impressions of him when you interacted with him?
“You can't walk into the Octagon without being completely OK. Otherwise, you get your ass kicked. And he's similar when you actually sit down with him; he's really good at focus and he's really good at being thoughtful and he's really on it. If you ask him a question, he doesn't really ruminate on it. He says what he feels, so we were quick to build that relationship, and that was obviously really helpful.”
Conor McGregor Mic Moments
Conor McGregor Mic Moments
How did the story you wanted to tell evolve in terms of creating the storyline that you wanted to put out?
“First of all, the sport and the type of athlete and type of person is fascinating to me. This isn't a team sport. Conor has the greatest trainers and greatest nutritionists and the greatest team, and they prepare him amazingly, but, at the end of the day, he enters that Octagon, and he's on his own and fighting. Mixed martial arts is about two people entering into a ring and, in essence, one walks out (the winner). That's the sport, and it's the oldest sport in the history of man, so who are these people that do that? That always fascinated me.
“Then, you have this guy who, debate as much as you want, is one of the best fighters in the history of sport. He’s the biggest showman. I think that, as I started to get to know him — we had a plan. The Mayweather fight had happened, which, you know, was technically a loss, but it was also amazing. Then, there was the Khabib fight, which, is maybe the most hyped fight to date in the UFC. There was this idea that it was going to be like, ‘OK, these two things happened, but now we're going to see Conor 2.0, and that's what we're going to follow. The quote-unquote comeback.’ Then, a pandemic happened. We all say, ‘They call these things unscripted for a reason.’ Now, we adapt.
“You start to follow somebody, you build a relationship, you get into camp, you meet all the trainers, everyone is so invested, you get invested. I went to Dubai thinking, ‘Yeah, I want this guy to win, and this is going to be amazing.’ I will say losing raises the stakes, and the tension gets built. I've worked with Tom Brady a lot, and Tom always says, ‘Hey, man, it's not the seven Super Bowls that I won that I remember the most. It's three that I lost.’”
I know that you've compared him to some of the best athletes, but part of fighting is selling fights and having a personality, and nobody does that better than Conor McGregor. What was it like watching the different build-ups to his fights against Nurmagomedov, Cerrone and the two Poirier fights?
“It’s interesting because, on the one hand, the most instinctive reaction is to think it’s an act, and he is this great showman, and he knows how to sell the fights. But when you're around him, he's like a character actor. He does take on that persona, and it's not just fake. I feel like I told the story a few times, but, when I was with him (at UFC 264), at that press conference where it was really venomous, I was kind of dragged off the stage with him and stuffed in this room. They're like, ‘You got to just wait here until things settle down,’ and I was like, ‘What are you guys talking about?’ They're like, ‘It's not safe to be out there.’ I'm stuck in this room with Conor and one other person, and he's just pacing in circles, just stalking like a lion. I'm like, ‘This isn't an act. This is him, and he needs him in this moment and him in that.’ That was the persona he took on for that fight, and it was real. I don't know if it was personal, really, but it's what he just sort of figured out he needed to be like in this fight, and he becomes that person. It’s pretty fascinating. I was like like, ‘Holy s**t. I literally feel like I'm stuck in a cage with a tiger. I'm not going to make this guy mad.’
But, then I've also been in L.A. with him. He was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and we were supposed to meet, and he said, ‘Do you mind if we talk while I take my kids to the park?’ I jumped in the car with them, and we got in this park near Beverly Hills, and he's just like a dad. He's trying to give Conor Jr. space to play on the jungle gym, but he is keeping a watchful eye because he doesn't want him to fall and hurt himself, but he kind of wants him to fall because that's how kids learn. They got to fall and get up, and he's just doing that dad thing, and he's like every other dad in the park, so you're like, ‘Oh, right. This is this side of him. This is obviously real.’ There’s a lot of layers to the guy.”
The way you contrast the archival interviews with the footage you shot is something I found really effective. What were you kind of hoping to accomplish with that?
“We’ve been around these fighters, and he is really hard to wrangle. You're constantly planning and then replanning, and a pandemic doesn't help. The fact that he's literally all over the planet doesn't help. It's like, ‘OK, we're not going to get as much.’ He was always good about his training sessions, letting the camera be there and even outside the Octagon, but the closer you get to fights, the less he wants to, and you want to be careful, too, because the last thing you want to be is the distraction. The good news is there is just so much on this guy that's been covered. I think that was one of the most interesting things. This is sort of dorky film stuff, but it's like, how do you use the perception of who this guy is versus his own words across time? What has he been saying that's the same but different? How do we just utilize all this in a really creative way? There is no shortage of Conor McGregor stuff, and I thought it was really interesting when you go back, and you look at something from 10 years ago, and he's just like the nobody from Dublin, he envisioned all of this. He would talk about it back then. He manifested it, and that, in and of itself, is a great story. It's all in the archives, and then you get to be with him and see it. It's all come to fruition, which is interesting.”
What have you thought about the time away and how he's stayed relevant as he prepares to come back and a The Ultimate Fighter premieres in about a week-and-a-half?
“I think he's fascinating. I also think he's (only) 34 years old. When you think about what has happened, it feels like overnight. That’s just like the success in the Octagon, but everything that's because of that - the fame, the fortune — I think he's one of the most iconic people, certainly athletes, on the planet.
“He’s still a young guy. We think, I guess, in fight terms, and he is getting up there, and you know Father Time never loses. I think he is like the Tom Brady or LeBron James. As long as that window can be open, he will find a way to keep it open. It's 100 percent mental for him. Does he have the hunger? Does he really want it? Right now, it seems like he does, and I wouldn't bet against him. I think he'll come back, and he'll be great, I also think all the stuff in terms of business and Hollywood, he's going to do it again. Why shouldn't he? He’s young. He’s got the world at his feet, and he's got a really smart team around him that's been helping him build for this moment, and they're going to take advantage of it. He's a nonstop showman. All the antics online, everything, I don't think it's by design because he really is that guy. I've been with him, and I'm like, ‘Wow, you really are Tweeting.’ He's really that guy.
Have you heard from Conor or his team or anybody about how they felt about the series?
“Darragh (Mccarthy), the co-director, who technically is part of the team over there, he's been in daily contact. He’s very involved in the creative, and that's been awesome just to have him involved not only in the edits, but more like as a filmmaker. The only thing that we were warned about, was that Conor obsesses over his training footage. It was just fascinating because I would look at things, and they'd be like, ‘Yeah, he's going to hate that shot because his arm was too low.’ I'm like, ‘Guys, no one is going to ever notice that.’ He’ll just go crazy over these sorts of things. He's a perfectionist. Conor is not an executive producer. That was always somewhat of a concern, like, ‘OK, we're not creating a big vanity piece.’ We didn't want that, and, in their defense, they didn't want that because they knew that wouldn't be perceived as well.”
He's making this comeback. Would you consider doing a second project with them or is he going to let it lie?
“I will continue the relationship, for sure. The good news is that Darragh will continue to capture content. In my opinion, what makes these things special is scarcity. If you start to think too much of it, then it doesn't feel special anymore, so I would say continue to capture the content, continue to be around. I will maintain the relationship and I'll be watching and advising, but I’ll give it some space because there's a reason that The Last Dance was so iconic. It's because it was 30 years in the making, and I wouldn't advocate for that long, but I would say, ‘It's OK to just create the mystery and leave them wanting more.’”
Watch a trailer for McGregor Forever below: