LAS VEGAS — There are many easy ways to measure the fame of Conor McGregor, all of which lead toward the same obvious conclusion: The dude is really damn famous. The huddles of Irish faithful depleting Las Vegas Boulevard of its liquor supply, for starters. And the two million (or more) projected pay-per-view buys for Saturday night’s lightweight title bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov, which would set a new mixed martial arts record. And the unflinching testimony of UFC president Dana White when asked whether McGregor is the biggest star in combat sports: “one-hundred percent.”
Audie Attar is walking near the stage at Park Theater, where pretty soon Nurmagomedov and McGregor will take turns—separately, due to the latter’s tardiness—discussing the finer points of smooshing each other’s bodies into mush. Scanning the crowd, Attar smiles and offers a fist-pump. As McGregor’s agent and manager, of course, even he has fans.
In a way, it is not far removed from the 38-year-old’s past life. Born in Baghdad, he was a touted defensive back out of Claremont (Calif.) High School, an ESPN third-team all-American with a bright football future. Even then, though, Attar showed a knack for the business side of sports: After committing to nearby UCLA, he enjoyed hosting recruits on their official campus visits, pitching them on the program and convincing them to join. “You’re going to be an agent,” friends would tell him, and pretty soon Attar was branching out solo, building a roster of MMA clients.
One day, he got a call from a Canadian friend named Dave McGregor about an emerging Irish talent with the same last name. After connecting with Conor’s longtime coach John Kavanagh, they met leading into McGregor’s fight against Marcus Brimage in April ‘13, a 67-second knockout; Attar signed McGregor shortly thereafter, prior to the latter’s U.S. debut four months later in Boston. (Where else for a native Dubliner?) Today, McGregor will soon command another mid-eight-figure haul from the main event at UFC 229—plus whatever scratch comes from the boundless flock of brand ambassadors whom Attar has been entertaining this week.
“My athletic days are over,” he says. “I just try to eat like a bird so I don’t get fat.”
The morning after the press conference, Attar is standing in the corner of a ballroom at Park MGM, squirreled away next to a water cooler and an A/C thermostat before the official weigh-in. As McGregor’s agent and manager, of course, people sometimes try to sneak peeks at his text messages. It’s the same reason he keeps a privacy screen protector on his laptop while flying. Good thing, too. Exactly six months ago, Attar was midair to a cousin’s wedding in Detroit when his phone started flooding with text messages. Turns out that McGregor, hellbent on revenge against Nurmagomedov from an earlier dispute involving a friend, had smashed a bus window after the UFC 223 press conference at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, injuring several fighters and resulting in legal charges.
It all led to Las Vegas, where McGregor and Nurmagomedov both made weight Friday morning at 154.5 and 155 pounds, respectively, and are scheduled to meet in the octagon around 10 p.m. local time Saturday night. Before McGregor stepped on the scale—then flexed, screamed, and slapped his chest—Attar spoke with SI.com to discuss his client’s comeback from boxing Floyd Mayweather, reflect on the incident in Brooklyn, and preview the fight.
SI: Let’s start broad. What stands out about the way Conor has approached the lead-up here?
AA: Conor McGregor has always been dedicated to his craft. I think everyone makes a big deal out of things, like he’s been out of UFC for two years, out of fighting for one year. Those are sound bites and subject titles, in my opinion.
Everyone wants to tune in or read what’s going on with Conor McGregor, whether they like him or they don’t. I think he has that aura about him, you know? The one thing people are forgetting is he loves this game. Even after he made so much money with Floyd, he still was in the gym, training. And there was speculation about whether he’d ever come back to fighting again.
We knew he wanted to. He just didn’t want to deal with a lot of the s——. And quite frankly, even before the melee that happened, he was planning on coming back in May. That was why he was headed to New York. It was going to be Rafael dos Anjos in Brazil. But everything happened. We had to work through that. And at the end of the day, this is built into a natural rivalry.
SI: So he didn’t just fly to Brooklyn to come after Khabib?
AA: We had already been negotiating with UFC for six months on a new deal, what the next fight was. Here’s what happened: He wanted to fight in Brazil. That was the fight that was going to finalize the deal, then that didn’t get closed and once all that stuff happened, Rio wasn’t going to happen. And even the deal had not been signed, right? Everything was paused. I had to get through that situation.
SI: Where were you when it happened?
AA: I was on a flight to Detroit for my cousin’s wedding with my mom, my wife and my two daughters. Because of WiFi, my phone almost blew up on that flight. I landed in Detroit, missed the first day because the next morning I had to fly to New York. At the end of the day, I wasn’t there. But unfortunately, what happened, he looks back at it and realizes … he felt bad that certain people got hurt.
The one thing about these two is, they get to settle the score in the octagon. That’s a controlled environment and they’re both professional athletes and that’s where it should take place. Luckily, they get to throw leather, you know?
SI: How did Conor react to not being able to fight in Rio because of something that he did?
AA: Obviously he wanted to fight there. But he just dealt with it. I don’t think he was dwelling on the fact that, ‘I wish I was on the Rio card.’ He’s been focused on Oct. 6 ever since he signed on the dotted line. And everyone keeps asking, what about the next fight? Here’s the thing: He’s excited about being back to fighting. It’s something he’s always been passionate about that he loves, at the end of the day. It’s part of his DNA. I’m excited for him to go out Oct. 6, and we’ll focus on what’s after, after that.
SI: The date’s so imprinted in your mind. You can say Saturday now.
AA: Exactly. Only three days away, it’s amplified to a whole other level. I’m just ready to get there, ready to handle business and then we’ll go from there.
SI: Conor has said he “fell out of love with the game.” Could you see signs?
AA: It’s a lot of the politics in this business. It’s the reality of it. You have to deal with it. It wasn’t that he fell out of love with the sport. At all. At all. But these guys are not animals. They’ve got to be treated like human beings. They go risk their lives. And sometimes they get objectified. Who are you going to fight next? When are you going to fight next?
If I’m going to risk my life, damn right, I’m an advocate. You’ve got to treat them fairly from an economic standpoint. This should be a real partnership. At the end of the day, they’re making magic together. It’’s a win-win relationship. We have to take a human approach, and also a collaborative approach. Not just from a contractual standpoint, but how we approach business. You’ll go through things that will result in an impasse, that will raise tensions, but ultimately I think both sides truly are sincere about their love for the sport and they see it in each other. Even if you have to get there through a road less traveled.
SI: What was the combat sports scene like when you were coming out of college?
AA: Fighting was really niche, really underground, but I was still a fan. My dad was a boxer. I grew up training in martial arts and gymnastics, things that helped me become a better athlete. In my opinion, the best athletes were coming out of California. You had the Tito Ortizes of the world, Chuck Liddell … I was just fortunate to be in those circles, meet those guys as a fan, and I saw the sport having the potential to really explode. It transcends language and cultures. It’s not for everybody. But if you’re into contact sports, you’re going to like it. It’s not like boxing. It’s not the same thing over and over again.
SI: You said people don’t realize how quickly he returned to training after the Mayweather fight. What was it? A day? A week?
AA: Well, he was enjoying life too. He’s a red-blood man. He doesn’t hide who he is. Love him or hate him, he doesn’t front. But he loves to train. When you go through that experience, well, he lost, but he was actually really good at the beginning. Look at points. But it’s a different game. It’s not his game. And you’re going up against a guy who’s now 50–0 and knows every inch of that ring, every rule, every way to get you off your game. Which is mixed martial arts. But he learned so much.
SI: What have you seen in his training?
AA: He’s focused. The thing is, people think he re-attacked after Brooklyn. But he was focused. He was ready to fight in May. So really since the top of the year. He’s been training for a while. But he’s been thinking about UFC 229 … he was ready heading into the Brooklyn thing, knowing that he was going to fight, knowing that October day was going to come.
SI: Heading into where?
AA: Court in Brooklyn. Obviously we were working on a deal, so you know what’s happening. He was focused. He was training in New York, focusing on what’s to come.
SI: Are you obligated to hate Khabib? Where should an agent fall on the beef spectrum?
AA: I think an agent and manager has a role. You don’t criticize any athlete, even if it’s not your athlete. You respect them all, because that shows true respect for the sport. Think about the fight game. In football, a player gets paid to do what he statistically does. He doesn’t need to promote Thursday Night Football. He goes and plays. These guys, if they all out of a fight, they don’t get paid. Right?
So their job is not only to prepare for the fight, pay for their camp, train for the camp, make sure they make weight, make sure they step in the cage healthy, but also how well that fight card does means how much their family eats. You see what I’m saying? There’s an element of entertainment in this business. So for me to get involved with any of the banter that goes on is not my role. I’m disrespecting the sport. I think a lot of people who do that are just straight clowns. At the end of the day, if you want to fight, go fight. Get in there.
The likelihood of my clients fighting each other, that’s very possible. My job is to maximize their careers from a business standpoint. Build their brands. Maximize earnings. Negotiate the best contracts, so on and so forth. I understand my role as a manager or agent. I think that’s why we’re continuing to thrive and succeed.
SI: How accurate was Conor’s estimate that he could make $50 million from this fight?
AA: Very accurate. Looking at Dana’s forecasting, based on those variables, very accurate. But you have to see how that does. What sells pay per views? The continued replay of the bus and the press conference and the soundbites. People lose sight of that. It’s fandom. Sometimes it’s good or bad. Love it or hate. But at the end of the day, these athletes all go through so much, sacrifice their lives for MMA. This isn’t golf or ballet. It’s not for everybody. But as a fan, I love it. I also respect it. And I would hope that all fans would do the same.
SI: And his projection that he’ll become a billionaire by 35? [McGregor is 30 now.]
AA: Hey, that’s out there. We are an ambitious group. We’ve always dreamed big. Look, we’re on the right path.
SI: Does he ever say anything that makes you cringe? Are you past that point?
AA: Here’s the thing. My job, again, is not to get involved when things are said. But with all my clients, I’ll sit and debrief and talk about what happened. But they’re all individuals. They can take that opinion and apply it or not. When they cut weight, by the way, it’s like the Betty White Snickers commercial. You’re not yourself. They go through a lot. At the end of the day, I try to make them better professionals everywhere I can.
SI: I know you all are big into visualization, speaking things into existence and such. What’s in your mind about [Saturday]?
AA: Tony putting on a spectacular performance, getting on the mic and probably calling for his shot. I feel like we’ve done a good job to set him up, so he can control his own destiny. Then Conor doing what he does, getting on the mic, entertaining the fans. Then going by, congratulating both clients, both families, seeing my families and my team be happy for what we accomplished, and then celebrating.
SI: You didn’t say a win for Conor.
AA: I did. I absolutely did. Wait, you’re right. I said, ‘Doing what he does.’ Which is winning. Doing what he does, on the mic, entertaining the fans, and then everything else.