McGregor Forever review
In McGregor Forever, we watch the brash Irishman navigate life from 2018 until 2021. Nothing present-day is in focus, yet the release feels relevant, not least because Conor McGregor has teased the documentary for months. His fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov? His foot had been a "balloon" prior to the bout, he says, and the finished product would reveal all.
True to his word, we get to see what went down before that ill-fated battle with Khabib in 2018. Squaring up against a stocky wrestler in practice, Conor dislocates two toes and is forced to hobble into fight week without the assurance of victory at all. He ends up losing to Khabib in the fourth round and returns to the locker room with his head in his hands. “I lost and that’s that”, he tells onlookers. “And that’s that.”
We get further peeks behind the proverbial curtain. In June 2020, McGregor retires from the fight game with a Tweet that’s now legendary: “Hey guys I’ve decided to retire from fighting. Thank you all for the amazing memories! What a ride it’s been!” Thanks to the documentary, we see what’s led to this. Conor has been desperate to get in and compete. He’s irritated at the UFC for holding back. And as a last ploy, he invites a former rival - Dustin Poirier - to take him on in a charity boxing match far away from the mixed martial arts promotion. (In the UFC’s defence, COVID had locked down most of the world, and they didn’t want their number one star fighting in front of an empty crowd).
Sure enough, the UFC are forced to book the Irishman against Louisiana's Poirier in early 2021, albeit in front of a slimmed-down Abu Dhabi audience. McGregor loses the bout by way of knockout. The rematch takes place seven months later, only for Conor to fail again: this time when he breaks his ankle in a horrifying accident. Were this a scripted four-hour movie, the Poirier rematch would have been redemptive. Instead, we’re left with something far more interesting: the UFC supremo sitting on a hospital bed while ruminating about his future.
McGregor is box office. Even in his lowest moments, he exudes a positive energy and a never-say-die attitude. But for whatever reason, the editors have filled 50% of this documentary with filler, scouring the archives for old interviews of the star from 2014, 2015 and 2016. Every instance of found-footage is instantly familiar, which is to say that other UFC fans will remember it too. No doubt Netflix were in a bind, faced with the unenviable task of appealing to new fans and diehards alike. But the resulting mix skews too far towards the former, and perhaps a 4-episode, 60-minute contract was pushing things too far.
What is original is gripping stuff, mind. My favourite scene comes in an early episode when, after assaulting a rival’s bus, McGregor is sentenced to community service at a Brooklyn church. How strange it is to see a bona fide star sweeping up litter and replacing the mats on pews in a pair of joggers. Yet before long, the Conor we know and love rears his head: he starts to talk about all that he’s learning in the church, reciting lines from the pamphlets and posters dotted around the four walls of the holy building. His smile is unconstrained. His enthusiasm is undeniable. As his community service comes to an end, he tells the elder - perhaps wiser - clergy that he doesn’t want to leave. In this moment we see a superstar athlete who is, deep down, as humble as we’d like to believe.
In another scene, we witness Conor’s reaction to the news that his most bitter rival, Khabib Nurmagomedov, is retiring. Filmed as Khabib’s retirement is playing out on a plasma TV, McGregor curses to himself, then tries to play off the entire the thing with a cursory, “I don’t give a fuck.” Conor can’t help but add that the fight will “happen”. It’s in these moments that we see the real man behind the mask: a master showman battling insecurities like the rest of us. During the tail-end of 2019, as Conor grapples with an injury, and during the tail-end of 2021, when he tries to recover from a severe leg break, the mask slips further. Idle hands are the devil’s work, he tells someone off camera.
This is clearly a human being who needs to be on the move; a person of humble beginnings battling the demons that compel the uber-successful to get to the summit in the first place.
In a scripted film, the leg-break against Poirier would be edited. McGregor would emerge victorious and all would be forgotten. Yet there are no such niceties afforded to documentary filmmakers. By the denouement, the protagonist of McGregor Forever is on a losing streak and at a crossroads in a fabulous career. More insight from the man himself could have made this illuminating. Instead, we’re forced to listen to asinine voiceovers from the YouTube community decrying Conor’s fall from grace. The inference is simple: even a world-famous athlete has to deal with a lot of rubbish, but the point is replayed to the point of tedium.
It’s clear that McGregor is exceptionally gifted. He’s also very funny. At one point he tells his girlfriend that their son Conor Jr has gone to and from the gym in the Lambo, when the Lambo, in reality, is a miniature remote controlled car. The film is crying out for more of these quiet moments.
It's for this reason that the 2017 documentary Notorious is an altogether better watch. Though it undoubtedly documents a more prosperous time in the Irishman’s fight career, it also features more original footage. By contrast, McGregor Forever is a passing curio, one that’s disappointingly light on new info for fight fans. Where are the business dealings? The Proper Whiskey haggling? The acting work? McGregor is more than a fighter now, but we get to see precious little of that.