‘Being the next Conor McGregor is not a plan’: Inside Ian Garry’s ‘Notorious’ rise

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IAN GARRY WAS a student at Dublin Institute of Technology in early 2017, studying retail and service management. He was just 19 years old, but after one year in college, he knew university was not for him.

The Ireland native, inspired by the exploits of Conor McGregor, knew his real vocation in life was to be a fighter. He felt sitting in lecture halls was a waste of his time. After all, he had only signed up for classes at the behest of his mother, Suzanne.

So, after that first year was up, he signed the required form declaring that he was quitting school. That same day, he called his uncle who owned a window-cleaning business. The plan was to make money during the day and train in MMA at night. Garry did not tell his parents about the decision until it was already done.

When Suzanne found out, she was apoplectic. She wrote her son a four-page letter, outlining why he was making a huge mistake. At the outset of the missive, Suzanne hit her son with the literary version of a haymaker.

“Being the next Conor McGregor,” she wrote, “is not a f—ing plan.”

Five years later, that not only remains the plan for Garry, but it describes the very path he is on. The 24-year-old made his UFC debut last year at New York’s Madison Square Garden — where McGregor became the first-ever UFC double champ — and scored a finish against Jordan Williams in the last seconds of the first round. On Saturday Garry will meet Darian Weeks in a welterweight main card bout at UFC 273 in Jacksonville, Florida (8 p.m ET on ESPN/ESPN+) as that journey continues.

In the last nine months, Garry has signed with the UFC, moved to Florida to train with Sanford MMA, got married and made that impressive UFC debut. He was ranked at No. 4 on ESPN’s list of fighters under the age of 25 in 2021, and has received a shoutout out on social media by McGregor himself. Personally, Garry has not veered at all from his lofty goal: to follow in the posh, alligator-skin-shoed footsteps of the man who motivated him.

“It was really the rise of Conor and the boom of MMA in Ireland and Europe when he started to kind of be a superstar,” Garry said. “Everyone was talking about him, everyone was watching the fights. That was kind of really it. I’m of the generation that was a fan as a kid that is now stepping into the Octagon because I’ve followed my dreams.”

GARRY WAS WORKING at the Louis Copeland suit store in Dublin back in 2014. He was a 16-year-old high school student at the time. Mixed martial arts was exploding in Ireland. McGregor had just knocked out Diego Brandao a few months earlier at a raucous UFC Fight Night in Dublin in front of a sold-out crowd at the O2.

McGregor was also a frequent customer at Louis Copeland, but Garry had never run into him. One day, while coming back from his lunch break carrying five bags of McDonald’s for his co-workers, Garry entered the store, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flashy-dressed man trying on a shirt. Garry climbed the stairs to the second floor of the store, dropped the food and looked at the security camera.

“That’s f—ing Conor,” Garry said to himself.

Garry went downstairs to meet his idol. He got a picture with McGregor and spoke with him briefly. The manager of the store told McGregor that Garry had experience in boxing and was good at it. McGregor told him to come down to the SBG Ireland gym and train with him.

At the time, Garry had never trained in MMA, and he wouldn’t start for another two years or so. But that moment meeting McGregor was pivotal for him. He saw the man he wanted to emulate in the flesh. It wasn’t so much that McGregor was from Dublin, like him, Garry said. It was that McGregor had become a worldwide superstar, and he did it all his way. McGregor’s impenetrable mindset — his “sheer belief” — is what caught a hold of Garry.

“He didn’t give a f— what you, me or what anyone else on the planet thinks,” Garry said. “[He thought], ‘I’m the best fighter on the planet and no one can tell me otherwise.'”

In 2017, after dropping out of college, Garry started training in MMA with Team KF in Dublin. He trained when he was younger in boxing and judo, plus spent years playing Irish sports like hurling and Gaelic football. Garry took to MMA quickly, especially the striking, and made his amateur debut in November that year. Over the next 12 months, Garry went 6-1 as an amateur before making his pro debut for Cage Warriors, where McGregor was once a double champion, in February 2019.

Garry won six straight fights to begin his pro career including five finishes and earned a shot at the Cage Warriors title against Jack Grant in June 2021. Five weeks before that fight, Garry tore his right PCL. And 10 days out of the massive bout, Team KF stunningly dismissed him from the gym, writing on Twitter that “no one individual is bigger than the overall welfare and safety of the team.” Neither the team nor Garry commented on what the specific issue was that led to his release.

On one leg and with only his then-girlfriend Layla Machado joining him, Garry arrived for the fight in London. Cage Warriors would not let him compete with no corner, so he asked his friend Paul Hughes, now a Cage Warriors featherweight champ, to step in. Garry won via unanimous decision to become welterweight champion in the main event of the card.

“Despite this leaving Ian to walk out for his world title fight alone, Ian saw this as a blessing in disguise,” Machado told ESPN. “He showed extreme maturity in not engaging in any dispute and not dropping out of the fight, but instead continuing with no team to achieve his dream.”

Less than a day after the victory, the UFC called and offered Garry a contract. Garry and Machado took a trip to Costa Rica to celebrate the win. On the plane, the couple discussed Garry’s next move. He was going to be a UFC fighter, but had no team. No gym. Machado told him to write down the top-five dream gyms he would want to train at. Garry wrote “Sanford MMA” down and then stopped.

“There’s one option,” Garry told Machado. “I want Sanford. It’s the best in the world.”

LAST SUMMER, AHEAD of his UFC debut in November, Garry and Machado traveled to Deerfield Beach, Florida, where Garry began training at Sanford, under coaches Henri Hooft, Greg Jones and Jason Strout. Sanford has an impressive list of fighters that Garry has been working with, including UFC contenders Gilbert Burns, Michael Chandler and Vicente Luque.

Garry and Machado took some time to celebrate Garry’s first-round finish in his UFC debut over Jordan Williams at UFC 268. But on Dec. 17, the couple, newly married, moved to Florida, so Garry could focus on training at Sanford full-time.

Sanford’s head coach Hooft said he sees a bit of UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman in Garry. Usman came to MMA as a wrestler, and Garry, like Hooft, is a striking specialist. But Usman was not in a hurry. It took him nine UFC fights to challenge for the UFC welterweight title. Garry, Hooft said, is willing to be patient, improve and then get to a title belt when he feels he is ready.

Usman no longer does his training camps at Sanford MMA, but the world’s top pound-for-pound fighter is still at the gym regularly, working with friends and longtime teammates. On March 24, Usman got a chance to watch Garry train, and he was impressed. Hooft said Usman told him he felt Garry was talented, though there were still some things he needed to work on.

“How much better can you get than [learning] from the world champion?” Hooft told ESPN.

“I tell Ian the same thing [I told Usman],” Hooft said. “Small steps. It’s not always going to be easy. Maybe there’s a little bump in the road. It’s not so bad to have a bump on the road at a young age, so you learn from that.

“I think his ceiling is high. He’s got the looks, he’s got the attitude, he’s got the skills. Now, he has to show that he’s at the level the UFC is looking for…. I believe in the kid.”

What has impressed Hooft most about Garry is his vision. Against Williams, Garry took damage early before landing a huge counter right and flurry to finish the fight. Hooft said Garry sees openings in his opponents’ game where others his age — and others, period — do not.

“He got hit a couple of times, but he was never in panic,” Hooft said. “He always had his eyes open. And if you see how he knocks the guy out, for a guy [like Garry] at that moment to have seven fights, it’s something special. The timing on the shots was different. You see that once in a while with people. And he has that. I see it in training, too.”

Garry referenced McGregor and one of his famous sayings — “we’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over” — in his post-fight interview after beating Williams. McGregor, at the time recovering from a broken leg he suffered last July, noticed and posted a series of complimentary voice memos on Twitter.

“Ian, I appreciate the respect you showed to me in there,” McGregor said. “At this time for me, coming back from this [broken leg] injury, that means an awful lot to me. … This is probably the toughest couple of months I’m ever after having in my entire life. To see you go out there, pay those respects and then go out and then to do that — crack him with the step-back back paw — it’s just, there’s something mad about it for me.”

The longtime fan had inspired his own idol. Garry sent McGregor a message shortly after the bout, telling him things had come “full circle.”

“It’s just giving back to you, mate,” Garry said. “It’s just the stuff you gave me as a kid.”

“The next Conor McGregor” would make even the most braggadocious fighter blush. But Garry embraces that moniker. He doesn’t see any burden in it. Machado said it’s not pressure, “it’s destiny.”

“Being compared to one of the biggest superstars on the planet and the person who changed the sport isn’t a bad thing in my eyes,” Garry said. “So, yeah. I’ll take it and run with it.”

Even Suzanne has come around. She wasn’t able to make the trip to New York for her son’s debut due to COVID-19 restrictions. But she will be in attendance at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena this weekend.

When Garry and Machado returned from their vacation in Costa Rica after winning the Cage Warriors title, Garry’s friends and family threw him a party. There were only four people left at the party when Garry turned his head from a cake that read “You’re a f—ing champ” to his mother.

“Well?” Garry said.

Her response didn’t need a four-page letter. Just one declarative statement.

“I was like, ‘I think you have something to say, Mom,'” Garry said. “And she was like, ‘Do you want me to say sorry?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, tell me I was right.’ And she was like, ‘You were right.’ I’m like, ‘I love you. Thank you.’ And that was it. We joke about it now.”

Maybe trying to be the next Conor McGregor is a viable plan, after all. At least if you’re Ian Garry.

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