Jake Doyle was only 16 when he first saw Conor McGregor. It was 2012, and McGregor was fighting on a Cage Warriors show in Dublin. Not even in the main event, McGregor entered clean-shaven and bald, before submitting Dave Hill in the second round.
Seven months later, Doyle saw McGregor knock out Ivan Buchinger with the left-hand punch he'd become famous for. It was McGregor's last fight for Cage Warriors, but the mark it left on Doyle was permanent. "I've followed him since then," says Doyle, now 22, living in Clare on the west coast of Ireland. "His style in the cage was unreal, so you knew from that night he was going to be something brilliant."
On Saturday, McGregor fans will be hoping that brilliance takes centre stage again when he fights Khabib Nurmagomedov for the UFC Lightweight Championship. It marks McGregor's return to the Octagon after nearly two years away, and is set to smash UFC pay-per-view records.
It's been an eventful two years for McGregor – a period that's seen him father his first child and pocket an estimated $100 million (£77 million) for boxing Floyd Mayweather Jr. His standing among mainstream onlookers and general fight fans, however, has dipped following a couple of incidents over the past 12 months. First, he tried to fight a referee at a Bellator MMA show. Second, he threw a hand truck through the window of a bus Nurmagomedov was travelling on, injuring several people. Even in Ireland his standing has taken a hit, with a reported run-in with Dublin gangsters and that infamous Burger King ad contributing to mounting distaste.
His hardcore fans, however, appear to have been mobilised by these events, defending him in ways that are not only proving lucrative for McGregor, but which at times seem strange, sad and more than a little nasty. It's as if, with them buying anything their idol puts his name to, and intimidating anyone who questions him, Conor McGregor has got himself something of a cult.
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The first characteristic of a hardcore McGregor fan is the unshakeable belief that the Irishman can knock anyone out, regardless of their skill, weight class or chin. It's this faith in him that McGregor has leveraged into an ever-expanding array of commercial ventures designed to, in his own words, make "Diddy bread" – a reference to Sean Combs' business empire.
Faith is particularly required when buying his "McGregor FAST" fitness programme, as McGregor himself is known for less-than-perfect fitness, which has contributed to two losses in recent memory – one to Mayweather, the other to Nate Diaz. Faith may also be required when buying from his "August McGregor" fashion line (launched last Friday, in partnership with designer David August) as £40 feels a little steep for a fairly ugly baseball cap.
If you think McGregor's brands are just about looking good – or that price or rudimentary logic might keep people away – you clearly haven't heard of his new whiskey, "Proper Twelve", launched two weeks ago in Ireland and the US to such high sales that Tesco had to limit customers to two bottles each, despite it costing €8 (£7) more than Jameson, a competitor McGregor has said is "toast".
Like many others, Jake Doyle bought Proper Twelve to support McGregor, and thinks it's actually quite nice. He also believes that McGregor launching his whiskey just before the fight on Saturday is "absolute genius", as it allows him to emblazon the logo on the Octagon floor, which is supposedly happening. "It just shows how smart of a businessman he is," Doyle says. "Let’'s hope to God he gets the win, though I've no doubt about it whatsoever."
Doyle operates a Twitter account that – like thousands of others across various platforms – is mostly dedicated to sharing content about McGregor and arguing with strangers in the comments section of McGregor's own posts. He isn't so much a troll as someone who defends McGregor against things McGregor probably doesn't care about, in ways that must be equally invigorating and exhausting. I contacted him after seeing his icon pop up repeatedly on Twitter – unsurprisingly, a picture of McGregor's face – but again, he's far from the only one religiously doing this kind of thing.
The rise of McGregor has coincided with the shift of online culture into memes, GIFs and burner-account abuse. A culture that McGregor – the master of the 13-second knockout and comebacks like "You'll do fucking nothing" and "Who the fuck is that guy?" – lends himself perfectly to.
This translates into memes like the above: Khabib Nurmagomedov – McGregor's opponent on Saturday – Photoshopped into a coffin. Though their fight is undoubtedly personal, it's a little strange to think people are getting this invested in a mixed martial arts bout between two millionaires in Las Vegas.
If the memes are standardly weird, then the abuse is just nasty – particularly the abuse levelled at current UFC Strawweight Champion Rose Namajunas after her coach revealed in an interview that she was having trouble being in public places following McGregor's attack on Nurmagomedov's bus, which she was also on.
Namajunas – who suffered sexual abuse in her youth and had a schizophrenic dad – is generally considered one of the nicest people in MMA. Having won her Strawweight title last year, she famously proclaimed, "This belt don't mean nothing, man – just be a good person."
To lots of McGregor fans, though, she's now scum of the Earth, as they believe she's secretly plotting a lawsuit – so for McGregor's sake they're piling on in her social media, calling her things like a "lame ass bitch", an "entitled feminist twat" and a "money crazed Jew". Of course, many of these accounts behind this abuse are run by men, and are either set to private or populated by a few sad selfies.
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In an era in which rock stars, actors and athletes all seem impeccably well-coached in banality, it's no surprise that McGregor's flailing, fiery attitude appeals to this legion of young men. Like he said himself, "The double champ does what the fuck he wants" – the point of view many idolise him for.
For some of these McGregor fans, the outcome of Saturday's fight means very little. As long as he keeps being meme-worthy and giving people someone to hate, his status as cult leader extraordinaire should be safe.
For others, however, the fight means a bit more. Jake Doyle is staying up until 5AM on the west coast of Ireland to watch it. "Both men are in their prime, and both the best in the world at what they do," he says. "If you're a fan of martial arts, then this is surely the fight you've been waiting for."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.