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MMA fighter Conor McGregor went from welfare to millionaire — here's the simple trick that helped him get there

MMA fighter Conor McGregor with a cup of whiskey.
Stephen McCarthy | Sportsfile via Getty Images

Conor McGregor, one of the world's most famous professional fighters knows the importance of dreaming big, even when you feel stuck in a hopeless situation.

The 30-year-old former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight and lightweight champion went from collecting welfare to collecting mixed martial arts (MMA) championship belts and multimillion-dollar paydays.

The simple trick that helped him get there (aside from his natural talent as a fighter, of course) was to imagine himself succeeding, and then make it happen. "Always visualize. See yourself winning, achieving. Visualize good things. Make your dreams fall into reality," he tells CNBC Make It.

From welfare to champion

As a teenager, McGregor was working as an apprentice plumber in Dublin. He ultimately decided against a plumbing career ("I had no love for plumbing," he told The Guardian in 2015) and quit his job to become a professional MMA fighter.

In 2008, a 19-year-old McGregor made his fighting debut in Dublin, winning his first two matches and making a name for himself as a top fighter in Ireland over the next five years. He only lost two out of 14 MMA matches during that five-year period.

But money was still tight without a day job, and McGregor didn't land a contract with UFC, the organization that offers the highest level of competition for a mixed martial arts fighter, until 2013. In fact, McGregor was famously reliant on welfare money from the Irish government for several years while he continued fighting in lower-level MMA matches.

"When things were going bad, when I had no job, I was on welfare; I went into a different mode," McGregor says. "Just like a kid, I used my imagination visualizing good things in these times of struggle."

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In other words, McGregor pictured himself winning match after match, landing a UFC contract and winning championship belts. That positive thinking helped him get through the times when he easily could have doubted his career as a fighter.

It wasn't until April 2013 that he collected his final welfare check (worth about $220 USD), just days before his first fight as a member of the UFC. McGregor won that match, earning him a $60,000 check.

McGregor won his first UFC championship belt in 2015, becoming the top-ranked fighter in his weigh class just two years after signing his first contract with the top-level MMA organization. Since then, he's won UFC championships in two weight classes (featherweight and lightweight), though he later lost those titles, including his most recent UFC bout with lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018.

Just like a kid, I used my imagination visualizing good things in these times of struggle.
Conor McGregor
former UFC champion

Even though he lost, McGregor earned a reported $3 million. That's still nothing compared to the reported $100 million he received in a losing effort when he fought boxer Floyd Mayweather in 2017. In 2018, Forbes ranked McGregor twelfth on its list of top-earning celebrities, with $99 million in annual earnings, $14 million of which comes from his endorsements for brands like Monster Energy and Reebok.

Pursuing business success

Outside of the ring (a.k.a. the "Octagon"), McGregor is dipping his gloves into the business world.

Last year, he launched his own line of apparel, called August McGregor, as well as his own brand of Irish whiskey, Proper No. Twelve. The name Proper No. Twelve "pays homage to where I grew up," in Crumlin, a low-income suburb of Dublin that is often referred to as "Dublin 12," after its postal code. "Crumlin is a place very dear to my heart," McGregor tells says. "It's where I learned how to fight, where I learned to do everything."

Proper No. Twelve hit liquor store shelves in Ireland and the U.S. in September 2018, and the whiskey's first production run reportedly sold out in less than two weeks. McGregor and his business partners at the distillery Eire Born Spirits, of which McGregor is the founder and chairman, had to ramp up production in order to get more of the whiskey on shelves by December, according to Brian Axelrod, the U.S. director for Proper No. Twelve.

Axelrod tells CNBC Make It that he expects Proper No. Twelve to sell more than 200,000 cases of the whiskey (that's nearly 2.5 million 750 milliliter bottles, at a dozen bottles per case) in its first year in the U.S. By comparison, the world's most popular Irish whiskey, Jameson, sells about 7 million cases globally per year. Axelrod and McGregor plan to donate $5 for every case of Proper No. Twelve sold, up to $1 million, to organizations and charities dedicated to first responders.

Proper No. Twelve is also already the most-followed spirits brand on Instagram, Axelrod notes, with more than 570,000 followers. (Jameson has over 146,000 Instagram followers, while McGregor himself has over 30 million.)

"At launch, I told everyone I was going to give this my all and take the whiskey market by storm, and we did just that with more to come," says McGregor.

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