Conor and the Cartel: A look at the shady figures linked to UFC megastar Conor McGregor
Tim Bissell examines the underworld figures linked to two time UFC champion Conor McGregor. 12:00pm EDT
Within five years, Conor McGregor has transformed himself from an exciting prospect on the European MMA scene to the sport’s richest – and most popular – star. With a gift of the gab and a thunderous left hand, the Dubliner has exploded beyond the confines of the Octagon to become a mainstream sports celebrity. Today, every tweet from him makes a headline, every press conference draws millions of eyes, and every fight is capable of a spectacle that rivals anything the sport has ever seen.
As McGregor’s fame – and bank account – rose, so did the profiles of those closest to him. Characters such as coaches John Kavanagh & Owen Roddy, and training partners Artem Lobov & Charlie Ward, have all basked in the shine radiating from McGregor’s belts, Rolexes, and freshly waxed Bentleys.
But, while McGregor’s star has illuminated many at the SBG Ireland gym, there are some characters who, although they have been seen next to McGregor,remain largely in the dark. Beyond the camera’s glare (most of the time) these acquaintancesof McGregor may be happy to stay out of focus. They’re people whose connections to a bloody Irish gang war are well documented.
However, there is no evidence to suggest McGregor has any involvement in their alleged offenses or any other facet of organized crime.The intimacy of McGregor’s relationships* with these reported gangland figures is largely unknown, but it can’t be denied that the ‘Notorious’ Conor McGregor has been seen with some notorious individuals.
The Kinahan-Hutch Gang War: The Beginning
Since at least 2015 the Republic of Ireland – and sometimes Spain – has played host to a violent gang war between the Kinahan Cartel and the Hutch Gang. The feud has resulted in the deaths of at least 18 people. Over that same time, Conor McGregor has been pictured with a number of individuals who have links to this violent feud and the firms involved.
Christy Kinahan allegedly leads the Kinahan Cartel. He was born in 1958 and grew up in a tower block in St. Teresa’s Gardens in south central Dublin. According to the Irish Times he was arrested and convicted in the 1970s for burglary, car theft, breaking and entering, dealing in stolen goods, and forgery. The Times also reported that, in 1986, Kinahan was caught trafficking £117,000 ($154,000) worth of heroin and sentenced to jail for six years.
In jail Kinahan studied for a degree in French, declining early release so he could complete the program. He told a court he was a heroin addict who was trying to go straight and hoped that education would help him. Allegedly, Kinahan’s skills in the language have been put to use in communicating with North African drug traffickers (per The Irish Sun).
In 1998 Kinahan landed back in jail, with a four year sentence, after being found in possession of stolen travelers’ cheques worth £16,000 ($21,000). He was released from Portlaoise maximum security prison in 2001. He moved to Spain soon after.
In Marbella, Kinahan is alleged to have constructed an international drug smuggling ring, which sources narcotics (said to be mostly cocaine and cannabis) from Columbia and North Africa and directs them into Ireland, smuggled in containers of inexpensive foodstuffs. The Irish Sun names Kinahan as the single biggest supplier of drugs in Ireland. It’s alleged that Kinahan’s cartel is also a major player in supplying narcotics to the UK, the Netherlands, and Oceania.
In 2008 a major drug bust in Kildare, Ireland drew Irish investigators’ to Kinahan’s suspected operation in sunny Spain. Around this time alleged hitman Paddy Doyle was killed in Marbella. He was traveling in a car with fellow Irishmen Gary Hutch (nephew of the Hutch Gang’s patriarch Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch) and ‘Fat’ Freddie Thompson, who Independent.ie have since named as a ‘right hand man’ to Daniel Kinahan (Christy Kinahan’s son).
It’s rumoured that Hutch, Doyle, and Thompson were being sheltered by the Kinahans in Spain due to the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud that had erupted back in Dublin. That turf war, between young drug dealers, resulted in at least eight people being murdered. Independent.ie reported that it could have been Russian gangsters who targeted Doyle after a dispute in Spain, or possibly the Kinahans themselves. After Doyle’s murder, Spanish authorities joined their Irish counterparts in investigating Kinahan’s operation.
In 2010 Christy Kinahan and many of his associates were arrested in coordinated surprise raids in Ireland and Spain. ‘Operation Shovel,’ as the raids were called, also discovered over €150 million ($175 million) in Kinahan connected properties in Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Dubai, South Africa, Brazil, and Cyprus. Kinahan was released without charge, thanks to a lack of direct evidence.
Today Kinahan is alleged to be continuing his operation of an expansive drug smuggling network. In addition to those allegations of drug offenses, he has also been accused of fixing horse races in the UK. And, in Belgium and the Netherlands, he has been convicted of money laundering, a crime of which he’s accused of having committed in Spain as well.
Southern Spain is thought to be the Kinahan Cartel’s stronghold (especially Marbella and Malaga), but the low-profile loving Kinahan has been spotted in Dubai, Hong Kong, and Switzerland in recent years.
Kinahan’s former friend turned rival Gerry Hutch was born in 1963, in central Dublin. According to The Irish Examiner, Hutch began his criminal career at the age of 10, as part of a group of youths dubbed the Bugsy Malone Gang. Hutch’s alleged specialty was the ‘jump-over’, where he’d reach over bank counters to grab cash and then run away.
Reportedly many of the Bugsy Malone Gang later died, victims of homicide and drug overdose. Hutch was able to avoid these fates while spending his time in and out of prison throughout the 1980s. After leaving jail in the mid-eighties he received his nickname, the ‘Monk.’ The title relates to an ascetic lifestyle Hutch is said to lead, influenced by his time spent in prison.
In the nineties, it’s alleged (by Independent.ie) that Hutch began working on more sophisticated and profitable robberies. Police in Ireland believe Hutch was involved in an armed security depot robbery in Clonshaugh in 1996 which netted IR£3 million in cash ($4.5 million). They also suspect Hutch pulled off an armored van robbery in Marino, North Dublin, in 1997 that scored IR£1.7 million ($2.5 million). These are two of the biggest cash heists ever committed in the country.
In 1998, Hutch established the Corinthians Boxing Club in Dublin and gave himself the role of treasurer. While he was watching the club’s funds, the government was watching his. In 1999 Ireland’s Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) set its sights on Hutch. That agency deemed that Hutch had to pay over IR£2 million ($3 million) in penalties for his suspected involvement in the Clonshaugh and Marino robberies. Hutch was able to reach a settlement with the state that allowed him to pay back IR£1.2m ($1.8 million).
In the 2000s, Hutch took on the image of a reformed man who had gone straight. He was granted a taxi driving license and set up a limousine service called ‘Carry Any Body’ (a reference to the CAB that prosecuted him in the nineties). Hutch became known in Irish media for chauffeuring celebrities who visited Ireland, including Mike Tyson.
The gangland war between Gerry Hutch and Christy Kinahan took root in 2014. It was at that time that a number of alleged Kinahan drug shipments were intercepted by Irish authorities. Independent.ie claimed the busts were rare occurrences for the Kinahans and that, as a result, they started to suspect there was an informant in their midst.
It’s thought that the Kinahans suspected Gary Hutch (Gerry’s nephew) was the man giving information to the police. Hutch had allegedly joined the cartel in 2008, making him a newcomer to the gang’s inner circle.
Normally, a suspected informant would be executed on-site. However, it has been theorized – by Independent.ie among others – that, because of Christy Kinahan’s friendship with Gerry Hutch, an alternative plan was put forward. Kinahan and Hutch representatives allegedly reached an agreement that meant Gary Hutch would be expelled from the gang and given a €800,000 ($930,000) severance package. Hutch was also ordered to cease all activities in organized crime.
Despite the deal being reached, Gary Hutch was shot and killed at his apartment in Miraflores, Spain on September 24th, 2015. The killing has been described as ‘execution-style.’
James Quinn, a former boxer from Dublin and an alleged Kinahan associate, was found guilty in a Spanish court for his involvement in the murder. However, he was not accused of pulling the trigger. The Irish Sun reported that ‘Fat’ Freddie Thompson, a suspected high-ranking Kinahan Cartel member – and a former ally of Hutch (in the Crumlin-Drimnagh feud) – is believed to have been behind the hit.
Less than a month after Gary Hutch’s death, his brother Derek Hutch was attacked in his prison cell in Mountjoy, Ireland. He survived and escaped another similar attack in December. Also in December, 2015 – according to Independent.ie – Gerry Hutch rejected an invitation from Christy Kinahan to meet and squash the feud.
After Hutch allegedly rebuffed Kinahan’s offer, he narrowly escaped a suspected assassination attempt in Lanzarote, Spain. Hutch had just left a pub on the island when two armed men wearing balaclavas stormed the premises looking for him.
On February 5th, 2016, the Hutch Gang allegedly retaliated against the Kinahan Cartel by sending six gunmen (some of whom were dressed as police officers) into the Regency Hotel in Dublin during a boxing weigh-in. The gunmen opened fire across the crowd, killing alleged Kinahan lieutenant David Byrne and wounding two others.
It’s believed that the target of the attack was Daniel Kinahan, Christy Kinahan’s son, who was present at the weigh-in, but had left before the shooting started.
Patrick Hutch, brother to the late Gary Hutch, was charged with murdering Byrne. He is currently awaiting trial.
Three days after the Regency hotel shooting, Eddie Hutch Sr., Gerry Hutch’s older brother, was shot dead in his home on the North Strand in Dublin. On March 23rd, 2016 Noel ‘Kingsize’ Duggan, one of Hutch’s friends, was shot and killed in his car in Ratoath, County Meath.
In April, 2016 Michael Barr was shot to death at the Sunset Bar in Summerhill, Dublin. Police suspected he was killed by the Kinahan gang because of his alleged involvement in the Regency Hotel shooting.
In May, 2016, Gareth Hutch, another nephew of Gerry Hutch, was killed in a parking lot outside his home in Dublin. The Irish Mirror quoted a source saying that Johnathan Keogh – a former bomb maker for the UK-designated terrorist organization New Irish National Liberation Army – was paid by the Kinahans for the hit. Keogh and two others were put on trial for the murder and are currently awaiting verdicts
In December 2016, Noel ‘Duck Egg’ Kirwan was killed in Ronanstown, West Dublin. It is believed he was killed by Kinahan gang members because he was pictured talking with Gerry Hutch at Eddie Hutch’s funeral.
In April 2017, Imre Arakas – an Estonian national – was arrested by the Garda Emergency Response Unit and Drugs and Organized Crime Bureau in Blakestown, West Dublin. Independent.ie labeled Arakas as a hitman who was hired by the Kinahans. When he was arrested, Arakas had a list of names of Hutch Gang associates on his person.
On January 20th, 2018 another one of Gerry Hutch’s nephews, Derek Hutch Coakley, was shot and killed. Hutch Coakley was shot in the head while he sat in a car outside of Cloverhill Prison in Dublin. Two Kinahan associates were later arrested on suspicion of murder.
Others killed between 2015 and 2018 include Martin O’Rourke and Trevor O’Neill; both thought to have been the victims of mistaken identity. Kane McCormack, the son of Noel Kirwan, was also killed in 2017. One theory is that the Kinahan gang allegedly killed McCormack out of fear that he would seek revenge for his father’s slaying. Darren Kearns and David Douglas were murdered in 2015 and 2016. The Irish Sun reported that Kearns and Douglas were killed because the Kinahans believed they had once tried to kill a Kinahan member.
Kinahan associate ‘Fat’ Freddie Thompson was found guilty of killing Douglas this August. Press reports state that Thompson was likely responsible for orchestrating the killings of many more Hutch gang associates.
McGregor and the Kinahans
Daniel, the son of Christy Kinahan, is believed to run the day-to-day operations of the Kinahan Cartel out of southern Spain. Though it has recently been reported that Kinahan has fortified himself in Dubai – surrounded by ex-Russian special forces bodyguards – over fears he could be arrested or assassinated.
In 2012 Kinahan founded a boxing gym with close friend and former professional boxer Matthew Macklin, called Macklin’s Gym Marbella (MGM). The gym was like a ‘cult’ according to an ‘insider’ who spoke to the Irish Sun. In a few years MGM grew from being a simple gym to a management company and boxing promoter.
The weigh-in that was attacked at the Regency Hotel, in February 2016, was for an MGM boxing event. In September 2016, the MGM gym in Marbella was searched by Spain’s Guardia Civil and visiting police officers from Ireland.
Also in 2016, MGM changed its name – after pressure from the MGM brand of casinos and resorts – to Mack The Knife (MTK) Global. MTK then announced that the organization had severed ties with Daniel Kinahan, and that the company was now being operated by Sandra Vaughan. The Irish Sun reported that Vaughan is a former partner of Kevin Kelly, a convicted drug dealer and one-time member of the Kinahan Cartel. In November 2017, gym founder Macklin revealed that Kinahan “still advises lots of fighters”.
MTK represents dozens of professional boxers, including Carl Frampton and Jamie Conlan. In March of 2017, former IBF, WBA, WBO, & IBO heavyweight champion Tyson Fury posted a selfie with Daniel Kinahan on Twitter. A few months later, in November of that year, MTK announced that they were working with Fury in an “advisory role” as the boxer prepared to make a comeback from drug testing and medical issues.
MTK also manages MMA fighters. Their official website lists over 40 fighters on their roster. Among those are recent UFC headliner Darren Till – who signed with MTK in December, 2017 – former UFC fighters Viviane Pereira, Glaico Franca, & Maiquel Falcao, and recent Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series call-ups Sarah Frota & Taila Santos, as well as recent UFC signing Stefan Sekulic.
In February 2018, MTK announced that they were boycotting all Irish media. This was in response to persistent questioning from the press regarding MTK’s connection to Daniel Kinahan.
A loose connection between Conor McGregor and MTK involves Belfast-born boxer Michael Conlan. Conlan, who is represented by MTK, won a bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012 and has since gone 8-0 in his pro career. For his pro debut, at Madison Square Gardens in New York on March 12th, 2017, Conlan was walked to the ring by McGregor.
When McGregor was gearing up to face Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the boxing ring last August, his MMA coach John Kavanagh unsuccessfully advocated for Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes (another MTK fighter) to get on the under-card.
Shortly after his giant payday in a loss to Mayweather, McGregor was embroiled in controversy over an alleged bar fight at the Blackforge Inn in Dublin. News broke that the fighter may have struck a known associate of the Kinahan Cartel (who was later named as Graham ‘The Wig’ Whelan) before being separated and removed from the premises. Irish crime reporter Paul Williams was quoted as saying McGregor could be in ‘very serious danger’ as a result.
Mayweather seized on the news to land another jab on his former opponent. Retweeting a headline that alleged a bounty had been put on McGregor’s head. Mayweather wrote, “I already f—ed you up in 2017 now they about to f—k you up in 2018.”
McGregor responded to Mayweather’s tweet with a message stating, “I am the cartel.” The Irish Examiner revealed that Daniel Kinahan also responded to Mayweather’s tweet. On his private twitter he allegedly wrote: “Now now [Floyd Mayweather] should not believe all you read in the paper, must be looking for a rematch against [Conor McGregor]”.
An ‘insider’ with the Irish Sun later stated that McGregor was ‘playing up’ his row with the Kinahan gang because he found ‘the whole thing funny.’ Before Mayweather’s tweet, McGregor was also pictured on the front page of the Irish Daily Star partying with Whelan. Also pictured were convicted drug dealers Andrew Murray and Johnathan Murray.
David Byrne died after being shot six times during the Regency Hotel attack on February 5th, 2016. On February 22nd, 2016 Independent.ie ran a photo showing Byrne and McGregor posing for a selfie believed to have been taken in 2015. That report revealed that McGregor and Byrne used to train together at Crumlin Boxing Club in Dublin. The Irish Sun reports that Byrne was a closely trusted lieutenant of Daniel Kinahan and was in charge of distributing drugs in Dublin’s inner south.
Crumlin Boxing Club head coach Philip Sutcliffe confirmed that McGregor and Byrne were at the club at the same time. “They were in the boxing club together and they would have had a club relationship and then they went different ways and David would have went supporting Conor and watching him do his stuff,” he said.
Byrne was described by Independent.ie as ‘best pal’ of Graham Whelan – the man at the centre of McGregor’s reported Blackforge incident. That outlet also revealed that Byrne had escaped two previous attempts on his life. In 2002 he and his brother Liam were targeted by gunmen in Dublin and in 2009 a bomb was found under his car. After these incidents, Byrne is reported to have kept a low-profile, operating as a ‘logistics man’ for the cartel.
David Byrne was also a cousin of ‘Fat’ Freddie Thompson, who was given a life sentence for murder in August. Thompson has been described as the highest ranking member of the Kinahan Cartel to be jailed during their feud with the Hutch Gang.
In December 2017, Conor McGregor was pictured with another member of the Byrne family. This time it was Lee Byrne, nephew to the late David Byrne. The pictures of McGregor and Byrne were taken in Liverpool, England and featured both men standing on the hoods of rented Bentley cars (much to the dismay of the cars’ owners). The Irish Sun published a second picture of McGregor and Byrne – which was undated – and showed Byrne with an arm over McGregor. That outlet described Byrne as an 18-year-old car salesman who has traveled to the US to see McGregor fight.
Lee Byrne is the son of Liam Byrne (brother of the late David Byrne). In September 2018 Liam Byrne was subject of a raid by the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB). This coming after he had been named by Ireland’s High Court as the head of the Byrne organized crime group, a trusted associate of the Kinahan Cartel, and someone who was heavily involved with drug trafficking and violent crime. Liam Byrne is alleged to have moved up the ranks within the Kinahan Cartel when Christy Kinahan handed more power to his son Daniel.
Independent.ie reported that Liam and Sean McGovern (who was wounded in the Regency Hotel attack) set up LS Active Car Sales in 2013. CAB are reported to have found little evidence of Byrne and McGovern actually selling cars, and suspect the company was a front to launder money. A number of luxury cars were seized from Byrne by the CAB, along with lavish watches, jewelry, and a property in Crumlin.
In April 2015, McGregor – and hundreds of other mourners – attended a funeral for Paul Kavanagh (no relation to SBG Ireland’s John Kavanagh), held at the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Drimnagh, Dublin.
At around 11:30am on March 26th, 2015, Kavanagh was sitting in his car on Church Avenue in Drumcondra, in Dublin’s north end, when another vehicle rammed him. After the collision, two gunman opened fire on Kavanagh. Herald.ie claimed that Kavanagh was a drug dealer in the Drimnagh area who worked under the Kinahan Cartel. That outlet reported that Kavanagh was allegedly killed by the Kinahans for skimming profits. A source told the Herald that Kavanagh owed the Kinahans “well over €1m.” Kavanagh was reportedly paying back some of the funds he owed, but supposedly it wasn’t enough to save his life.
It has also been claimed that Kavanagh was killed by a team connected to Gary Hutch, who was still working for the Kinahan Cartel at the time.
Kavanagh’s brother Gerard ‘Hatchet’ Kavanagh was murdered in September 2014, in Elviria, Spain – close to Marbella. The Daily Mail reported that Kavanagh was the victim of a ‘honeypot’ scheme, which lured him to the popular Harmons Irish bar to meet a mystery woman. At the bar Kavanagh was shot and killed by two masked men.
The Irish Sun has described Gerard Kavanagh as an ‘enforcer’ and ‘primary debt collector’ for the Kinahan Cartel. That outlet theorized that he was killed by Russian gangsters, who were offended when he tried to strong-arm them on debts owed to the Kinahans. It’s also theorized that Christy Kinahan green-lit the killing to maintain his relationship with the Russians.
Gerard Kavanagh was the father of Jamie Kavanagh, a professional boxer signed to Golden Boy Promotions. As a child, Jamie Kavanagh belonged to Crumlin Boxing Club, where he trained with McGregor. The pair have been pictured together at least twice in recent years.
Jamie Kavanagh was at the Regency Hotel preparing to weigh-in on February 5th, 2016 when alleged Hutch Gang gunmen attacked. Kavanagh ran for his life when shots rang out. His scheduled fight with Antonio Joao Benito was called off. He hasn’t fought since.
No individuals with reported connections to organized crime have been photographed with Conor McGregor as often as Andrew Murray. Murray’s twitter timeline is littered with pictures of him and the MMA star, dating as far back as 2014 (though some pictures appear to have been taken much earlier). McGregor has also uploaded images of himself with the Murray brothers on his Instagram account.
Murray – along with his brother Jonathan – have been described as “gangster brothers” by The Irish Sun. The Sun has also reported that the Murray brothers are childhood friends of McGregor, and that Jonathan has 48 criminal convictions – including four for drug dealing. Andrew Murray is listed as having 18 prior convictions, including drug possession with intent for sale or supply, theft, and forgery.
An image of the Murray brothers with McGregor was uploaded to social media hours before McGregor threw a dolly at a coach at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY this April. The brothers’ social media use suggested that they collected McGregor when he was released from police custody and traveled with him, on a private jet, back to Ireland.
Soon after the ‘bus incident,’ Ireland’s Drugs and Organized Crime Bureau and Economic Crime Bureau raided a number of properties in Dublin. They arrested five men and one woman on suspicion of facilitating an organized crime gang and money laundering. The woman was found sleeping on a mattress stuffed with cash in a penthouse in Drumcondra. €250,000 ($292,000) was recovered from that property. The raids were designed to interrupt a drug smuggling operation that allegedly exported cocaine from Ireland to Australia and New Zealand.
The Irish Sun quoted a source that said the leader of the gang targeted by police was “a close associate of Andrew and Jonathan Murray and they have been operating since 2012 both here and in Australia.”
That source went further to state that the gang’s drug inventory was supplied by the Kinahan Cartel and that, “their role in Ireland is to supply cocaine to dozens of upper class and famous customers in the best nightclubs in the capital.”
What does this all mean?
Conor McGregor has never been charged with an offense connected to organized crime. There is nothing to suggest that any of his connections to the figures mentioned above are anything more than social. McGregor’s early life on the hard streets of Crumlin put him in proximity to many criminal elements, but there is no evidence to suggest he was – or ever has been – involved in their criminal dealings.
The highest ranking member of the Kinahan Cartel pictured with Conor McGregor is the late David Byrne. Byrne’s connection to organized crime is widely discussed in the Irish press. Byrne’s connection to McGregor appears limited to training at a boxing club – one that was an important landmark for many young men in Crumlin – and a selfie taken one evening in 2015. It has been reported that Byrne was a fan of McGregor, and had traveled to watch him fight in Las Vegas.
McGregor’s only other known connection to the Byrne family is similar to his only known connection to the Kavanagh family; a single young member of the clan who is not reported to be involved in the criminal businesses of their fathers and uncles.
The closest bond McGregor appears to have with alleged underworld figures comes via the Murray brothers. The evidence of this closeness is based only on the sheer amount of publicly available pictures and social media posts that tout their friendship and place them in the same places at the same time. It has been reported that the Murrays have extensive criminal pasts. Their strongest reported connection to the Kinahan Cartel comes courtesy of an unnamed source in an Irish tabloid.
If reports in Ireland are to be believed, McGregor consistently has two degrees of separation between himself and any meaningful connection to the Kinahan Cartel and the bloody war they have waged against the Hutch Gang. Even so, the amount of names that can be tied to McGregor, albeit through a string of intermediaries, is cause for concern (as it would be for any professional athlete or celebrity). Based on McGregor’s messaging, he’s not worried about what others think regarding his alleged association with characters like the Murrays or the cartel. Time will tell if the UFC, its partners, and its fans, feel the same.
McGregor is not alone in MMA when it comes to being linked to controversial characters. To read about Khabib Nurmagomedov’s problematic associations read Karim Zidan’s All the Champion’s Men: A Look at the shady figures linked to UFC champ Khabib Nurmagomedov.