Saturday 1 October 2016

Why Conor McGregor is the man of the year

For a nation of begrudgers, there are few among us who would begrudge the boxing sensation his recent success, writes Brendan O'Connor

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

Conor McGregor has jumped up two weight divisions
Conor McGregor has jumped up two weight divisions

A strange thing happened to me early on Friday morning. I looked at a story on Independent.ie about Conor McGregor. It was a picture from his twitter account and it showed him going to do some Christmas shopping in Vegas in a $440,000 Drophead Rolls Royce. The piece also mentioned that McGregor owns a Mercedes S500 AMG Coupe, and Escalade, and several BMWs. And the funny thing about it was I didn't feel any hint of begrudgery. I was actually glad for him. And most people are, aren't they? All the bling, and all the showing off on social media, and all the shopping trips, and no one begrudges him it.

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You could argue that this is because McGregor is a great sportsman, who has just won a world championship, and in Ireland any world champion we can produce is alright by us, so we forgive him a bit of bling. But that doesn't explain me. I'm not a big fight fan, and despite watching McGregor beat Jose Aldo several times, I still couldn't figure it out. So while I accept on some level that McGregor is a great sportsman, I don't quite understand it.

But, of course, the fighting is only one part of what makes Conor McGregor. McGregor is the show isn't he? McGregor is a remarkable creature. Mesmerising, almost addictive to watch. Physically, I don't think I have ever seen anyone as in tune with their body, anyone who inhabits themselves as well as McGregor does. And the way he moves. Total control. Deliberate but so smooth and lithe. Almost like an animal you would say.

And, of course, McGregor has studied animals and their movements and, according to an extraordinary profile in Esquire earlier this year, he comes into Straight Blast Gym at all hours of the day and night just to move, to slither and stalk around the place, to find the secrets of monkeys and crocodiles within himself.

Remember that scene in the RTE 2 documentary, The Notorious, where he stalks around the hotel room throwing shapes and becoming one with himself and the space around him? It was extraordinary to watch. His girlfriend Dee talks in that Esquire piece about finding him shadowboxing in front of the mirror at 4am. He doesn't use machines to train apparently. Because he is a machine and machines don't use machines.

And then there is the talk, the psychology. McGregor maintains that the fight is won or lost long before he steps in the ring and his verbal sparring is as impressive to watch as his fighting. It is when you hear McGregor speak that his true charisma shines through. There is something about the way he talks that makes you believe everything he says. So when he tells his opponents that they are finished, that they are not going to win, you can see why it might come true. McGregor appears to represent an extraordinary triumph of the will, whereby he not only wins fights by sheer force of will and belief, but he has made all his extraordinary success happen simply by believing it would happen, that it was inevitable.

Of course, McGregor would tell you he is simply about truth. When accused of trash-talking opponents, he argues he is merely telling them the truth about themselves. And when you tell people the truth about themselves, he maintains, they crumble.

This triumph of belief and of truth and of what you might condescendingly call Blarney, can tend to be a hallmark of Irishmen who do well. Bono's success is first and foremost about music, but it is also about his mouth, about taking care of business (he has probably made more at this stage out of other interests than he has out of music) and about communicating and connecting people.

Colin Farrell is beloved here, but probably more for the bloke he is than for his acting. And again, people admire Farrell for telling the truth, for not being a bullshitter.

McGregor has a touch of Bono, a touch of Farrell, and then there's a bit of Brendan O'Carroll thrown in there (another man who willed himself to success armed not alone with talent, but with PMA - positive mental attitude). On other days McGregor brings to mind Luke Kelly crossed with Muhammad Ali. He channels another, more internationally accepted narrative too, that of the working class boy done good, and unashamedly enjoying his success.

There's no guilt there about the cars, the suits, the money. He delights in it. Because the alternative was to be a plumber and have a more ordinary life. And he escaped the ordinary, and he's not ashamed of that. So when we see him tweet a clip of himself driving down a Vegas Street with the roof down on the Roller, with Mariah Carey warbling on the stereo, we are reminded of everyone from the Happy Mondays, to 50 Cent, to every footballer who has ever done well, working class lads delighting in their success.

Of course, the difference between many of them and McGregor, is that McGregor doesn't come from the street in the sense that they did. He is the opposite of the drug-dealing rapper in that he has got where he is by clean living, discipline, by delving deep within himself to find that self-possession.

I watched a lot of McGregor on screen since the Aldo fight. You'd be surprised how many various documentaries and UFC shows he pops up in. And you could only conclude watching him that he is one of the greatest showmen ever to come out of Ireland, possibly the greatest showman in the world right now, and also the strongest brand to emerge from Ireland this year. You can't take your eyes off him when he is onscreen. He is electrifying and seductive and compelling. He has it and he has it in spades.

As Dana White, the head of the UFC says. "He's one in a million. He has that thing that you can't teach people, whatever it is that makes people gravitate toward you. He has that more than any fighter I've ever met. He makes you believe everything he believes."

We tend to attribute various turning points in this country to great sporting successes. For Irish sports fans, this year was dominated by the Rugby World Cup and the Euro qualifiers and next year will be dominated by the actual Euros and the Olympics. But when we look back in 20 years' time for sporting events that might have changed the country, the rise of Conor McGregor could be the thing that stands out. And as much as McGregor himself could be a catalyst, more important than that could be how we reacted to him.

Conor McGregor could be the person who is making it OK to be doing well again in Ireland. He could also be the person who makes it OK for loads of kids in this country to want to do well. Conor McGregor could be the one who makes a generation accept that success is nothing to apologise for, and should be celebrated, and as we celebrate more heroic failures in 2016, maybe that's an important message.

Sunday Independent

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