Thursday 27 October 2016

McGregor fulfills the pathetic need we have to follow a hero... any hero

Why have we become so excited about one of our own inflicting savage mindless violence, asks Willie Kealy

Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30

conor McGregor and Dee Devlin
conor McGregor and Dee Devlin
ICON: Muhammad Ali had an appeal beyond boxing

Everyone loves a winner. And we love an Irish winner more than most. It's as if we need the success of the few to validate ourselves; whether it's the soccer team in Italia 90 or Johnny Logan winning Eurovision, we are not especially fussy, so long as we can bask in the reflected glory.

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We get very jealous of our winners, especially if someone else - i.e. the British - tries to claim them. And look how worked up we got when Rory McIlroy struggled with his national identity - was he Irish, was he British or was he Northern Irish?

Last weekend, we celebrated once again, this time because Conor McGregor beat a last-minute substitute opponent in a mixed martial arts fight in Las Vegas. This sort of savagery, in which two men basically punch and kick and wrestle each other into submission, leaving the ring a pool of blood, is not what most Irish people would normally call sport.

They wouldn't have been traditional aficionados or even known much about it until McGregor started winning. In fact, they would have had about as much affinity with this sport as they have with bare-knuckle boxing, another bloody pastime which was in the news again last week, thanks to a battle between two Traveller men which ended with one of them being stabbed several times in the back when he disputed the referee's decision that he had been defeated.

Gaelic football and hurling and rugby have always had the potential for the odd shemozzle, but this is incidental to the object of the games. And boxing has always had a good Irish following. Much of that in recent decades was down to a couple of generations being reared on the exploits of Muhammad Ali. Boxing was originally the noble art of self-defence and was once dubbed the 'sweet science'. The attraction of Ali transcended his sport and became a mixture of race and politics as he morphed into a true world icon.

In those days, we could follow his exploits on television for free - live, if we were willing to stay up half the night - and we could see a barely believable level of skill and athleticism which stood apart from the showmanship.

Thanks to Ali, we could see that there was more to boxing than mindless violence. But with the passing of Ali from the limelight, professional boxing reverted to what it had been before - organised thuggery, blood sport for the masses, often dominated as a business by questionable men who earned millions off the backs of 'their' fighters.

The gladiators invariably ended up broke. They had come from the worst of backgrounds - boxing was their escape. They were easy prey for fast- talking Svengalis and easily discarded when their purpose was served.

Then the TV moguls got greedy and invented the concept of pay-per-view. That, and the return of the lumbering heavyweights trying to use their mere bulk to out-muscle each other without any requirement for a real natural gift, encouraged the masses to once again turn away.

But in Ireland, boxing never really went away completely because people like Barry McGuigan and Bernard Dunne briefly battled their way to the highest level, and the amateurs gave us our only real Olympic standing.

All of these we cheered on, and cheered ourselves up vicariously, not so much because we are a boxing nation but because they were Irish.

Still, boxing remains a minority sport and not always one with a good name. The participants cannot do anything about it, but it is not very encouraging for the would-be fan to read about how Irish gangsters converge on big bouts - even coming home from their Spanish boltholes - to bond and boast.

So it is all the more surprising that when an even more mindless form of violence than boxing is invented for mass entertainment, we should take to it in such a big way. It can hardly be the attraction of the fights themselves. Conor McGregor has clearly developed himself to an extremely high level of fitness and strength and his mental toughness seems phenomenal. But in any other country, he would surely be the toast only of those dedicated to the sport he has chosen. In Ireland now, everybody knows his name and supports him almost fanatically.

So it's not really about mixed martial arts fighting. We do not find those spectacles overwhelmingly attractive. Most of us couldn't name anyone else in the top 10 rankings.

No, I am afraid it's more simple than that. Remember our recent flirtation with cricket and women's rugby. How long did that last?

Right now, Conor McGregor is one of the best in the world at something. The field of endeavour is by-the-way. What matters is that he is Irish and, for now, he is a winner. And that's enough to satisfy our pathetic need for a hero.

Sunday Independent

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