Mouthy and magnificent - why we have a love/hate relationship with Conor
Published 15/07/2015 | 02:30
Down the steps they tumbled, giggling, hugging one another, eyes shiny with excitement. Many were flushed. A few - actually a lot - giggled like schoolgirls. I remembered similar expressions on the faces of teenagers at a One Direction concert several months previously. But here were fully grown men, spilling out of Dublin's Convention Centre in an endless cascade of blokey bonhomie.
One or two were rowdy, possibly liquored up (schlepping through the throng on my way to the 3Arena I was frontally shouldered twice). Most simply looked besotted.
Later, I learned the Jack and Jones-attired swarm had come from a public press conference by Conor McGregor, the scary-bearded Dubliner currently creating a fuss in the world of mixed martial arts - that wham-bam hybrid of boxing, kung fu, wrestling and free-form tickling. Suddenly, the swooning made sense - McGregor fans have a raging 'man crush' on their hero that is not to be trifled with.
Some weeks earlier, I had written a mildly critical review of McGregor's fly-on-the-wall RTÉ documentary 'The Notorious', asserting that it portrayed the fighter as a swaggering loudmouth whose chief attribute was an ego so tumescent it was probably visible from the International Space Station. I had no idea if this was a reflection of the real McGregor - that was simply how he came across on television.
The response was immediate - and overwhelmingly negative. I received a hose-blast of emails - although 'emails' doesn't quite describe them. McGregor worshippers had taken the trouble to pen essays, often longer than my original review. They weren't merely irked that I had criticised their idol (I had really just poked fun). They were steam-out-their-ears apoplectic a national hero would be teased in such a fashion.
One correspondent suggested I had unresolved homoerotic issues because I had pointed out that, in the TV show, McGregor's tactic appeared to consist of pinning his opponents down and sniffing their bottoms. In my ignorance, I had plunged head-first into an adder's nest of angry bros.
The spittle-dripping missives were correct in one respect. McGregor was a national hero - or, at least, about to become one. At the time of 'The Notorious's airing, McGregor was morphing from famous-if-you-knew-who-he-was to genuine household name. It is a transition he surely completed last weekend as he defeated Chad Mendes to claim the Ultimate Fighting Championship interim featherweight title at the Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas.
This wasn't one of those stories that is big in Ireland and elsewhere elicits a shrug - McGregor's elevation to the top rank of international sport created headlines from Los Angeles to Lahinch. There was even the traditional kerfuffle as a British news site tried (sort of) to claim him (the BBC's reporter apparently under the impression that "the UK and Ireland" is a political entity).
Nevertheless, on social media it was clear that opinion about McGregor continues to divide down the middle. To some he is an example of this country at its best - a boy done good living by his wits and overcoming often better-resourced opponents. But there remain hold-outs who discern something fundamentally un-Irish in McGregor's painstaking braggadocio, his loudly-trumpeted ambition to be a millionaire several times over, the silly beard (can we just agree the beard is silly? Thank you). You can appreciate their perspective: in Ireland we have historically preferred our sporting heroes humble and ego-free, so McGregor's P Diddy swagger strikes us as vulgar and demeaning.
Then, those close to McGregor say he is a genuine chap - generous to his friends and with a work ethic that would put many athletes to shame. They might furthermore point out that a whiff of snobbery attends hardcore McGregor-phobia. Indeed, it's arguable that the backlash has parallels with the hate campaign against Kanye West. Both, after all, are confident in their abilities, do not suffer idiots, and feel no need to apologise for being good at their job. Is arrogance a factor? In Kanye's case, without question.
With McGregor, it's less easy to say - in sports such as MMA, image is paramount. Walking the walk is essential - but it helps if you can talk the talk also. McGregor's big mouth might irk certain corners of Twitter - however, it has assuredly assisted in achieving his current prominence too.
Snobbery aside, the other uncomfortable truth about Irish people, of course, is that we adore success. This runs counter to our image of ourselves as plucky underdogs. Actually, we flock to winners like nowhere else in Europe. If the national soccer team performs well, green jerseys are ubiquitous. Rugby's current popularity is overwhelmingly due to the on-the-field triumphs of the past decade. We maintain the fiction of identifying with the downtrodden when, in truth, it's in the winner's enclosure we are truly at home. Around here, nothing succeeds like success - something McGregor is surely about to reap to his benefit.
In the end, McGregor's breakthrough is a case of results speaking for themselves. The Dubliner is yappy and cocky - and no doubt mindful that, on the global stage, he or she who shouts loudest inevitably claims the greatest rewards. McGregor has learned to play the game and, for his troubles, has become one of the world's most famous practitioners of mixed martial arts. If we find something in that objectionable, perhaps it says more about us than about him.