Sunday 23 July 2017

Comment: Conor McGregor and MMA, more than blood and guts

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor
‘Martial arts is the sleeping giant of Irish sport and McGregor is finally giving it a figurehead’

Eamonn Sweeney

It all depends on how you felt about the sight of Chad Mendes holding Conor McGregor down and elbowing him hard into the head.

For the MMA faithful, McGregor's ability to withstand the punishment, escape the hold and knock Mendes out proved that he is one of the country's finest athletes.

For the dwindling but vociferous minority of sceptics, the sight of the elbow drawing blood was just further proof that MMA is a barbarous spectacle that doesn't deserve to be called a sport.

But for the uncommitted, the agnostic and the newcomers who may, I suspect, constitute the biggest group of all, the sight of McGregor taking punishment on the canvas and the spectacular revival which followed proved that, while the hoopla and razzmatazz which surround UFC bouts may remind you of the WWE wrestling circus, this new kid on the Irish sporting block is the real thing.

Skimpy kit: Conor McGregor
Skimpy kit: Conor McGregor

It might not have seemed like it at the time, but being wrestled to the ground and punished by Mendes was the best thing that could have happened to Conor McGregor. Previous opponents seemed beaten before they started and put up token resistance. The fights didn't look fixed but they didn't exactly look kosher either. McGregor's victories were so easy it raised questions for the MMA neophyte, which, let's face it, is most of us, about the worth of the whole enterprise.

Yet last Saturday night in Las Vegas, there was McGregor on the canvas, obviously hurt and looking to be within an ace of defeat. It was a salutary illustration for the vast new Irish MMA audience of the world of pain available to our local hero should he get things wrong at this level.

Read more: Niamh Horan: Blood, sweat but no tears now for McGregor the multi-millionaire

That McGregor prevailed after having had the worst of things before he pulled out the big left hand punch which left Mendes unable to continue at the end of the second round renders the 'is it really a sport' questions strangely irrelevant. Whatever you think about MMA, you can't deny that the new interim featherweight champion showed extraordinary guts on the night.

We were looking at an Irishman who had put himself into tremendous physical condition and displayed enormous fighting spirit, talent and ferocity. The punch which finished the fight was impressive, but McGregor's ability to absorb punishment was even more so. I was reminded at times of the warrior qualities of Roberto Duran in his heyday.

There are those who will never like or accept Mixed Martial Arts. But when it comes to McGregor, perhaps they should mirror the Christian Church attitude towards homosexuality and 'hate the sin, love the sinner'. Because anyone who fails to appreciate the prowess of this latest Irish sporting hero is missing out on something important.

Conor McGregor on the attack against Chad Mendes during their Interim UFC Featherweight Title bout in Las Vegas. Right: Mendes gets the upper hand on McGregor early on
Conor McGregor on the attack against Chad Mendes during their Interim UFC Featherweight Title bout in Las Vegas. Right: Mendes gets the upper hand on McGregor early on

When I watch MMA I think of my favourite English novelist Anthony Powell's comment, "With every writer there is always something to put up with." So it goes with sport as well. With soccer it's hype and the disfiguring effect of big money, with rugby it's snobbishness, with cycling and athletics it's the drugs, with Gaelic games it's the cavalier attitude towards discipline, with American football it's the brain damage, with darts it's the theme tunes and with golf it's the trousers.

Read more: McGregor triumph inspires would-be champions to head for the MMA gym

With MMA it's the apparent brutality. As a not particularly macho individual myself I have problems with it yet I can't see how anyone who waxes lyrical about the nobility of boxing can regard its upstart cousin as unacceptable. I suspect that the truncated nature of MMA bouts probably leads to the fighters suffering less long term damage, though we'll obviously have to wait for medical evidence on that one.

You can even argue that Mixed Martial Arts is distasteful to some people precisely because it lays bare the fundamental reality of combat sports, which is that many spectators are there to see the contestants suffering punishment, the more spectacular the better.

It's also hard to miss the element of class prejudice which seems to underlie much of the criticism of McGregor and his sport. You could hardly move on the internet for the mentions of 'skangers' 'howayas' and 'scobes' and the finger wagging digs at the Irish fans in Vegas which once again showed there's a streak of snobbishness out there which is as wide as O'Connell Street. Which would obviously make it one of the widest streaks of snobbishness in Europe.

A lot of McGregor's fans won't care about this. In fact they'll be quite chuffed at the idea that the fighter's supporters share his wild man reputation. But there are also plenty of people who dislike the media demonisation of the sport. By and large they're people who have trained and competed in martial arts. This is a sizable constituency because it's a rare town in this country that doesn't afford kids an opportunity to participate in at least one form of martial arts and to continue on with that passion as they grow older. Martial arts is the sleeping giant of Irish sport and McGregor is finally giving it a figurehead.

I have a brother who spent years practicing Aikido and amassing enough belts to hold up a wardrobe full of trousers. There are a lot of people out there like that which accounts for the articulate and thoughtful way MMA is defended when it comes under attack. An open letter to this effect in last week's Irish Independent was a magisterial response to the notion that MMA doesn't deserve the respect of the mainstream media. These are people who've put in many long and tough hours in the gym and won't suffer condescension directed towards not just MMA, but martial arts as a whole.

Read more: Open letter to Paul Kimmage - Is MMA barbaric if a fighter can opt to surrender?

As for those making sniffy comments about 'bandwagon jumpers' and 'event junkies' the observation that many more Irish people become interested in a sport when we have a world class performer in it is perhaps not as novel or devastating as its proponents may think. And prissy comments about McGregor's language irresistibly call to mind Eminem's rejoinder to similar criticism, "Will Smith doesn't have to cuss in his rap to sell records? Well I do, so fuck him and fuck you too."

Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Chad Mendes
Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Chad Mendes

But the phenomenal, and I don't think anyone can deny it is phenomenal, appeal of McGregor may have a lot to do with the feeling that there is something untamed, wild and unpredictable about the man.

This is an unusual quality these days when there's a hunger to domesticate and sanitise everything. Witness the complaints about Kanye West at Glastonbury and all those suggestions that he learn from Lionel Richie's 'professionalism.' Because obviously everyone remembers Little Richard singing, 'Good golly Miss Molly, I admire your professionalism and reliability.'

Even sport seems often to be portrayed as just another corporate venture requiring the same kind of sober and sensible virtues necessary for success in the business world. Conor McGregor offers a more visceral experience. He is not comfortable viewing, he is not safe and he is his own man. Most importantly, he is never boring. In a conservative and conformist age this is a pretty rare attribute.

Read more: 'Croke Park? I would fight him on the moon' - Frankie Edgar calls out Conor McGregor

It was hard to put memories of Italia 90 out of your mind when you looked at the Irish faithful in Las Vegas. There was the same sense of innocence about it, the same feeling of a tribe united on a benign crusade. That innocence can sometimes tip over into arrogance, there's a bit too much blather about Jose Aldo, a great champion, 'chickening out' of the fight when it should be obvious by this stage that there are no cowards in MMA. But it's a while since we've seen something like the McGregor phenomenon. Like it or loath it, to ignore it is to display a lamentable lack of curiosity about Irish society.

As for the man himself, Chad Mendes said that when he was elbowing McGregor into the head, the Notorious One never stopped talking and kept asking, "Is that all you've got?"

That'll do for me.

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