Friday 9 December 2016

Eamonn Sweeney: Conor McGregor, a talented fighter and genius showman

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 20/12/2015 | 17:00

'It's probably best that not all sports stars are like McGregor and that all sports are not like MMA' Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
'It's probably best that not all sports stars are like McGregor and that all sports are not like MMA' Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Two-and-a-half years. And 13 seconds. That's all it took to put Conor McGregor on top of the world and make him as famous a sports star as there is in Ireland.

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The speed of it all is astounding. Before McGregor went to Stockholm to face Marcus Brimage on April 6, 2013 in his first Ultimate Fighting Championship match, no-one apart from the dedicated cognoscenti of mixed martial arts had heard of him. He'd been signing on the dole, plying his trade as a fighter in Portlaoise, Letterkenny and Kentish Town and languishing in the kind of proletarian obscurity often endured by the protagonist of a Ken Loach movie.

These days our hero is living a fast and furious life. It doesn't normally happen like this.

Two years into his career on the European Tour, Pádraig Harrington was finishing 29th in the Order of Merit. Two years into his career on the continent, Seán Kelly's best result in the classic races he would eventually dominate was a 20th place in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Two-and-a-half years into his professional career, Barry McGuigan was preparing to fight Valerio Nati for the European featherweight title. And these were the quick developers.

McGregor's progress has been different because he is a different kind of Irish sports star, an ultramodern icon of an age where everything happens faster. And that's why he continues to divide opinion. The haters may be diminishing in number but it's fair to say that there remains a sizeable cohort which is ambivalent about whether this new kid on the block is a breath of fresh air or a lamentable sign of the times.

Last weekend's win over Jose Aldo will have helped McGregor to win the hearts and minds of the doubters. Not just because of the sheer drama but because McGregor knocked Aldo out in a way familiar to boxing fans and the truncated nature of the fight meant there was none of the gore and grapple the doubters find so distasteful. This was the Conor McGregor victory it was OK to like. It was the ideal MMA fight for people who don't really like MMA fights.

Yet McGregor will remain an anomalous and even problematic figure in the Irish sporting pantheon. It remains impossible, for example, to disentangle the fighter from the media persona. To a certain extent what he's done outside the octagon has been as important to the burgeoning of the Conor McGregor legend as what he's done inside it.

This isn't to denigrate McGregor's achievements as an athlete or to suggest he's some kind of post-modern Giant Haystacks. If he didn't win his fights in such spectacular style no-one would listen to a word he says. But this time last year Andy Lee beat Matvei Korobov to win the WBO middleweight title, arguably an even more significant achievement given the level of competition, and the Limerick man didn't get one tenth of the attention which has been lavished upon the Dubliner.

That's because while McGregor is a fighter of talent, he is a showman of genius. This makes some people uneasy. We're used to a more modest approach from Irish stars. Or if they do boast, which has become more frequent in recent years, it's in the vein of some lad talking himself up so that the panel on Dragon's Den will invest in his new line of cake mix, a kind of guff which blends middle management cliché with nostrums culled from self-help manuals. It's all very suburban and very corporate.

Our UFC world champion, on the other hand, usually sounds like he's auditioning for a gig with Tony Montana's mob in Scarface. And that makes certain timid souls tut-tut and use words like, "regrettable," and "unnecessary," as though they were members of a residents' committee discussing whether they should allow the man to rent a house locally.

This has less to do with class snobbery than with a kind of cultural unease at what McGregor represents. Why else would you see complaints about McGregor's "foul language" in a country whose most cherished sporting utterances include Ciarán Fitzgerald's immortal, "Where's your fucking pride?"

Those who complained that McGregor had, "gone too far," when he unleashed his "fuck you and fuck the queen" tirade in response to some extremely tedious ultra-nationalist sniping were also missing the point. Going too far is what McGregor does. In fact, his image is built around the idea that there's no such thing as too far. Waterford Whispers, as Waterford Whispers often does, captured this perfectly with its "Conor McGregor burns down Jose Aldo's house as mind games continue," spoof story.

It's worth noting how much McGregor owes to hip-hop culture. His chosen nickname is, after all, filched from a dead rapper. And the creation of a distinctive persona, the braggadocio, the dissing of rivals, the constant emphasis on how much money he's making and the cartoonish exaggeration underlying it all are pure hip-hop.

Hip-hop is the most popular and the most vital form of music in the world today. But it's also the most divisive. There are plenty of people who think there's just too much cursing, too much boasting and too much bling. They simply don't get it. And just as there were people who watched Glastonbury and couldn't work out why Kanye West couldn't be more like that nice Lionel Richie, there are people who can't see why Conor McGregor can't be like that nice Henry Shefflin. You get these things or you don't.

McGregor is a new kind of sports star because MMA is a new kind of sport. It's pointless to pretend that there aren't quite a few people who'll never find it kosher. And you can even make a case for its similarity to that other booming sector of 21st century culture, online pornography. MMA skips the foreplay and faffing about and gets you straight to the climax.

But perhaps it's fairer to describe the UFC as professional boxing without the hypocrisy. It doesn't bother with all that noble art guff designed to camouflage the fact that big time boxing is basically a morally indefensible endeavour. How can you make a case for something which is essentially about two men, usually from poor backgrounds, attempting to knock each other unconscious for the edification of the well-off (which you have to be to get a ticket for a major title fight these days). For all the skill involved, most of us are hoping to witness a spectacular knockout. MMA strips combat sport down to the basics and takes it to its logical conclusion. Any resemblance to an ultra-violent gladiatorial contest from a Dystopian science fiction movie is probably deliberate.

We have a tendency in this country to try and make our heroes lovable so that even as obdurate a character as Roy Keane has his irascibility converted into a kind of endearing personality quirk. The taming of Conor McGregor and his transformation into a kind of sporting Imelda May may be slightly more difficult.

Most of the inflammatory rhetoric is undoubtedly meant to serve a promotional purpose but there is a definite spikiness about McGregor. His anti-monarchy outburst was, after all, prefaced by a dig at people in Celtic jerseys which ran the risk of alienating a section of his support. It showed that the man is not interested in pandering or making nice. And why should he be? We hear a lot about self-made men but Conor McGregor is something different again. He's a self-made phenomenon. First he tried to make it big in MMA. Now he's the biggest thing in MMA. And if he keeps going like this, he'll soon be bigger than MMA.

McGregor is Ireland's first hip-hop sports superstar. Like hip-hop, a big part of the appeal of MMA is that it taps in to a beguiling male fantasy of power, violence and money. Right now Conor McGregor is living that fantasy and an awful lot of his fans are getting off on it.

It's probably best that not all sports stars are like McGregor and that all sports are not like MMA. But isn't it nice to have the bit of variety all the same? You all know who he is. You all have an opinion on him. That's what he wanted. It's good crack, isn't it?

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