Sunday 4 December 2016

Eamonn Sweeney: The success of Conor McGregor and Paddy Barnes doesn't excuse their obnoxiousness

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 02/10/2016 | 17:30

A number of incidents over the past week might leave you wondering if there's something wrong with the value system of boxing and combat sports in general. There was Conor McGregor taunting his next opponent in the usual ugly manner, Paddy Barnes not just unapologetic but almost boastful about his involvement with a member of the Kinahan crime family and Steven Donnelly revealed to have bet against himself in the Olympics, with Michael Conlan having broken the betting rules as well. Pretty rotten stuff all round.

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The coincidence of these stories raises the question of whether they are entirely to do with the personalities of the fighters involved or if there's something about the culture of their sports which has contributed to them. It's a fair enough question. It is Sam Allardyce's own personal foolishness which has cost him the England job but his greed has also to be seen in the context of the cupidity which runs rampant in the Premier League.

On the face of it the behaviour of McGregor, Barnes and Donnelly would seem to be pretty indefensible. However, there are two common defences in cases like these. One is the Working Class Defence, which says that these are hardy boys from hardy backgrounds and that their behaviour has to be seen as part of their hardy culture. But this is an enormously condescending argument. If anything you might think that McGregor's working class origins should have made him less inclined to mock Eddie Alvarez as "just another broke bum that can't pay his bills".

There are boxers who come from far tougher backgrounds than Conor McGregor and don't feel the need to act like he does. Similarly there's nothing particularly Working Class Hero about lionising organised crime figures whose involvement in the drug trade has inflicted so much damage on poor communities. Betting against yourself is also, as far as I know, not standard proletarian behaviour. In reality, excusing stuff like this on the basis that it's somehow 'street' is a very Middle Class thing.

The other great defence is what I call The Splutter Defence. It goes something like: "All the success this man had, all the stuff they won for Ireland and you're saying they did something wrong, they owe nobody anything who are you to splutter splutter splutter."

This doesn't hold water either. It's not taking away from what Conor McGregor has done in the ring to observe that he shouldn't act like a prick outside it. Paddy Barnes's Olympic heroics don't mean he has carte blanche to say whatever he likes in interviews without being pulled up on it. And even if Steven Donnelly had won a medal he'd still have been wrong to bet against himself. It's not some perk that gets awarded to Irish Olympians.

Criticising all these fighters goes against the grain for me. Previously I've maintained that a lot of the criticism of McGregor overlooks the showbiz element of the persona he's created, and disagreed with the notion of MMA as being a uniquely barbarous sport. But his taunting of Alvarez, "Just another broke bum trying to sell some shit. He's broke and he's desperate", is another bucket-load of obnoxiousness piled on an ever more boring slagheap of obnoxiousness. For one thing, McGregor should ponder what it says about the standard of the titles he's won if all his opponents are so apparently useless.

Similarly, I've always been fonder of Paddy Barnes than I have been of Kenny Egan, but Egan was dead right when he accused his old team-mate of being naïve and ignorant about the Kinahan issue. "Paddy is very vocal and very opinionated but he is sectioned off up there in Belfast and probably doesn't know what is going on. I know who Daniel Kinahan is, you know who Daniel Kinahan is but Paddy mightn't really know." It also takes a lot more guts for Egan to speak out against the Kinahan family than it takes for Barnes to defend them.

I admired Steven Donnelly for not just being the most unlikely Irish boxing qualifier for the Olympics but for being the one fighter who performed above expectations when he got to Rio. But that doesn't change the fact that anyone who bets against themselves when representing Ireland probably shouldn't get another international vest.

No-one is perfect. We all make mistakes. The real test of character is admitting them and trying not to repeat them. That's why in a way I'm less annoyed by McGregor, Barnes and Donnelly than by the camp followers who tell them they've done nothing wrong and by doing that probably pave the way for further scrapes in the future.

The relatively easy ride McGregor and Barnes have got over the past week owes a lot to the current climate of media sycophancy in which fame and success basically excuse all sins. You know the kind of thing, if a famous sportsman criticises someone it's 'hilarious trolling' no matter how witless the jibe. But if some member of the public has a cut back at them it's 'vile abuse'.

Too much of the commentary on McGregor resembles something which might have been recited by a courtier as he retreated backwards from the throne of King Louis XIV. But his shtick isn't funny anymore. Neither is the fact that after McGregor's foolish assertion to Floyd Mayweather that a black man could tell an Irish man nothing about racism, some of his supporters went on at length about 'Irish slaves', a nonsensical trope often employed by White Supremacists in the US and elsewhere to belittle African-American suffering. His comment about Jose Aldo, "If this was in a different time I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone who wasn't fit to work", has some slavery undertones too.

A couple of weeks ago our hero was in hilarious banter mode again, calling Nate Diaz a "crackhead ese," (ese being a Mexican term which like 'nigga' is probably best avoided by people outside the community in question) and threatened to kill 'his fucking team, you and them bitch kids'. A country where people get their knickers in a twist because some British comedian made a comment about the way the O'Donovan brothers speak seems remarkably relaxed about this kind of stuff.

The bluster, the insults, the relentless boasting, you know what Conor McGregor has become? He is the Donald Trump of sport, a man whose admirers greet any criticism by pointing at the size of his wallet. He is a hero for bullies and people who wish they were bullies, for the kind of wimps who think they know all about the ghetto because they watched a box set of The Wire.

Paddy Barnes seemed more of a Sopranos man last week. A major figure in the MGM organisation headed by Matthew Macklin and which the Belfast fighter has joined is Daniel Kinahan, described by that excellent and courageous journalist Nicola Tallant of the Sunday World as having "built up a personal fortune from the enormous drug-running empire his father controls." And last week Barnes didn't just defend his move to MGM, he came out swinging to defend Daniel Kinahan. "What has Daniel Kinahan been convicted of? If he wants to sit in my corner, he can sit in my corner. People are saying he's a criminal but he's been convicted of nothing. Strange, isn't it? He's roaming the world free with no convictions and warrants for his arrest."

Of course people are free to believe that the Kinahans are just an ordinary Dublin family, that the gang feud between themselves and the Hutch crime family which has terrorised the city is a media fabrication and that they're living in Spain because they like the sunshine. But there is something stomach-turning about seeing an Irish sporting hero using his reputation to defend theirs. This can't just be written off as Lovable Paddy having a bit of crack.

There are a few cheap populist cheers to be garnered from the observation that if Barnes, McGregor, Donnelly and Conlan were posh, no-one would be making any fuss about them. But there was a huge fuss made at the last Olympics when it emerged that an Irish competitor had placed bets at the previous Games. He was a sailor from a well-off background and far more fuss was made about his offence than the more serious one committed by Steven Donnelly. So much for that theory.

For that matter, if a player on the Dublin ladies' football team, who were robbed as clearly as any team was ever robbed last Sunday, had reacted by shouting in a post-match interview that the GAA were "fucking cheats", she probably wouldn't have been clapped on the back to the same extent that Michael Conlan was after Rio.

The sad thing is that these latest incidents don't actually reflect the true spirit of Irish boxing and combat sports, which are by and large founded on the voluntary efforts of hard-working people putting in long hours doing unglamorous work in underfunded facilities. McGregor, Barnes and Donnelly have let themselves down but more than that they've let down sports which have been the victims of crude stereotyping in the past. Last week it became that bit easier for those old stereotypes to be deployed once again.

The people in the gyms and the kids they train deserve more from the heroes of their sports. An awful lot more.

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