Tuesday 19 September 2017

Vincent Hogan: Some day all-conquering McGregor will have to re-establish base camp with the real world

Conor McGregor celebrates with his featherweight and lightweight belts after defeating Eddie Alvarez during their lightweight title bout at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden last month. Photo by Adam Hunger/Sportsfile
Conor McGregor celebrates with his featherweight and lightweight belts after defeating Eddie Alvarez during their lightweight title bout at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden last month. Photo by Adam Hunger/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

I was reliably informed by my youngest son last week that Conor McGregor is about to become the most famous person on Planet Earth.

His imminent appearance in 'Game of Thrones' will, it seems, seal that particular deal. McGregor is bigger than sport now, bigger even than TV in a sense. He has the world in a chokehold and it doesn't much matter anymore if the squeamish amongst us regard that as some kind of stain on what we might know as civilised society. The temples of commerce are speaking.

McGregor could walk down just about any street in the world today and have commuters tripping over one another in shock at their proximity to a modern superhero. His fame is positively Trump-esque. It all but relegates the market for someone like David Beckham to a curio shop in Katowice.

And this, I am strongly assured, is a good thing.

My son has taken to descending the stairs every morning with that billionaire strut, shoulders angled back like a reclined deckchair, arms rolling floppily in the way of flailing gym ropes. He's been trying to grow a goatee too, but it looks like that might take longer than Andy Dufresne took with the rock-hammer.

Like it or not, McGregor has a generation hypnotised. They regard him as some kind of raised middle finger to the notion that mixed martial arts isn't so much a sport as a vicious street-fight with paying customers.

Next weekend, McGregor will almost certainly be crowned RTE Sports Person of the Year. We can say that because the decision goes to a public vote and - frankly - Conor McGregor's fans tend to regard an opportunity to articulate support for their hero as a noble duty not to be squandered.

The award clearly won't go to one of our Olympic medalists, given Annalise Murphy and Paul O'Donovan compete in sports that would struggle to fill a bus with supporters at the best of times. It won't go to a Paralympian, a cyclist, a camogie player or womens' Gaelic footballer.

And the hunch here is it can't, logically, go to Seamus Callanan, Brian Fenton, Daryl Horgan or Jamie Heaslip either. Why? Because this vote will be about fame and celebrity and public moxy, about qualities that make it fatuous to hold McGregor's credentials up against something like the scoring of nine points from play in an All-Ireland hurling final.

If you believe there's something wrong with that, you're probably too late. Voting ended at 10am today.

McGregor is famous on a scale that it's arguable no other Irish sports person (including Rory McIlroy) has ever been. When you've Ronaldo taking selfies with you, it's fair to say you've outgrown any idea of needing the endorsement of a crowded RTE studio in December or some parochial re-assurance that the slapping you administered to a man called Eddie Alvarez last month might have been warmly received at home.

"I'd like to take this chance to apologise to absolutely nobody" he declared on becoming the first man in history to hold world UFC titles at different weights. "The double champ does what the f... he wants!"

Futility

The expression on my son's face when McGregor spouts that type of stuff tells me the futility of arguing. I might see something about as stirring as Edward Hopper's portrait of a plump girl at a sewing machine, he sees a modern day Julius Caesar.

Some time last year, I was invited to ghost a few McGregor columns for this website but politely declined. I did so on the basis that it would have been like playing Boswell to a cartoon. It's just not in his interests to peel back any layers to a personality in any way identifiable with conventional emotions or human weakness.

What you get with McGregor is a frozen screen grab. And it reduces those trying to chronicle his story to AJ Liebling's memorable definition of an expert as someone who "writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn't seen."

It's actually quite odd to note the contrast between his public persona and that of his mentor and coach, John Kavanagh.

If McGregor's style is to be the endlessly strutting braggart, Kavanagh's is the very antithesis of that. He makes a point of communicating almost exaggerated humility, instinctively bowing as he shakes a new hand, always expressing himself in a soft, conciliatory way.

I watched Kavanagh in the National Stadium the July night Ireland's Olympic boxers were in town for a test event against Russia and you could not but be struck by the deference in his body language when meeting the likes of Paddy Barnes and Joe Ward. Was it put on? Forced? A perverse affectation maybe?

It did not look that way.

Curiously, in any of the interviews I've read with Kavanagh, he's never been asked about this glaring paradox between his own behaviour and that of his creation. He comes across as far too grounded and emotionally mature to be entirely comfortable with a protégé of his engaging in vulgar belittlement of opponents, in threatening (as he did with Nate Diaz) to kill "his f.....g team and them bitch kids".

That kind of gang rap doesn't exactly sound authentic Crumlin does it? But it's what McGregor sells as a stage personality now and, truth to tell, there's a community out there that doesn't have any real appetite to investigate what, if anything, lies beyond.

In any event, you don't have to like how McGregor conducts himself to respect the commercial acumen that has catapulted him into a world of mansions, supercars and having his likeness on Vegas and New York billboards.

And it's quite conceivable that being declared Ireland's Sports Person of the Year won't even amount to a hill of beans for him given it's doubtful he saw much of Callanan's majesty against Kilkenny, Heaslip's brilliance against the All Blacks and Australia or Horgan's consistent excellence for Dundalk. Fenton and the all-conquering Dubs might be another matter, but it's fair to say Conor McGregor wouldn't be any less than human if he saw himself as existing on some kind of higher plain to the others on RTE's shortlist of a dozen.

He shouts the odds out to Floyd Mayweather after all, wears a white fur coat that would make Liberace blush and struts about America's biggest stages with his chest out like a bay-window.

Last month, he tweeted a picture of himself holding a great wad of bank notes up to his ear with the message "Hello id like to order some competition please I don't have any." In doing so, he makes the rest of his sport seem like a drop-in centre for hapless wannabes and, at last count, he had as many followers on Twitter (3.06 million) as Wales has people.

Blush

So McGregor is winning on every conceivable level just now, with or without that trophy almost certainly coming his way next Saturday night.

But he's going to be a father soon and, at some point, will presumably see the appeal in playing the role of grown-up, in talking to people as distinct from speechifying, in letting others into his world rather than just inviting them to be stage props.

Because the fighting will, inevitably, end and there will surely then come a day when he feels the mature thing to do is to establish base camp with the real world.

According to his own Twitter feed, McGregor's pay-per-view figures for this year almost tripled that generated by the entire sport of boxing. When you attract that kind of business, it must be easy to imagine yourself into some kind of fantasy land where nobody will ever expect anything from you but the show.

Good luck to him. He is a phenomenal athlete and, clearly, a much smarter cookie than he is inclined to let on. If the figures are to be believed, his wealth is now the GDP of a small country. And the entertainment world is already besotted so, beyond the octagon, another career already beckons.

But Sports Person of the Year? Thomas Barr gets my vote and, no, he didn't make the shortlist.

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