Vincent Hogan: Story of ‘The Notorious’ will only be revealed when macho mask slips in defeat
The millions keep rolling in for Conor McGregor as he steps up a weight, but who exactly is he?
Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30
In the human zoo that is UFC, Conor McGregor has the key to every cage.
He is turning his trade into a Babylonian Wall Street and doesn't much care whether or not you like what you see. He doesn't need to. So many people pay for what McGregor sells now, he gets asked if there's a risk of out-growing his own paymasters and you can almost see Dana White's Adam's apple go into spasm. This incarnation of UFC is scarcely old enough to have a past, yet McGregor's fights are self-marketed as "historical events".
So he may not be the first Irish athlete to have made the cover of 'Sports Illustrated', but nobody got there with more moxy.
True to fashion, the build-up to tomorrow morning's fight with Nate Diaz bore all the refinement of a strip-club brawl, yet - it seems - the market can't get enough of this. Diaz, apparently, took the gig at 11 days' notice as, for the fourth time in eight fights, McGregor's original opponent withdrew.
There's no belt on the line in Vegas then, no real sense of what (if anything) winning might actually signify.
Diaz is a few inches taller than McGregor but quite a few million dollars poorer. He doesn't seem especially interesting or articulate. Much of his performance at Thursday's press-conference was incoherent, culminating with him giving the finger to McGregor's supporters.
UFC is, you will gather, many things but classy isn't one of them. It makes the obnoxious profitable.
And, in it, McGregor carries himself like a man who considers wealth an inoculation against humility.
So every ugly moment, every knuckle-headed utterance is in service to the notion that different rules apply in the rarified air he breathes. He is most comfortable as a cartoon figure, removed from any obligation to be adult about human inter-action.
A couple of years ago, before his fame began to subsume his sport, he agreed to have his autobiography written by a young Irish journalist. The project never got much oxygen however and was soon aborted. McGregor's 'ghost' found that he could rarely get beyond the performance turnstile with his subject. That the stage show never ebbed.
It's no mystery to see why.
The basic rhythm of McGregor's life tells us nothing about the person because ordinariness has no place in the diary of a marketing phenomenon. Who is he? For now, it's not in McGregor's interests to let us know much beyond the Rocky-type narrative of a once-unemployed Crumlin plumber winning millions and working his way onto America's biggest TV talk shows.
It isn't even in UFC's interests. They have found the billboard face and braggart voice and dynamite-cap performer that puts them sitting on an oil well.
Read more: Conor McGregor weighs in heavier than ever
McGregor's almost subhuman persona is, thus, an inspiration to fantasy. If he can seem slightly unhinged and deranged at times, all the better. UFC needed more than just routine gore and bloodshed to elevate it above the standard screenplay of cage-fighting. Jose Aldo was a world champion for ten years with all the global charisma (and attendant pay-per-view appeal) of an assembly-line worker in his native Manaus.
Worse, Aldo moaned too much. He criticised the poor pay in a way that antagonised what McGregor likes today to call "the company".
So the Dubliner's 13-second knockout of Aldo last December was a lottery win for UFC. Because it brought Hollywood to the octagon. McGregor delivers a show whether half-naked or dressed in three-piece tailored tweed. He gets the connection between showbusiness and profit.
And this ability to talk the talk, then walk the walk makes him compellingly attractive to a generation. Even if, sometimes, he over-uses the device of goading, such ugliness will forever be forgiven when a prophesy comes to pass.
He pretty much foretold what he would do to Aldo and, in an environment of barbarity and danger, that was always destined to turn heads.
But there is a feeling too that UFC will always be a sinkhole of moral questions. The seemingly blithe drug-abuse noise that splashed between different camps this week spoke of a sport not yet self-aware in any grown-up way. Diaz and his coach, Richie Perez, have been tossing allegations of steroid use in McGregor's direction as if it might be comparable to suggesting that that Bentley in his garage is actually a hire car.
There has been zero evidence to back up those allegations, but UFC has a pretty rotten history on this issue. It only became USADA-compliant last July and, in an environment that cultivates trash-talk, it is increasingly hard to make a distinction between the gratuitous and the sincere.
Just now, there's a sizeable core of fighters with previous doping strikes against their names who, surprisingly, haven't been heavily tested since the new regime kicked in. Hence, in UFC, it's tempting to never quite trust the naked eye.
Thursday's press conference followed the familiar pattern of foul-mouthed, juvenile baiting that passes for a big-fight drum-roll.
For many who fight in UFC, purses are tiny, contract conditions wretched. McGregor calls them "bums", his own audience ensuring that he operates on uniquely individual terms (he gets a cut of TV revenue on top of his agreed purse).
As White put it last year in an interview with 'Esquire': "He's a penny stock that couldn't have worked out better. He's one in a million. He has that thing that you can't teach people, whatever it is that makes people gravitate towards you."
Whether "that thing" is backed up by any intellectual or emotional depth is probably immaterial.
Because he seems to represent something uniquely attractive to a particular social milieu. If, historically, Irish people prefer their sporting heroes to be gracious and - largely - humble, McGregor conveys something massively appealing to a younger, different audience. He has worked his body into something Donatello might have sculpted and his physical bravery seems immense.
And, on one level, there is something massively seductive about a proud Irishman so dominating the billboards of Sin City.
Yet, he can seem incredibly crass too, belittling the background of opponents, issuing death threats, telling the world how "three people died" making his diamond-encrusted pocket watch, boasting how he would send an opponent (Aldo) back to the favela and "a Reebok (one of his sponsors) sweatshop".
McGregor is indifferent to the behavioural mores most public figures adhere to.
He has predicted, typically, that he will "butcher" the "scared little brother" he fights tomorrow. The Diaz fight is at welterweight, which means a virtual 20 per cent increase in McGregor's body weight compared to the Aldo fight and, with it, the attendant dangers of sustaining heavier hits.
Movie roles are being mooted for him; there is even speculation that boredom might propel him into some kind of hybrid shoot-out with retired boxer, Floyd Mayweather. He poses for pictures with fast cars, guns and (unwittingly) gangland figures. He talks like a rap artist.
"On Saturday night, I will eat his carcass in front of his little gazelle friends" he said of Diaz this week.
His personality is unfiltered then by any conspicuous self-doubt. He seems fearless about crossing weight divisions, indifferent to the violence of the cage. And, as long as McGregor keeps on winning, that same aura will keep on inking dollar bills.
But the moment he's beaten, the moment a fist, a kick, or a choke-hold gets the better of him, this magic show will end.
Because the market is for 'The Notorious', for a concept of invincibility. Lose and that turns, instantly, to dust.
Then and only then, the zoo keys handed over, we might get to see behind the mask and come to know who this man Conor McGregor actually is.
In the meantime, just pay the subscription baby.