Friday 21 October 2016

Uncaged... why this guy deserves respect

John Costello

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor

Forget the tattoos, trash talk and aggression. Forget the fact he fights in a sport many believe to be little more than a 'barbaric caged-circus of brutality'. When Conor McGregor steps into the octagon tonight in Las Vegas to fight for the UFC's interim featherweight title, he deserves not only your attention, but your respect.

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A little over two years ago the man from Crumlin was practically unheard of. He had spent a gruelling five years plying his trade as a Cage Warrior, in an unglamorous, back-alley version of the UFC. While he won two titles at different weight classes during this time, he also managed to lose two of his bouts. But thanks to his skill and style, McGregor was finally granted every cage fighter's dream - the chance to join the more polished and professional Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), where the audiences were massive and so were the potential pay-days.

It is interesting to journey back in time, courtesy of YouTube, and watch the pre-fight interview before McGregor's first UFC bout in Stockholm 2013.

There was no trash talk or banging of the chest, and no big-gorilla-eating-a-heart tattoo sprawled across his chest. Instead, standing there in a T-shirt, was a calm, likeable, respectful guy who was still on the dole back in Ireland.

A few hours later McGregor went on to blast his way into the UFC by knocking out his opponent Marcus Brimage in the first round through a blistering and clinical display that had the crowd on its feet. By the end of the night he would collect a $50,000 bonus cheque for making such short work of Brimage and scoring the quickest knockout of the night.

McGregor knew he was big and fast for his 65kg weight class. His hand speed, footwork, power and flowing non-linear movement always allowed him to punish opponents and counter strike with great effect. But the one part of his game he realised he needed to radically transform was his persona. While nice guys don't always come last, they rarely sell out stadiums and maximise pay-per-view revenue in the fight game.

While his unrivalled commitment in the gym meant he could walk-the-walk during fights, to draw big audiences and pay-days he knew he had to talk-the-talk outside of the octagon. He understood the showbiz and pantomime element behind the fight game, just like Muhammad Ali had done generations before, and decided to wholeheartedly embrace it.

After returning to Ireland, McGregor signed off the dole, took his prize money and kitted himself out in fitted, tailored suits, gold watches and bling, and unleashed the trash-talking, brash Conor 'The Notorious' McGregor on the world.

Some were enthralled, others appalled, but his master plan would soon pay off handsomely. Over 11pc of the tickets sold in Las Vegas (for McGregor's last fight) were from Ireland. When he headlined his first event in Ireland, the gate alone took in $1.4m.

But while McGregor has developed a massive, loyal following in Ireland, he has also proven star attraction on a global scale.

He is the most searched fighter on the UFC's digital streaming service Fight Pass, and his two first UFC fights (even though they are against low-profile opponents) rank in the top 10 most watched fights ever on Fight Pass.

Now anytime a microphone is put anywhere near his face McGregor will use the opportunity to promote himself and his fights, often using trash talk and denigrating his opponent. He does this in the knowledge that those who love him will pay to see him win his next fight, while those that hate him will pay to see him in the hope he gets his ass whooped.

But the reason McGregor will retire a multi-millionaire is not because of his in-your-face persona, but because of his ability to back it up in the octagon.

He is not some brutish, street fighter. Look behind the trash talk and bravado and you will see a highly trained, highly gifted, stylish martial artist who in two years has become a superstar in the fastest growing sport, in both viewership and participation, in history. Indeed, there is only a handful of boxers who could draw the crowd and support McGregor now delivers.

And even though Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is constantly dismissed by those who know nothing about the sport as nothing more than dangerous, bloody, violent entertainment, the UFC still maintains a record of never having sustained a death or serious injury, unlike rugby and boxing.

In other sports McGregor's rags to riches story, achieved through dedication, skill and hard work, would be lauded.

But many in Ireland dismiss him and his sport despite the fact his is a highly skilled, unique, sporting phenomenon.

"Conor McGregor is the real deal," UFC president Dana White said recently. "He is legit. He is a force that I have never seen, ever. Bigger than any of the fighters we've ever had. I've never seen anything like this''.

So even if you don't like MMA, it is time you started to appreciate Conor McGregor and what he has achieved, because he is about to become the biggest name in the world's biggest sport.

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