Why Dubliner's drama in New York will only help him
Conor McGregor represents all we're supposed to be educating out of young men - maybe that's why he's still a hero, writes Donal Lynch
At the height of the hysteria around Conor McGregor's arrest in New York last Thursday night, a tweet did the rounds, purportedly from Donald Trump, saying that he was 'appalled' and calling for the death penalty for this 'animal'.
It was fake news, of course, but an ironic little piece of grist to the McGregor Mill - if anyone could appreciate the Dubliner's instinct for spectacle, circus, and button-pushing pronouncements, it would surely be Trump. Both know the biggest media rule: bad news is box office.
Like The Orange One, the main charges against McGregor (beyond those now more pressing ones of assault and criminal mischief) are that he is setting a bad example, that he might be secretly racist, homophobic or both, and that he is making a glorified reality show out of something quite serious. All of these are wrapped up in an ever-present 'concern' for his wellbeing.
Some have seen this latest incident, in which chairs, guard-rails and shopping trolleys were sent crashing into a bus containing a rival fighter, as possibly a sign of McGregor's mental instability. They hope that a stint 'away', or behind bars, will put manners on him or be the catalyst that means he gets 'the help he needs'.
At a moment in Irish life when the influence and behaviour of our young sports stars has been debated and scrutinised like never before, the melee in New York just seemed, to many, like a stunt too far.
But the transatlantic tutting over McGregor and supposed worries over his mental stability miss the point of him, and his appeal to a fan base that is more vast than the UFC itself. In a sports landscape populated by athletic choirboys and corporate spokesmodels, McGregor's misbehaviour is all the more delicious - at least it is to the people that count for him. The mainstream may be appalled, but the pulse of a million young men quickens at the sight of a public brawl like the one McGregor served up, and accusations of racism (remember when he called Floyd Mayweather 'boy'?) and borderline homophobia (he has since apologised for using the word 'faggot') are shrugged off by this constituency on the basis anything can be said as long as it's in the spirit of banter.
Other sportsmen might have to apologise for their attitudes to women, but McGregor gets to gleefully flirt with Rihanna and have a procession of women visit his hotel after the Mayweather fight, and it only burnishes the legend.
With his pimp attitude and punk mouth, the Crumlin man is like the embodiment of the male id - he represents everything we are constantly told we should be educating out of our young boys, and yet he remains their most compelling and mouthiest anti-hero.
After pictures of him in handcuffs went around the world, Google searches for McGregor and the UFC itself peaked again, both trended on Twitter and were front and centre in news bulletins around the world.
Such details will not be lost on Dana White. The owner of the UFC made a great play of how upset he was and delivered some quick-thinking bombast on the incident describing it as "a coordinated attack", when it looked to many like a few dogs chasing a parked car. He knew he had to speak out of both sides of his mouth, condemning the whole thing "the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company", before swiftly refusing to rule out working with McGregor again. This is probably prudent for such a 'coin-operated' creature as White. McGregor is responsible for a good portion of the businessman's vast fortune, and money still talks in a sport still struggling for respect. For the UFC viewerships are down, attention is waning and McGregor remains the only household name in the organisation's stable of fighters. Khabib, the fighter who was the subject of McGregor's brawling last week said: "To be honest, I don't want him to go to jail. We have to fight. If we have to fight, let's fight. Send me location. Please, we have to fix this. Me and you. One-on-one."
Perhaps contained in this plea is the knowledge that society has always extended particular leniency to fighters who have broken the rules. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape but is now considered a loveable rogue. Mayweather himself has repeatedly been accused of beating women. Even Tyson Fury's wild and homophobic pronouncements have been seen in the context of his mental health difficulties and upbringing.
In each case, the depth of the fall made the comeback more compelling. Lazarus- like redemptions are a sports movie cliche and, despite the events in New York, McGregor hasn't come close to the kind of incident that would make him a true pariah.
It's said that with dramas like the one in New York, McGregor is trivialising a sport still seeking legitimacy and turning it into some kind of cut-price WWF. Perhaps, of all the charges against him, this is the silliest of all. Like Trump, he understands it is all entertainment and 15 minutes of infamy can be very lucrative. Many arrested celebrities go to great lengths to avoid the humiliation of the shot in handcuffs but McGregor, like a rapper, did his perp walk blank-faced.
He may well be struggling with some internal issues but it is not really for us to judge him on that basis; he has become a symbol, an avatar as much as he is a man. What he represents is more important now. The soap opera moments and bombast will likely continue and the press will keep on tutting, but in a world of castrated, domesticated men and well-behaved biddable sports stars, McGregor is one of the last beacons of messy, instinctual masculinity. And it's because of that, rather than in spite of it, that so many young men look up to him.