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Eamonn Sweeney: Conor McGregor phenomenon has snowballed beyond our comprehension

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Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Dennis Siver in Boston: ‘It’s as though his opponents are merely obstacles’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy

Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Dennis Siver in Boston: ‘It’s as though his opponents are merely obstacles’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy

SPORTSFILE

'Loughnane’s silver will always remain one of the great and greatly under-rated achievements of modern Irish sport'

'Loughnane’s silver will always remain one of the great and greatly under-rated achievements of modern Irish sport'

SPORTSFILE

'You can’t blame Morgan for wanting to play for England. I don’t think any Irish cricketer would turn down the opportunity'

'You can’t blame Morgan for wanting to play for England. I don’t think any Irish cricketer would turn down the opportunity'

SPORTSFILE

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Conor McGregor celebrates after defeating Dennis Siver in Boston: ‘It’s as though his opponents are merely obstacles’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy

That Conor McGregor simply doesn't care about his fans. There you are sitting up till the early hours trying desperately to keep awake, drinking coffee, eating cheese, attempting to develop an interest in some antique Western on TCM. But when the time finally comes, it's all over within a few minutes.

Nip out to make a cuppa, nod off for a second or even take your eye off the screen as you adjust yourself into a more comfortable position and the fight has finished before you get a chance to take it in. McGregor could put in a few boring rounds to let us settle down and give us a bit of temporal value for the hours waited. But no, he has to pulverise his opponents straight away. Has he no consideration?

Mind you, this tendency of McGregor to conduct his fights like a pugilistic equivalent of one of those ever popular wildlife programmes where a lion takes down a wildebeest doesn't seem to be doing him much harm in terms of public affection. People like the guy. In terms of charisma, he possesses the kind of X-Factor which no-one on the show of the same name has ever displayed.

Just how popular McGregor has become Stateside wasn't brought home to me until I was watching the NFC title game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers last Sunday night and Fox Sports broadcast a promo for McGregor's meeting with Dennis Siver in Boston a few hours later. "He's like the Muhammad Ali of the MMA," gushed one of the commentators with what sounded like pretty genuine excitement.

And when the viewing numbers for the Siver fight came in you could see just why Fox were so excited. The 3.1 million peak figure was the highest audience for an MMA fight on cable since 2009. The man from Crumlin outdrew the two top-rated NBA games of the week, both of which featured LeBron James, perhaps the biggest star in American sport.

Among those queuing up to congratulate the victor on Twitter were a couple of men who know a great deal about how to parlay athletic prowess into stardom. Wrestling legend and Hollywood hero Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson hit the nail on the head when he declared, "Helluva way to electrify last night Irishman. Get after it and grab the brass ring brotha." And The Rock's good buddy, a Mr A Schwarzenegger of Los Angeles, California, tweeted his, "congrats to the McGregor-nator on terminating another opponent. Can't wait for your next fight. I'll be there."

I'm not sure we quite realise over here how the whole McGregor phenomenon has snowballed. Not long ago the Notorious one seemed like the man who was going to break MMA big in Ireland and perhaps even eventually get a world title fight. Now the title fight against Jose Aldo is just a matter of months away, it'll probably take place in May, and I don't think it's exaggerating to say that McGregor can become the biggest name in the sport.

He has come along at just the right time for the UFC which has just endured a year so trying there have been suggestions that the MMA bubble may be about to burst.

It's believed that UFC Pay Per View Figures last year were the lowest since 2005, while CEO Lorenzo Fertitta admitted, "This year has been the most challenging year we've ever had. About 80 per cent of the fights we wanted to put on got cancelled, injury, drug test, someone had a baby, I don't know. If it could happen, it happened in 2014. I can't wait to get to next year."

McGregor's viewer figure for the Siver fight was almost three times more than the average for UFC's Fight Nights in 2014. The figures were helped by the fact that the fight came right after the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, but there's little doubt about the Dubliner's huge box-office potential. UFC president Dana White has already predicted that McGregor's featherweight title fight with Jose Aldo will be the organisation's biggest Pay Per View event of 2015. MMA, whose two biggest stars, middleweight Anderson Silva and welterweight Georges St Pierre, missed all of last year through injury, needs Conor McGregor. Badly.

In the aftermath of last week's victory, Katie Taylor showed typical class by tweeting: "No one in the history of Irish sport has captured the imagination of the public like The Notorious MMA has. You're an inspiration." And while this may be a slight exaggeration, it's true to say that few Irish sporting figures have enjoyed such a meteoric rise.

After all, this whole saga only really began when McGregor scored his stunning first-minute knockout against Marcus Brimage in his UFC debut in April 2013. Prior to that he'd spent time on the dole and as recently as 2011 his schedule included bouts in such exotic locations as Portlaoise and Letterkenny, where he scored a four-second knockout over Paddy Doherty 14 days before Aldo made his first successful title defence against Mark Hominik in front of 55,274 people at the Rogers Center in Toronto.

McGregor has wrought this incredible transformation in just eight rounds of UFC fighting, four of which have finished prematurely. Four of the five fights he's won in that period have lasted a total of eight minutes and 52 seconds. The fight against Max Holloway, which went the full 15 minutes, probably wouldn't have had McGregor not suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the bout.

Yet those 23 minutes and change have been enough to bring the Irishman to a position where he is primed to become a major star in the biggest sports market in the world, one where almost no-one has heard of Brian O'Driscoll, Tony McCoy, Gaelic football or hurling.

The problem with the brief nature of McGregor's appearances is that for MMA neophytes it's hard to judge the true merit of his achievement, but there is no doubt that he's an immensely compelling performer inside the octagon. The best comparison is perhaps with someone like Roberto Duran. McGregor pursues his opponent with the same kind of hunger as Duran did and appears to instil the same kind of fear into them that Mike Tyson put into his rivals.

These are big names to conjure with but there is something undeniably striking about McGregor's utter lack of fear or doubt which is remarkable even for a sport like MMA which attracts some very tough customers. It is as though his opponents are merely obstacles which have to be cleared out of the way so that he can get where he wants to go. To use a native phrase, McGregor goes through them for a shortcut.

McGregor has adopted an all-or-nothing strategy. The Ali-style brashness means that he must keep winning because the persona of The Notorious MMA is all about winning. Lose just one big fight and the mystique will be dispelled. As was the case with Ali, there are plenty of begrudgers out there who'd like to see someone shut this guy's big cocky mouth for him. I'd imagine McGregor doesn't just know this, but cherishes and is spurred on by it.

Right now, the sky is the limit. If he becomes world featherweight champion and keeps winning McGregor can follow in the footsteps of The Rock and Arnie and make it in Hollywood. Governor of California might be too big of an ask but then again who knows? It's certainly not that much of a stretch to imagine him punching the head off Mark Wahlberg in some action thriller.

And as I watch Conor McGregor work his magic, I hear at the back of my mind James Brown singing, "Paid the cost to be the boss/Look at me you know what you see/you see a bad mutha." Sometimes this 26-year-old ex-apprentice plumber seems like not just our first MMA hero but our first home-grown rap star as well.

Are you not entertained?

backpage@independent.ie

Rubbing salt in walker's wounds

Here's a question. If you had the choice of (a) winning a world athletics title, crossing the line first, savouring the moment and getting the applause from the crowd, running a lap of honour carrying the national flag, mounting the podium and getting your medal while they played your national anthem, being referred to as the reigning champion for the next few years before being stripped of the title for drugs offences, or (b) being given the title a few years after the event when everyone had pretty much forgotten about the championships, let alone your race, which would you choose?

Moral questions aside, it's easy to see which is the most rewarding experience. And that's perhaps the main reason why so many athletes are willing to dope in order to achieve success. Even if you are caught later, you've still had the chance to enjoy your victory at the time and know what it feels like to come first at a major championships. Getting the medal a few years after the fact is never going to compare with that.

So I wasn't all that thrilled to hear last week that Olive Loughnane's silver medal from the 2009 World Championships 20km walk looks likely to be upgraded to gold after the champion from those games, Olga Kaniskina, was banned by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. Or that Rob Heffernan looks likely to get an Olympic bronze from London 2012 where he finished fourth after the winner there, Sergey Kirdyapkin, was also banned by RUSADA.

Kaniskina's results from 2009 are being expunged by the Russians though, amusingly enough for fans of institutional crookedness, the Russians are trying to only wipe out Kirdyapkin's results from July 2009 to June 2012 and then from October 2012 onwards, thus leaving his Olympic performance intact. But even the IAAF aren't going to buy that one.

My feeling is that while an injustice has to some extent been righted, the utter unfairness of what happened has, if anything, been rubbed in further. Because we now know that Loughnane should have crowned a courageous international career by coming across the line first in Berlin six years ago, something which would have earned her about ten times the attention that she actually got at the time. And that Heffernan's storming charge through the field late in the 50km walk should have been rewarded with an Olympic medal on the day rather than a chorus of, "Poor old Rob. Just missed out again." The clock can't really be turned back. Full restitution isn't really being made.

Heffernan did have the major consolation of winning the 2013 world title, while Loughnane's silver will always remain one of the great and greatly under-rated achievements of modern Irish sport. Her silver was the first world medal for an Irish athlete since the brilliant, and almost entirely forgotten, Gillian O'Sullivan, came second in the 20km walk at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. You know who was in front of O'Sullivan that day? A Russian.

Most of the Russian walkers who've won gold medals at major championships in the last decade have now been banned for drugs offences, among them the reigning world and Olympic champion in the 20km walk Elena Lashmanova, who is currently serving a two-year ban for doping.

Lashmanova's sentence is due to expire in July 2016, just in time for her to defend her Olympic title in Rio de Janeiro. That'll show them.

Ireland need drop of captain Morgan

How should we feel about Eoin Morgan being made captain of the England cricket team for the World Cup?

You can't blame Morgan for wanting to play for England. I don't think any Irish cricketer would turn down the opportunity. As Ireland isn't a Test-playing nation, any of our players who want to reach the pinnacle of the game have to declare for England. There's no question about that. In a way Morgan's elevation is actually a tribute to the new strength of the game here.

But, and here's the rub, while I'm pleased that Morgan got the nod, I now hope he plays really badly in the World Cup. Normally I don't like people wishing ill form on a player but there's a reason for it in Morgan's case.

You see, the first Irish player to be selected for England was Ed Joyce in 2007. Fine player though he is, Joyce didn't make his mark at international level for England and returned to the Ireland team. The Sussex player should be a major asset in the forthcoming World Cup if the terrific unbeaten 113 he hit against Pakistan in last year's one-day international at Clontarf is anything to go by.

Morgan would be an even greater asset so while I don't wish a succession of ducks or anything on him, it would be nice to see him play poorly enough to end up back in the Ireland fold. It's frustrating enough that perhaps Ireland's best bowler, Boyd Rankin, will miss the tournament.

Rankin's brief spell in the England team looks to be over for the foreseeable future and at the moment he's turning out for the England Lions, basically a development squad, in South Africa when Ireland could really have done with him as they bid to repeat the heroics of 2007 and reach the last eight.

The sooner the ICC make Ireland a Test nation the better.

Sunday Indo Sport


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