Saturday 24 February 2018

Paul Kimmage - Fear is a recurrent theme in the life of Conor McGregor

“They were always onto me. ‘You aren’t doing anything productive with your life, you need to go and get a job.’ I had some tough times with my da. ‘Get your arse into a fucking job. What are you doing? You are doing nothing with your life.’ I had to listen to it all the time, right up to two months ago.”

Conor McGregor

Irish Examiner, April 2013

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Okay, I hear you, not another bloody column on that boor Conor McGregor! You’ve seen the headlines and read his clothes (the ‘Eff You’ suit) and concur with the opinions:

“He’s an asshole.”

“A racist.”

“A disgrace to our country.”

“He’s all front and no trousers.”

“The Donald Trump of sport.”

“We don’t want our kids growing up like McGregor!”

I’ve been there. I have spat those words:

“Tramp.”

“Braggart.”

“Knob.”

“Tool.”

“Gicknah.”

Then I jumped on the 16 bus one day and the driver flashed me a smile.

“Heard you on the radio,” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“I didn’t say you were good.”

“Oh . . . right.”

“Go easy on McGregor,” he said

“Okay,” I replied. “I’ll give that some thought.”

They unveiled a new statue of him last week at the National Wax Museum. His father, Tony, was invited and seemed content with the work but there were howls of derision from his legion of loyal fans: “It’s nothing like him,” they protested. And to be fair they had a point but does anyone really know who the real McGregor is?

Four years ago, when the ink was still wet on his torso, he gave his last memorable interview to Ewan MacKenna for the Irish Examiner. His girlfriend, Dee, had dropped him off in a small, battered, Peugeot to a McDonald’s near the Long Mile Road. He ordered a coffee and pulled up a chair and spoke of his boyhood and the things that had formed him.

A hiding he had taken over a girl one evening; a beating he had taken from a gang of 10 boys. “I could give you another 50 stories of walking down the street and someone trying to start a fight,” he said. “I don’t know what it was, I was a quiet child. I know this sounds stupid, we were kids, but at the time you were petrified and it played a part in the path I chose.”

Fear is a recurrent theme in his life. In a recent profile for ESPN by the celebrated American writer, Wright Thompson, there are some truly brilliant insights.

On the two sides to McGregor:

“He’s obsessed with his social media accounts. There’s a line between the online image he has cultivated and his actual home life with his family. Beloved Irish boxer Michael Conlan, who knows McGregor, calls the public and private man ‘like chalk and cheese — complete opposites.’

“Drawing such a line, creating a character to sell, always carries the same risk: losing control of your creation and actually becoming the preening egomaniac you once only pretended to be. He’s risen to a level known by only a select few, where the air is thin and the margins are slim.

“If you can catch a glimpse of him when he doesn’t know you’re looking, he seems human-sized and vulnerable. Conor’s bravado suggests a scared kid still in there somewhere, trying to keep many things at bay, most vitally his own fear that his journey could be a circle. Crumlin to Crumlin, with a fairytale in between.”

On McGregor’s fragility:

“McGregor, for all his bravado, can be fragile. Norman Mailer wrote about approaching Ali’s psyche like you’d approach a squirrel. That’s true for Conor too. ‘You got to be very cautious what you say around Conor,’ says striking coach Owen Roddy.”

On the influence of his coach, John Kavanagh:

“It’s been a decade since McGregor walked into the gym, and without Kavanagh, he’s a rifle without a scope. The coach balances the fury of his most famous student; Kavanagh dreams of being a gentleman farmer, of raising chickens and drawing water from his own well. They’ve risen together in this crazy world and are now training for their first boxing match, against an undefeated champion they goaded out of retirement.

“Sometimes the insanity of it all catches Kavanagh, like now, as he talks with Roddy in his office. They’re laughing.

‘Have you ever cornered a boxing fight?’ Kavanagh asks.

‘No,’ Roddy says.

‘Neither have I,’ Kavanagh says. ‘Never been in a corner, amateur or pro.’

‘If you’re gonna go, go big,’ Roddy says.

They’re really laughing now.

‘I kept meaning to do it,’ Kavanagh says.

On the demons driving McGregor:

“Even now, he lives in a near-constant state of fight or flight, and while some of that comes from where and when Conor grew up, Kavanagh thinks it’s more nature than nurture. There’s just something in the way Conor is wired. That’s one of the reasons Kavanagh didn’t bring in coaches with more boxing experience.

“Too much stuff, by someone who didn’t approach Conor’s psyche like a squirrel, would be a disaster. McGregor, at his core, is an act of imagination. Tell the truth about someone, he said once, and they crumble. His truth is that he’s an apprentice plumber from Crumlin trying to shake off the inevitability of those facts. He’s escaped so many traps that he now instinctively seeks them out.”

On his greatest fear:

“Even as someone like McGregor is rising, his fall feels close enough to touch. Nearly all famous fighters end up back where they started, busted, a punch-drunk eulogy to their inability to escape whatever first drove them to fight. McGregor brags he’s gonna eat lobster for the rest of his life while his critics and opponents will eat their words.

“Maybe that’s true. When you meet him, and see the pride in his eyes when he talks of giving his newborn son a different kind of life, you want it to be true. He’s making lots of money, and spending lots of money, and the thing his family and friends fear most isn’t the next opponent but the moment when he no longer has an opponent, when the engine of his focus goes cold.”

There’s some mischief and some money to be made before that happens. It’s only five years since he was rejected for a part-time job at Boylesports. It’s only four years since he was living with his parents and cadging lifts in Dee’s car. Now he has Cristiano Ronaldo on speed-dial and takes advice on life in the bubble from Rory McIlroy. And the headlines are getting bigger.

Maybe that doesn’t rock your boat. Maybe it won’t change your opinion. Maybe you don’t travel by bus and won’t change your opinion:

“He’s a tramp.”

“A braggart.”

“A knob.”

“A tool.”

“A gicknah.”

And maybe you’re right.

But on Saturday, a man who has never taken part in a professional boxing fight will step into the ring with a man who has never lost a professional boxing fight, and will earn at least $100m.

Think about that.

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