Thursday 25 April 2019

Appeal of UFC is deep and will endure despite unedifying finish to McGregor vs Khabib

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor in action against Khabib Nurmagomedov last weekend
UFC president Dana White
John Meagher

John Meagher

The sight of scores of young Irishmen brandishing tricolours and travelling all over the world to support our sporting stars is not a new one. Ever since Jack Charlton's football team qualified for Euro 88 in West Germany, the green-clad hordes have splashed the cash to go to places as far flung as Orlando, South Korea and New Zealand.

And, two years ago, during the Euros in France, Irish football fans were applauded far and wide for their exemplary behaviour. Tales abounded of good-natured supporters mingling with fans from other countries and fitting in well with local residents in a tournament that was scarred by crowd trouble elsewhere.

But last weekend, travelling Irish sports fans were depicted in a very different light. There were no humorous memes - such as the footage of cheerful supporters stopping to help a motorist change her tyre, as happened in France in 2016. This time, it was all about a new green army of agitated and aggressive men brawling in Las Vegas.

The occasion was Conor McGregor's return to UFC - the Ultimate Fighting Championship - after a two-year break. He lasted four rounds against the Dagastani opponent Khabib Nurmagomedov before throwing in the towel, or to use the parlance of UFC, 'tapping out'.

Conor McGregor in action against Khabib Nurmagomedov last weekend
Conor McGregor in action against Khabib Nurmagomedov last weekend

Mounting tensions

There had been tension for days around his comeback bout. Scuffles had broken out among the crowd at the heated weigh-in the day before and there was fighting in the auditorium immediately after the contest, partly provoked by Nurmagomedov scaling the perimeter of the octagon immediately after his victory to attack McGregor's training partner Dillon Danis.

And then there was the YouTube footage - some of it already viewed millions of times - that showed Irish and Dagastani supporters clashing in the concourse of the T-Mobile arena. One especially sickening film showed a McGregor fan getting knocked unconscious with a single punch. He had goaded his aggressor by spitting on him.

If Conor McGregor is perhaps the most polarising of all Irish sports stars - he's either loved or loathed, there seems to be little middle ground - then the legions of mainly young men who worship him also succeed in dividing opinion. For some, his more vocal supporters epitomise the worst excesses of toxic masculinity.

The reputation of McGregor's travelling support was hardly bolstered by the subsequent news that 53 people were denied access to US-bound flights from Ireland - some of them were excluded on suspicion that they were connected to the notorious Kinahan criminal gang.

Anger issues

Dublin-based psychotherapist Karl Melvin has long had an interest in mixed martial arts and admires the skill and technical craft that goes into the UFC, but he believes that an inherently violent sport like it will attract young men with anger issues.

"Young men are watching violent sports from an early age or they've been exposed to violence themselves and now it's being acted out by them," he says. "Maybe they see it as the type of sport that reflects how they see themselves. MMA is a violent sport - and at its most basic level, it's about two people fighting.

UFC president Dana White
UFC president Dana White

"Are some young men carrying hurt? Are they not able to express themselves? Is violence their outlet? Maybe that's their only way of being noticed. They may be drawn to sports that reflect how they feel. There's that desire to be strong, to win, to be alpha - UFC provides all of that."

Much of Melvin's work is centred on anger management and it is men who chiefly need his help. There was certainly a lot of anger on display in Las Vegas last weekend, and the therapist believes a mob mentality helps provoke people who might otherwise recoil from conflict situations.

"There's comfort in numbers, a sense of safety," he suggests, "maybe less consequences if you hit somebody. I've seen it quite a bit over the years. People become that much braver. Some have an alpha image and they want to be the leader of the pack and they want to be seen to be a leader.

"There's something quite primal in us that wants to see violence and can't look away. And one of the reasons Conor has become so popular is that he's a knock-out artist. So was [the boxer Mike] Tyson… and those sort of people draw a lot of men in. We all have the capacity for violence. Socially, we've been trained to not express that, to develop a level of maturity where we find healthier ways to defend ourselves. But that reptilian part of the brain has that fight or flight aspect to it. If there's a fight going on, we'll watch it."

David Prendergast, head of the anthropology department at Maynooth University, says the phenomenon of young men acting violently is hardly new - and cites the huge hooligan problem that blighted English football in the 1970s and 1980s.

A long tradition

"There is a long tradition in sport and in the movies where masculinities are made and remade through representations of heroic figures," he says. "Conor is the latest in a long line of heroic figures… [Muhammad] Ali represented someone who was a darling of the masses whereas Tyson had a wildness to him, and there's something of that with Conor, too, especially when you think about how unpredictable he can be.

"The violence is starting to spill outside the octagon but that only feeds into his legend, as it did when he attacked the [Khabib Nurmagomedov] bus [in Brooklyn last April]. It adds to the aura of unpredictability. So many people are attracted to it because it's unpredictable and because it's not PC. If you're a young and impressionable male, the fact that he says exactly what he wants to say - and refuses to censor himself - is very appealing."

Prendergast says McGregor's young male fans don't seem to care that he loses. If anything, he argues, it cements the bond between them.

"It's often not just about being successful," he says, "but taking risks. Conor represents someone who can lose [and doesn't lose his fanbase]. He represents a successful underdog identity. He feeds dreams and aspirations of success and that's very attractive to young men.

"He exemplifies the idea that it's possible to risk and lose and still achieve greatness. He sets really audacious goals very publicly, puts everything on the line - like that fight with [Floyd] Mayweather [in August 2017]. He represents to his fans the idea that even if you lose a fight, you're still a winner because you can make a fortune out of it."

John Trainor is one of the country's leading sports sponsorship specialists. His company, Onside, has polled the general public about their favourite sports stars and he says the Dubliner "is the undisputed number one sports personality among 18 to 24-year-olds in Ireland."

Two thirds of people in that age group who admire McGregor are male, according to Trainor, and it's a position he has enjoyed since he first became a household name.

Consequently, 'challenger' brands like Reebok and Monster Energy have maintained sponsorship deals with McGregor, despite the various controversies that have followed him over the past couple of years. Both brands - and Burger King, another name that uses the fighter as an ambassador - are especially keen to connect with a young male market.

"He seems to have already identified that there can be far greater earnings in creating your own brands, than simply continuing with the traditional ambassadorial role," Trainor notes.

McGregor launched his Bushmills-made whiskey, Proper No 12 over the weekend and it was reportedly selling exceptionally well in Las Vegas. The reviews have been mixed - Bloomberg's headline reads 'If you thought the McGregor fight was a disaster, his whiskey is worse' - but celebrity-endorsed drink brands can enjoy eye-watering market values. George Clooney's tequila brand Casamigos, now under the Diageo umbrella, is valued at €1bn and UFC chief Dana White quipped that McGregor's whiskey would make him a billionaire.

But Trainor says McGregor's absence from the ring over the past couple of years has led to a decline in his popularity when the wider population is taken into account. "Last year, he was second behind Katie Taylor, now he's third behind Taylor and Johnny Sexton. His appeal is slipping."

Intriguingly, Trainor says admiration for McGregor declines sharply among women over 24 and among both genders over the age of 35. His trash-talking, boorish boasting and obsession with money seems far less appealing for those not in that critical 18 to 24 demographic.

One McGregor fan, 23 from Dublin, admires him for his honesty. "He says exactly what he wants to and he doesn't care who he offends. I love that about him. He's real. Too many sports people end up saying nothing - they don't want to offend anyone. Conor doesn't give a sh**e.

"And all this talk about how violent UFC is hypocritical. Look at all the really bad fights that have happened in club GAA matches over the past few weeks - it's all there on YouTube.

"You had a guy in Laois who had an awful injury at the weekend, but nobody talks about that. (Laois hurling captain Ross King sustained horrific facial and dental injuries after being struck by a handle of a hurley through his helmet visor during the Laois County Final on Sunday.)"

The young McGregor admirer initially agreed to speak on the record, but subsequently asked not to be identified. "My girlfriend doesn't like UFC and thinks if I give my name, people will just see me as a hooligan. I've never been in a fight in my life, and I'd say most people that support him haven't been either, but the media tar us all with the same brush. That's why McGregor has no time for the media - they twist everything he says."

And yet, the reason so many people seem to find McGregor and the UFC so repugnant is more to do with what's said before and after the fights than what happens in the octagon himself. Some were appalled by McGregor's coarse, expletive-strewn taunting of Nurmagomedov last week, not least when he talked about "the smell of sh***e off your pa" - a reference to his opponent's trainer father.

Others recall the tirade of abuse he directed at Floyd Mayweather before their mega-bucks boxing match last year, including the order to "dance for me, boy" - a choice of words considered by many to be racially insensitive when delivered to an African-American acutely aware of the legacy of the slave trade.

Ultimately, though, McGregor's worldwide legion of young male fans will hardly desert their idol over a litany of politically incorrect rejoinders. If anything, it will bring them closer to a man described as a "master showman" by anthropologist David Prendergast.

"You can see how he plans it," he says. "He flies the Irish flag, he swears, he represents someone who stands up for himself and his people. He's unashamed, even when it came to advertising his whiskey.

"Lots of people may not like it, but his fans love it."

'The Notorious' by numbers


The value of each of Conor McGregor's sponsorship deals with Reebok and Monster Energy


What McGregor earned for the match with Nurmagomedov


McGregor's rank in the list of the world's richest athletes (after Floyd Mayweather, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo)


What UFC is worth, according to Dana White

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