Tuesday 24 April 2018

Comment - Can Conor McGregor live happily ever after?

‘To a lot of people trapped in jobs which they hate or struggling to make ends meet or just bored with the limitations of their lives, McGregor is a dream figure’
‘To a lot of people trapped in jobs which they hate or struggling to make ends meet or just bored with the limitations of their lives, McGregor is a dream figure’

Eamonn Sweeney

As rumours spread on Tuesday night of his involvement in some kind of pub scuffle in Dublin, Conor McGregor posted a video of himself on Instagram. The fighter's hoodie is zipped up so that you couldn't see much more than a pair of pretty downcast looking eyes. The video was captioned, 'The Celebrity'.

Celebrity. Which, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, seems like the cause of and solution to all of Conor McGregor's problems. Celebrity which, in the words of John Updike, is, "A mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being somebody, to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over animation."

Over animation seems a pretty accurate description of the Conor McGregor phenomenon. Take Tuesday night's story. It's pretty much impossible to disentangle fact from fiction in relation to it. On one side you have the fighter's father Tony saying, "95 per cent of that story is nonsense and the other five per cent is over-exaggerated". On the other are tabloid stories about gangsters demanding astronomical amounts of compensation and wild social media statements about 'the Irish Mafia', and 'made men'. One suspects the first explanation is probably closer to the truth but who knows for sure?

No-one with any sense would like to think of McGregor becoming entangled with the kind of people he was rumoured to have displeased on Tuesday night. His own gangster image is catnip to some and abhorrent to others yet it is essentially a pantomime. Whereas, even if Dublin is not the crime-ridden metropolis portrayed in one infamous US magazine article, it does contain people who rob, exploit, hurt and even kill others for a living. The sight, which we have become too familiar with, of their victims lying dead on the city's housing estates shows the grim reality of the 'thug life'.

The mention of these people probably underlines the extent to which some of the criticism of McGregor has become a little OTT. His rhetoric can be incendiary and insensitive yet he's not actually harming anyone. In a country where there are plenty of real bad guys does it really make sense to describe the fighter as someone "who represents all that's wrong about society," like David Davin-Power did last week? Surely there are better candidates for this honour? The monsters who brutalised those families in rural Limerick perhaps? Or the sleazy conspirators behind the smear campaign against Maurice McCabe?

The hype surrounding McGregor can mean that his critics, as well as his fans, lose any sense of perspective. That's why I found it refreshing when his father, asked to comment about Conor's whereabouts on Thursday, revealed that, "He's at home with his son. We're all just settling down for Christmas now. I've just got the grandson's presents today, they've just come in from America. I'll be wrapping them, putting them under the big tree for the big day. That's it."

Those words, both prosaic and touching, are reminders that when we talk about Conor McGregor we are talking about a human being with a family who love him. It is perhaps a defining characteristic of our age that we sometimes speak about soap opera characters as though they're real and about real people as though they're in a soap opera. It's easy to forget the toll the media hullabaloo must take on not just the subjects of speculation, but on those close to them.

It's worrying that the latest furore comes at a time when things appear to be unravelling for McGregor. First came the controversy about his use of homophobic language at a UFC event in Poland, followed less than a month later by his entering the ring and attacking the referee at a fight in Dublin. There's been a tendency in the past to regard even the fighter's most outrageous escapades as being part of a media masterplan. No matter what he said or did the chorus from his fans was, "He's just doing it to promote his next fight."

That line of defence didn't really work for either of those incidents. McGregor didn't know he was being recorded in Poland while he was so obviously out of control in Dublin as to render any Machiavellian interpretation impossible. In any event there is no next fight to promote for him at the moment. Indeed, UFC chief Dana White is expressing doubt that McGregor will ever fight again.

It's interesting that on both occasions McGregor quickly apologised. The alacrity of the repentance was surprising given that in the past he has defiantly stood over even the most obnoxious statements. It's ironic that while McGregor's partisans were all over social media arguing he had nothing to say sorry for, the man himself was preparing his apologies. Conor McGregor is apparently less of a Conor McGregor fan than these blinkered loyalists.

There was a certain grudging air about both apologies, but they did seem to indicate some genuine reflection and regret. Saying sorry is not the easiest thing, particularly for a man with such a macho image. McGregor could have stayed silent without incurring major career damage. It made you wonder if he's becoming tired of the face he presents to the outside world.

Looking at McGregor right now, I'm reminded of how Dr Jekyll gradually lost control of his evil alter ego and Mr Hyde gained the upper hand. The persona McGregor created for the sake of publicity now seems to be dogging his steps in real life.

I feel sorry for Conor McGregor. When he flirted with racism in the build-up to the Mayweather fight, I criticised him in this column. Yet in the end the fighter stopped short of outright racism. Even his "dance for me boy" jibe at Mayweather was immediately followed by a back pedal which suggested The Notorious One knew he was in danger of crossing a line and didn't want to go there. I don't believe he is either a racist or a homophobe, he did tweet in favour of a yes vote in the gay marriage referendum. He could have kept out of that one but he didn't.

I was unkind about McGregor's fans in the build-up to the Vegas fight. And I was wrong because I think there is something genuine about their worship of the man. To a lot of people trapped in jobs which they hate or struggling to make ends meet or just bored with the limitations of their lives, McGregor is a dream figure. He's a kind of ultimate Lotto winner, a guy who came from the most prosaic of surroundings to make a connection with a kind of American glamour which for many people is an ideal vision of the good life.

The Mayweather fight was not so much a sporting event as a kind of supercharged heist movie, one where McGregor and his entourage pulled off the score of the century in Vegas and all his fans felt like they were in on it. It was the purse rather than the result which mattered.

This was sport as Oceans Eleven. Yet with their happy endings the Oceans films are atypical heist movies. In the classics of the genre, The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, The Killing and so on, the heist and its planning is only the first part of the story. The rest of the movie is concerned with how things go wrong for the conspirators and the mistakes they make which prevent them from getting away with the loot. I want Conor McGregor to get away with the loot. If he doesn't, it will be crushing for all the people who put their faith in him.

I've mentioned movies because a lot of the Conor McGregor story, including whatever really happened last week, seems rooted in the area where fiction collides with fact. Right now the man is at a crossroads and I hope that in a few years we see him on the chat shows remembering how rocky the territory was and how he managed to come through it. I don't have any desire to see him suffering some kind of 'comeuppance'. He does, however, need to cop on a bit.

In the end, Conor McGregor is a man in his 20s, an age when young men are prone to doing the odd stupid thing. He's just become a father for the first time and might find that this can be as exciting an adventure as anything that happens in Vegas. His story doesn't have to turn out like Scarface, it can still be Rocky. The first thing he'll have to do is try and take off that mask before it eats so completely into his face that he suffocates.

Christmas is coming. But what do you give the man who has everything? Maybe we could give him a break.

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