Sunday 25 August 2019

Conor McGregor: Sporting genius or corporate sellout?

Conor McGregor's rapid rise from complete obscurity to god-like status is unprecedented in the pantheon of Irish sporting celebrities. But why is the UFC world champion failing to take any moral responsibility in his newfound role as a national sporting icon?

Unprecedented rise: UFC world champion Conor McGregor.
Unprecedented rise: UFC world champion Conor McGregor.
Conor McGregor with long-term girlfriend, Dee Devlin.
'The boom is BACK baby'- Conor is not shy about flashing the cash, designer-clothes shopping in LA.
Like a movie star, McGregor was travelling in style during the UFC World Championship press tour last March.
McGregor parading the tricolour after his infamous Las Vegas first-round knockout victory over Jose Aldo in their UFC featherweight title fight last December.

JP O'Malley

Last year was pretty damn good for Conor 'The Notorious' McGregor. On December 12, the 27-year-old became the undisputed featherweight champion of the world in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) when he knocked out Brazilian fighter, Jose Aldo, in just 13 seconds.

If 2015 was a pivotal turning point for McGregor, 2016 looks set to be the biggest year of his career so far.

Next month, McGregor aims to make history, again, by becoming the first UFC fighter to hold two belts at the same time, when he faces Rafael dos Anjos in the ring in Las Vegas.

There is even talk of him holding three belts at once.

McGregor parading the tricolour after his infamous Las Vegas first-round knockout victory over Jose Aldo in their UFC featherweight title fight last December.
McGregor parading the tricolour after his infamous Las Vegas first-round knockout victory over Jose Aldo in their UFC featherweight title fight last December.

McGregor mania reached fever pitch on January 13, when a story surfaced in the press about the possibility of his face appearing on a forthcoming batch of a million newly minted one-euro coins.

"The boom is BACK baby!!! #FuckTheRecession," McGregor tweeted upon hearing the news.

'The boom is BACK baby'- Conor is not shy about flashing the cash, designer-clothes shopping in LA.
'The boom is BACK baby'- Conor is not shy about flashing the cash, designer-clothes shopping in LA.

Joking aside, the idea was being given serious consideration in our national parliament. Thankfully, due to a bureaucratic technicality, the request was ruled inadmissible by the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions.

McGregor is an anomaly in the history of Irish sport: he's got a natural rock-star-like poise; he's cocky; has the handsome looks of a Hollywood heart-throb, and talks with a self-confidence and arrogance not seen in the sporting world since Muhammad Ali was in his prime.

Like a movie star, McGregor was travelling in style during the UFC World Championship press tour last March.
Like a movie star, McGregor was travelling in style during the UFC World Championship press tour last March.

"If you truly believe in [success] you are creating that law of attraction, and it will become reality," McGregor told a journalist back in December.

His other famous catchphrases include reminders that he's not talented, but "obsessed"; or that there are two things he likes to do, "and that's whoop ass and look good".

In post-fight press conferences, McGregor, decked out in custom-made three-piece designer suits, takes questions from journalists as if he's just become a made man in the Cosa Nostra. This mind-over-matter philosophy - where McGregor assumes the role of a self-loving, invincible, Nietzschean-like-Ubermensch - is cut from the same ideological cloth as Napoleon Hill's 20-million-selling 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich, which examined the power of personal belief, positive psychology, and the role both subjects play in the success of the individual.

McGregor's self-made heroic narrative, coincidentally, arose at a time when the Irish nation was in need of a serious confidence boost.

After all, there's nothing like a feel-good sports story to lift national morale, following one of the most humiliating recessions in living memory.

In fact, McGregor's successful sporting career came to fruition at a time when a vast majority of the Irish population were weighed down by heavy feelings of failure and hopelessness.

Conor McGregor with long-term girlfriend, Dee Devlin.
Conor McGregor with long-term girlfriend, Dee Devlin.

Back in 2008, McGregor was stuck in a job he loathed, as an apprentice plumber in Dublin. So he jacked it in, telling his parents he was going to become a professional mixed-martial-arts (MMA)fighter instead.

And a rare occasion occurred - McGregor lost a fight. To his father. Still, he was determined that he'd become a multi-millionaire within a couple of years.

In McGregor's own words: "[My father] may have whooped my ass [for quitting my job], but I still didn't go back to that building site."

The wealth took slightly longer to materialise than he initially envisioned. But McGregor - who comes from a modest, working-class background in Crumlin, south Dublin - is now earning more money than he could have ever dreamed of.

Just before he signed his first UFC contract, McGregor was on the dole. He's now a multi-millionaire. What's so unique about McGregor's current position is that he's in uncharted territory; there has never been another massively successful Irish UFC fighter of his stature.

Therefore, a sense of tradition, sporting etiquette, or leading by example, never comes into the equation. While foul-mouthed trash-talk in press conferences may be discouraged in most sports, the UFC actively encourages it.

Why? Well, because it creates more publicity and pay-per-view revenue.

McGregor's unsporting antics includes taunting fellow fighters in pre-fight press conferences, to the point of pure obnoxiousness; stealing his opponents' belts, or headbutting them at the weigh-in.

McGregor continually makes references to barbaric acts of violence, such as skull-smashing and face-butchering; he regularly makes death threats to his opponents; he refuses to engage in any form of sporting fair play before fights, seeing such conduct as idiotic; and he can often be found telling his audience, the media, and fellow fighters - with infantile-like-arrogance - to "fuck off".

In other tough sports, such as, say, boxing, GAA, or rugby - which have sporting bodies with proper rules and regulations- respect for the opposition is paramount. But McGregor doesn't get disciplined, or pulled up by the UFC for his outlandish behaviour.

Primarily because the UFC is not really a sporting body as such, but a private enterprise of sorts. McGregor, for instance, often refers to the UFC in casual conversation as "the company".

The operation is run out of Las Vegas by casino billionaire Lorenzo Fertitta, who bought the entire franchise in 2001 for US$2m. Within a few years - due to the emphasis on global TV pay-per-view rights in European and Asian markets - Fertitta turned UFC into a hugely profitable global empire.

It now has an annual turnover of US$500m per year, and broadcasts to over one billion homes in 148 countries around the world.

It's easy to dismiss McGregor as the lead role in a kind of 'daft sporting pantomime meets mass-entertainment project'; not dissimilar to, say, WWE wrestling, where fighters are in acting mode most of the time, and it's all a bit of harmless fun.

The truth, however, is cloaked in a darker shade of grey; UFC has a cynical, violent past.

The reason UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta picked up the sporting franchise for a such a knock-down price is simple: during the late 1990s, US senator John McCain - who deemed the sport barbaric and extremely dangerous - led a successful campaign that ensured UFC fighting was banned in 36 states across America. Back then, UFC only had a cult following, and the ban ensured the sport was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Inevitably, UFC has one driving impetus: money.

And McGregor- with his movie-star good looks, and fairytale, rags-to-riches, 'working-class boy done good' narrative - is just the kind of bad-boy persona the UFC has been waiting for to drag this modern-day form of human cockfighting into the mainstream arena of sexy, respectable global-corporatism.

As Dana White, president of the UFC, once expressed in a documentary about the fighter: "I flew McGregor out to Vegas and he told me that he was on the dole. When I left that dinner, I said, 'I don't even know if that kid can fight. But if he can fight even a little bit, he's gonna be a huge star'."

Thus the formula is extremely simple: the more McGregor talks up the sport, and himself, the more money he earns from the UFC.

But the world champion mixed-martial-arts fighter isn't just a paid lackey for a dodgy sporting enterprise working out of the Nevada desert. McGregor also appears to be devoid of any kind of moral compass; a trait one usually expects from a successful global athlete of his stature.

Even Roy Keane - another Irish sporting legend with a gigantic ego - at the height of his playing career at Manchester United and for Ireland, had some sense of loyalty or commitment to something greater than just himself and his pay cheque.

McGregor, however, possesses no such qualities.

His one true loyalty is to money and material wealth.

After McGregor defeated Marcus Brimage three years ago, he joyously looked into the camera and shouted, with an elated smile, "Sixty Gs, baby"; following his victory over Jose Aldo last December, the first thing McGregor mentioned was the US$10.1m revenue receipts the fight collected that night.

Last year, McGregor told the Guardian that his love for UFC fighting has been "strengthened by a love for the money it brings". He's also claimed, in another interview, that the luxurious lifestyle he's recently become accustomed to is "addictive".

McGregor's trash-talk - which is usually seen as harmless banter - often contains explicit threats of extreme violence. But crucially, it's bereft of even a modicum of basic moral decency too.

For example, he's arrogantly joked in one press conference that "three people died" making the diamond-encrusted gold pocket watch that he wears with pride; and he's referred to his opponent, Jose Aldo, as a "little Brazilian", mocking the poverty Aldo grew up in.

"He's from the favelas, and when I'm done I'm going to turn his favela into a Reebok sweatshop," McGregor boasted in one press conference - like a schoolboy bully - as Aldo looked on in disgust and shame.

This particular insult wouldn't be so tragic if McGregor wasn't sponsored by Reebok - a company accused in the past of sourcing its products from labour sweatshops in many third-world countries, where staff are made to work in conditions that are often inhuman.

A report published six years ago from US sweatshop-watchdog, the National Labor Committee - now known as The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights - revealed that millions of dollars of Reebok-branded goods were being produced in a factory in El Salvador, where employees were being paid next to nothing, and working in a squalid, dangerous environment that posed serious health risks.

And if you click onto McGregor's personal website, practically the first thing you come in contact with is an option for shopping.

Here, one can buy an unlimited array of fancy Reebok products, with McGregor's name stamped all over them.

Indeed, what's most galling about McGregor's arrogant persona, which lacks any sense of humility, is the way he's attempting to market what appears to be a natural inclination towards stupidity as national pride - especially his parading of the tricolour as a badge of honour, draped around his shoulders after each fight.

The paddywhackery "Oirish" card McGregor constantly plays - to enhance his image in United States - is as embarrassing as it is ridiculous. One American journalist even claimed that McGregor was carrying "the nation of Ireland around on his back".

McGregor agreed, adding that he was so proud to see Irish fans dancing around Las Vegas like "fucking leprechauns". Never one to shy away from cliches and bland stereotypes in public, McGregor has also labelled the Irish - to millions of viewers around the world - as a nation of people who "are lovers of combat".

It's hard to figure out if McGregor has the even the most basic intellectual faculties required to think before he speaks, given just how outrageous some of his comments have been.

Last December, for example, McGregor told the US talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel that he idolised former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Tyson is a convicted rapist, who served three years of a six-year prison sentence for the horrific sexual assault of 18-year-old Desiree Washington, back in 1991.

"Mike Tyson is the man. I need to sit down and speak with [him]," McGregor told Kimmel with a big grin on his face.

Perhaps what's most worrying about McGregor's recent accession to sporting global dominance, though, is the example it's setting to impressionable youngsters across Ireland.

If you're an ambitious 10-year-old-boy, sitting up late at night, watching an Irish man dominate the global stage, and fighting like an undefeated gladiator, of course your big dream will be to become the next UFC star. And you'll sure as hell want to talk, think, and act, like your newfound god-like hero.

In a press conference in Dublin last March with McGregor and Jose Aldo, there was a very poignant moment, where a young lad, sitting on his father's shoulders, cheekily shouted out from the audience, "McGregor, how long is it going to take you to rip his head off?"

It was a cute gesture, and naturally enough, everybody laughed.

But there seemed to be a tragic undercurrent to the whole sporting circus.

Namely, the normalising of barbaric violence in our culture, especially around young, naive, and hugely impressionable children, who tend to emulate the behaviour of their elders.

It would, of course, be churlish, bitter, and play into the predictable narrative of the Irish begrudger - where we berate anyone who dares to be different, and steps outside of their tribe to show they can succeed on their own - to deny that McGregor deserves every success that comes his way.

But so far, there seems to be very few voices - especially among the Irish intelligentsia - pointing out that McGregor must accept even a basic semblance of social responsibility as he assumes the role as the greatest - and on course to the the most well-paid - Irish sporting icon of his generation.

And if the debate comes up again about putting McGregor's smug little kisser on our official currency - or if, perhaps, he's invited around to Aras an Uachtarain for tea and sandwiches with President Michael D Higgins - we might begin a more mature conversation in the public sphere about what exactly it is we are celebrating with this new sporting phenomenon, which has a bloodthirsty compulsion not seen since lions attacked men inside the Colosseum during the last days of Rome.

As WB Yeats once put it: "In dreams begin responsibilities".

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