Thursday 14 November 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Conor McGregor represents not Toxic Masculinity but Toxic Imbecility

Most of us recognise that Conor McGregor belongs to the world of low-rent entertainment as much as that of sport. . . we think of him as a kind of cross between Hulk Hogan and Brendan O’Carroll. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters
Most of us recognise that Conor McGregor belongs to the world of low-rent entertainment as much as that of sport. . . we think of him as a kind of cross between Hulk Hogan and Brendan O’Carroll. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

We were in Toronto when the boredom began to take hold. As Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather swapped barbs with the dutiful air of men doing a necessary but tedious piece of DIY around the house, it hit home that what we were watching was a press conference.

Press Conference. Few two-word combinations have the same power to chill the heart. It is a rare journalist who sallies forth to one with a spring in their step. Yet last week the four press conferences which the fighters were holding to promote their forthcoming fight were being treated as though they were major sporting events in themselves. You had the same kind of previews, blow-by-blow accounts and somewhat breathless analysis that attend a big match, race or fight.

But, as the old proverb goes: Cuir síoda ar ghabhar agus is gabhar i gcónaí é. All the hype in the world couldn't disguise the fact that we were just looking at two men yakking away with all the wit and spontaneity of a pair of light entertainment compères swapping pre-scripted onstage banter at a showbiz awards show. It's been called a pantomime but that's unfair. Pantos are generally entertaining. The redoubtable American sports website Deadspin got it right when describing the proceedings as "the dumbest possible roadshow".

Criticising Conor McGregor for getting involved in this kind of hoopla is like criticising Real Madrid for not scoring enough tries. It is entirely misunderstands the nature of the game. The build-up matters just as much to McGregor as the fight. Frazier had his left hook, Ali had his shuffle and McGregor has his press conference. The volley of invective in front of the cameras and the mikes is his signature move.

McGregor is a good fighter but his name has been made by his mouth as much as by his fists. Look at the enormous amount of publicity generated by the forthcoming fight. It's as though this is a battle between equals, a showdown between the two towering figures in their sports. Yet while Mayweather is undoubtedly the finest boxer of the decade, McGregor enjoys somewhat less exalted status. Despite what the Irish media would have you believe, he doesn't tower over MMA like a colossus.

The sport's various pound-for-pound rankings all have flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson at number one and some of them have our boy as low as number four. Last year McGregor fought three times, losing once and winning one of his other fights on a disputed majority decision.

In a way McGregor is a kind of Anna Kournikova, who became perhaps the most famous women's tennis player, and one of the richest, despite never winning a singles title. Athletic talent is not always the most important thing in the modern sporting world. McGregor's appeal has as much to do with showbiz as sport.

Look at how differently the fighter is treated compared to almost any other sports figure. Other stars are forever being dragged over the coals for making contact with officials or making gestures at fans, for earning too much or not trying hard enough, for sexist comments or general lapses of decorum.

McGregor, on the other hand, wears a suit with 'f*'*k you' written on it multiple times and nobody seems to pass any heed. It's reported deadpan as though this is the kind of thing any athlete might do before a big game. There are even those who find something clever about as cheap and shoddy an attention-seeking gesture as you can get.

And when McGregor rolls out the same old tired insults to the opponent de jour you see people going on about 'mind games' and 'trash talk' and insisting that the jibes are, to use that favourite clickbait word, 'hilarious'.

McGregor makes a strange bedfellow for those who appear alongside him in the sports pages. Look at Aidan O'Shea, that most unfairly criticised of Gaelic footballers, who during the week decided to answer the criticism levelled at him by Bernard Flynn.

O'Shea explained, eloquently and with good manners, that when he was a ten-year-old he'd loved getting autographs from players, so when kids ask him for the same thing he always obliges them. He didn't say, 'F**k you Bernard Flynn, f**k you, f**k you, f**k  you, you Meath cockroach'. If he had done there would have been uproar. Few people would have complimented him for being 'hilarious'. Most people would have wondered if he was right in the head.

Jim Gavin's brief temper tantrum with the media, Clare's purloining of sliotars from behind the goals and Brian Cody's charge down the line at an official were all regarded as bad form, yet all pale into insignificance when set against the way that McGregor routinely behaves. However, McGregor, like a small child or a drunk, is given a free pass.

That's because in our heart of hearts most of us recognise that he belongs to the world of low-rent entertainment as much as that of sport. We don't compare him to Rory McIlroy, Sonia O'Sullivan or Seán Kelly, we think of him as a kind of cross between Hulk Hogan and Brendan O'Carroll.

Despite the wilder claims being made on its behalf, his next fight resembles not the epic Ali-Foreman clash in Kinshasa but the misbegotten match Ali engaged in with the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki a couple of years later, a contest so unsatisfying that it took cleaners nearly a full day to clear the rubbish chucked by unhappy fans at the Budokan arena in Tokyo.

We don't know what the Mayweather-McGregor fight will be like but logic suggests Mayweather's superior skills will see him win a one-sided, and not massively exciting, points decision. Yet you wonder how McGregor would react should such a scenario unfold.

Will he feel tempted to try and put his opponent in a stranglehold, slam him to the ground or even kick him in the stomach? It might bring disqualification but it would cement McGregor's legend as a stop-at-nothing bad boy.

That might be worth a lot more to him than the kudos accruing to a gallant but outclassed loser. It would be the showbiz road rather than the sporting one but it can be hard to separate those two intertwined threads in the McGregor story.

Conor McGregor is not a trivial figure but he is a disheartening one. And sometimes, despite all the blustering protestations of patriotism, he seems an un-Irish one. It's hard to think of two things more different than the sham and spoofery of his press conferences and the beauty, accomplishment and excitement of the Munster hurling final.

Roscommon manager Kevin McStay might have felt entitled to lacerate his critics in the aftermath of the Connacht football decider but instead his attitude was modest, intelligent and measured. We expect our sports people to behave like that and we like and respect them for it.

That makes it a bit odd to see people proclaiming their allegiance to a man whose idea of class is a jacket with 'f**k you' scrawled on it a couple of dozen times. As Dolly Parton said, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap". It's said that McGregor's carry-on reflects an authentic gritty working-class milieu but that seems a slur on the community he comes from.

It seems instead to reflect a vision of 'the ghetto' held by teenagers of all ages who spent too much time playing Grand Theft Auto. The idea of working-class life as a kind of pathology is actually a very middle-class idea. So is the idea that McGregor's behaviour is justified because he's making a bundle from it. As Flaubert said, the first thing a bourgeois asks when you mention someone's name is how much money they're making.

The idea that money confers importance is one reason why people feel obliged to take seriously things like last week's press conferences, which are very stupid indeed. Another reason is that McGregor does feel like an emblematic figure of the age, in the same way that the swashbuckling English footballers of the 1970s, long of hair, individual of expression and rackety of habit, seemed to epitomise the new freedoms of society at the time.

The 21st century ginger man's appeal goes beyond the bounds of class or sex. He has cross-gender moron appeal. He. We have The X-Factor for people who don't really like music, Love Island for people who couldn't be bothered to follow a decent TV series, Pornhub for people who're not up to a sexual relationship, Twitter and Buzzfeed and '17 packets of crisps you'll love if you went to Irish college in the 1990s' for those who find books too demanding. And for people who aren't able for real sport, we have Conor McGregor v Floyd Mayweather.

The American writer Saul Bellow coined the phrase 'The Moronic Inferno' in his great 1975 novel Humboldt's Gift to refer to the violence of modern urban life. Martin Amis took it up and used it to describe American life in general. These days we're all citizens of The Moronic Inferno. And Conor McGregor is its ambassador to the world of sport.

He might not be black from the waist down but he's blank from the neck up.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: Champions Cup preview, the World Cup hangover and Joe Schmidt's next team

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport