Ewan MacKenna on Conor McGregor: Was behaviour depressingly real - or a stunt that got out of control?
As Conor McGregor seeks more attention, he loses even more respect says Ewan McKenna
These days when an editor gets in touch and asks, “Did you hear about McGregor?” the worst genuinely comes to mind. That's meant as deadly serious as living so close to the edge sees many go over and, while not nice to have to write, it's also important to recognise the dangers.
On this occasion though, Conor McGregor's actions seemed surprisingly mild given the reaction. That's not to condone, but it shows the scale we are dealing with in terms of his modern life. In fact the first flashback that came to mind when seeing the home-made videos from every angle that started doing the rounds was from childhood watching WWF. As kids, we ran out of our houses shouting after The Undertaker had locked The Ultimate Warrior in a casket. This had that same pantomime feel from cameras waiting in the lobby for McGregor to the infamous steel chair.
It was fitting that at a time when investigations by the likes of Bloomberg show UFC to be in difficulty, Dana White had what he quickly described as “the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company”. Timely attention for an organisation that experts say isn't sustainable, with viewership down and with writer Thomas Hauser describing the WME-IMG $4.2bn purchase of it as “starting to look like Time Warner’s decision to merge with AOL.” And timely as this has overwhelmed what would have been farcical news for UFC with Max Holloway declared medically unfit to fight at the last minute meaning the main event was scrapped.
Never underestimate the lengths businesses will go to, especially one that always operated beside the saying that there's only one thing worse than being talked about. As an example, for someone claiming such upset, White has been interviewed almost constantly for the last 24 hours, engaging in his usual hyperbolic salesmanship with gimmicky lines such as, “When Conor found out, he loaded up the plane full of guys from Ireland, flew over here and coordinated this attack”.
Did he really?
Not that it matters as, with some fans coming across as the sort who answer those emails about a Nigerian princess needing your money to withdraw a fortune with their credit card details, that approach would make sense. Indeed whispers had already emerged from sources after McGregor's teammate Artem Lobov got into trouble with Khabib Nurmagomedov – who tomorrow was supposed to fight Holloway for the belt stripped from the Dubliner – claiming that it was pre-planned only to go a little far. By the end of another week talking about all this, it either feels like you've spent a month sitting in the corner of a 1980s pool hall observing, or you've been stuck at home with watching some bumper marathon of a daytime soap opera. You can decide on that.
Maybe what happened at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Thursday was completely and depressingly real. Or maybe it was a stunt that got out of control, as fake and crossing a line during that stunt aren't always mutually exclusive. However, just wait to see how McGregor's fight with Nurmagomedov in the future uses this to push pay-per-view prices and subscriptions higher. White says he won't do business with him again, but he says a lot, and money always trumped his morals.
But as McGregor awaits sentencing on three counts of assault and one of criminal mischief in a place that doesn't care for his ego or money, the hope is he can't buy himself out of trouble again. A stint away is exactly what he needs. That's because another more recent memory came to mind when witnessing his latest antics and thuggery. Back in 2009, in Athy to interview Jimmy White, much of that day and night was dominated by the commotion around playing partner Alex Higgins.
He went missing around lunch but was found asleep on a bookie floor, and when he awoke his minders couldn't get him out of a pub to play. Finally he did show with a bottle neck spilling out his filthy penguin-suit pocket and, across the exhibition, he threatened to stab someone in the chest, to smash a digital camera, turned on a 10-year-old boy and had the referee stand over his shoulder on every shot for fear that boy’s father would lash out. It was pathetic but it was also hugely sad.
Ring a bell?
If things don't change, that's McGregor's future - if he even has one given the elephant in the room here - and for very much the same reasons. His behavior is egged on and even tolerated by the sort of knuckle-draggers that went to New York to cause chaos with him, and by a public that see this and pretty much everything through the lens of reality TV. Just remember, this is a generation that often looks up to and model themselves on those that come from that vile construction.
For so long, there was a massive support that defended McGregor's racism as humorous, that defended his homophobia as a sales pitch, that tolerated all he did, allowing it to dictate the new norm. They saw him as an icon far beyond what his impressive achievements deserved and anyone not agreeing he was our greatest ever sportsman was a traitor, anyone not agreeing he was the modern-day Ali needed to educate themselves and was just a negative begrudger. There was even a large mass saying he'd beat Floyd Mayweather and, after that lesson, saying he was the real winner because of the riches, never able to see the flip-side of wealth and what it can do to people in his situation. So few bother to think ahead, instead it's about their instant gratification.
However that's no longer the entertainment narrative; now he's an idiot; now he's out of control; now he's a scumbag; now he's a villain. Black. White. Right. Wrong. Never grey. Never complex. Never nuanced. Maybe he is simply troubled as he always was but that's no fun, right? The first to build him up too high, they are the first to tear him down too quick. Sodom and Gomorrah.
To predict McGregor's future hasn't involved some great insight or soothsaying. It was obvious. When a guy from nothing enters the fight game and gets everything it rarely ends well. No one ever asks what happens if the money and fame aren't enough? Alexander The Great was 33. He's still only 29 (to reuse a line muttered by the great darts commentator Sid Waddell when he described the now late Eric Bristow). And it gets worse when the entourage are merely there to party as pawns.
There have been good people in McGregor's career but what are they at? Take John Kavanagh, the guru coach who made his name off his prodigy to the point he was happy to sell a book and much more off the link. Where is his advice and wise words and help these days? Instead McGregor is left surrounded by many in awe of his wallet but none who respect him by standing up to him.
MMA commentator Joe Rogan should know about this better than most, having sat across from the hugely insightful Jamie Foxx for his podcast last summer. The subject of Mike Tyson and wildness came up. “You have to have it. Mike back in the day, Mike was a wild boy. To hang out with him you could understand he was the biggest person on the planet and he had the demons. But he was fun too, you see him in a club and he sees some girls and he was like, 'Fine, how you doing, do you like BMWs? You like cars, you like BMWs?' He'd take the girls out and go get a BMW, he was that crazy, he'd open up the dealership. But like I was saying you can't have that type of talent in one area and not... You can't drink milk and nearly kill someone. Look at Hendricks, look at Elvis, they have to have some deficiency because that's God fucking with us. He gives you something incredible but he's also going to give you something to anchor that. Yin and yang.”
That's not to put McGregor on that level, and it's not to defend him. But it is to try and understand him, something few have bothered with on his ascent and won't bother with now that he's well into the plummet back. Instead many glance over when he screams look at me, rather than going over in a quiet moment and telling him that when he gains attention, he loses huge respect.
Worse, he's lost his old giddy, glinting, roguish self. Sadly that may be the hardest part to retrieve.