Thursday 23 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney on Conor McGregor: New hero in a new sport for a new age

Conor McGregor displays his two belts as he becomes the first MMA fighter to be champion of two weights – but is there really that much competition in what is a relatively new sport? Photo: Adam Hunger/Sportsfile
Conor McGregor displays his two belts as he becomes the first MMA fighter to be champion of two weights – but is there really that much competition in what is a relatively new sport? Photo: Adam Hunger/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

How great is Conor McGregor? There are two different ways of posing the question. People who stress the second word are asking a rhetorical question to which the answer is 'very great indeed, the greatest thing in the world'. Those who stress the first word tend to be more sceptical, and might even answer, 'Not great at all'.

The question has been asked both ways since McGregor's win over Eddie Alvarez in New York last weekend. As far as McGregor's admirers are concerned, this settles it once and for all. The man is one of Irish sport's all-time greats. His detractors, on the other hand, say nothing has changed and McGregor is merely the tin-pot monarch of an empire of dirt.

It's striking how polarised the argument remains. On one side, adulation, blind hero worship and 'total legend' status. On the other, scorn, blanket dismissal and 'human cock-fighting'. Few people seem prepared to entertain the possibility that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes. It is possible to admire McGregor as a fighter while feeling his verbal outbursts do neither him nor his sport any credit. And it's possible to admit that he is an athlete of quality who performs tremendously well under pressure while still having doubts about whether he belongs in the Irish sporting pantheon just yet.

In examining McGregor's claims to greatness we run across what you might call 'the Katie Taylor problem'. It's not long ago that there was similar excitable talk about Katie Taylor being our greatest ever sports star. Those who pushed her claim liked to point to the fact that she had won more world titles than any other Irish athlete. But this begged the question of how much those world titles were worth in the grand scheme of things.

Sonia O'Sullivan and Paula Radcliffe pictured together at the European Athletics Championships in Munich in 2000
Sonia O'Sullivan (left)

Women's boxing, after all, hadn't been on the go that long. There weren't that many competitors. It was only represented in the Olympics by three weight divisions. So it was possible that all of Katie Taylor's world titles counted for less than the ones won by Sonia O'Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan, or the six years Seán Kelly spent as world number one in the ultra-competitive sport of cycling. This was a question people tip-toed around because you ran the risk of being accused of sexism by bringing it up, even if Sonia O'Sullivan happened to be your alternative choice as all-time number one.

Sexism had nothing to do with it and the same reservations apply to Conor McGregor's achievements. Mixed Martial Arts is also a young sport with a limited number of competitors. This makes it difficult to judge the true worth of its champions. That McGregor has become the first man in its history to hold world titles at different weights is impressive, but Barry McGuigan's achievement in beating the great Eusebio Pedroza to become world featherweight champion still seems a much greater one.

You can't blame either Katie Taylor or Conor McGregor for the attenuated nature of their sport. They can, as the old adage goes, only beat what's in front of them, and the exceptional talent of both fighters is most evident in the way that they became not just the biggest thing in their sports but bigger than those sports. Rather than Katie Taylor gaining credibility by winning world titles, she lent credibility to those titles by winning them. In the same way MMA needs Conor McGregor more than Conor McGregor needs MMA. He probably makes the sport look better than it is.

During the week a lad who declared on Twitter that McGregor was the greatest Irish sportsman of all time and that no one else came within 10 per cent of him was roundly mocked for his troubles. Yet he fought his corner and presented as Exhibit A in evidence of his hero's superiority, the fact McGregor is much more famous in America than any of the proffered alternatives.

Pádraig Harrington after his three Major victories: 'I won after 10 weeks (on Tour). What I did with that was I didn't question it. I just ran with the ball.' (Getty)
Padraig Harrington is a three-time major winner

He may be on to something there. Because what McGregor represents is a new form of sporting fame, one judged by different standards. To many of his fans a Seán Kelly, a Sonia O'Sullivan, a Tony McCoy or a Pádraig Harrington is an essentially boring figure, one whose appeal is confined to the arenas in which they did their thing.

But with Conor you've got showbiz and celebrity and violent TV and hip hop and Vegas and New York - the whole gaudy spectacle of American popular culture colliding full-tilt with sport and sending out sparks around the globe. The other stuff is for the old and the lame.

The journalists who sit down and write articles, intelligent and articulate articles in many cases, bemoaning the rise of McGregor or trying to make sense of it, are missing the point. The phenomenon is not susceptible to the normal forms of sporting analysis. You can't separate the hype and the hoopla from the fight, they're an intrinsic part of it. There will never be a Hugh McIlvanney, an AJ Liebling or a Norman Mailer of MMA, because it does not lend itself to description. It is a sport of the video clip and the tweet. It may well be the classic sport of our age.

Here's another question about Conor McGregor. What is he like?

He's like Brendan O'Carroll, someone else whose international success confounds and infuriates the more sensitive souls among us. One reason for O'Carroll's success is that Mrs Brown's Boys conforms to the idea its English audience have of the Irish - funny, feckless, slightly simple-minded and ultimately harmless. In the same way McGregor's huge popularity in America has something to do with his embodiment of an Irish stereotype the Yanks have always found congenial - loud, charismatic, violent and ginger-haired. The amount written about the drinking capacity of his touring fans bears this out. A McGregor fight is like a Paddy's Day piss-up, an Irish impersonation of an American caricature of what the Irish are like.

So it's not surprising to hear that at the McGregor celebrations, his coach, John Kavanagh, rapped along with House of Pain's 'Jump Around' - a cornucopia of Irish-American clichés, the video of which needs only a pig under the oxter for a full house.

Conor McGregor and US president-elect Donald Trump

Conforming to stereotypes doesn't necessarily make the achievement worthless. Brendan O'Carroll is very funny and Conor McGregor is very talented. A hundred years ago in New York you'd have found a man named Patsy Touhey doing a 'stage Irish' vaudeville routine which so offended John McCormack the singer refused to share a stage with him. Yet Patsy Touhey, a piper from Loughrea, also happened to be one of the greatest Irish traditional musicians who ever lived, and if McCormack had hung around for the rest of the show he'd have seen something really great. Patsy Touhey was just doing what it took to get paid.

Conor McGregor is like Patsy Touhey He's also like Alien. Three weeks before McGregor made his UFC debut, a movie called 'Spring Breakers' came out in the US. It was a look at the worship of sex, drugs, money and violence in modern culture which, in a very 21st century way, managed to show you plenty of what it was satirising.

The movie anatomises the worldview of youngsters who feel nothing epitomises the good life quite like a girl in bikini bottoms dancing to loud music while someone sprays a bottle of champagne in her direction. This is perhaps not an uncommon view among the young men who make up the core MMA audience.

The best character in 'Spring Breakers' is Alien, a drug dealer with showbiz ambitions who, despite being white, speaks in a kind of fake black street patois.

In his first great scene he comes into his house and points out his prized possessions while repeating: "Look at all my shit." In his second he sits at a large white piano and plays a Britney Spears ballad before leading an armed raid on a rival's den. It is naff, sinister and oddly moving at the same time.

That's Conor McGregor. First he tells you to look at his shit and then he comes out and puts on a show. I don't think he's the greatest Irish sportsman of all time but I can see how someone who grew up in this culture might. To them, our middle-aged objections make us as boring and fuddy-duddy as Frank Sinatra seemed to kids who'd just seen Elvis on Ed Sullivan.

If the comparisons which spring to mind regarding Conor McGregor come from the world of entertainment rather than sport, that's hardly surprising. For better or for worse, he is beyond sport now.

He is bigger than sport. That's how great he is.

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