What if he is not a cartoon? Who is he if not the braggart flashing cash? - Vincent Hogan on Conor McGregor
The Dubliner's year in and out of the ring adds even more contradictions
Before he wrote his controversial six-thousand-word profile of Conor McGregor for 'ESPN - The Magazine', Wright Thompson contacted me, looking to meet up for a chat.
We'd never spoken before but I was familiar with his work, Thompson being one of the most admired long-form sportswriters in America, multi-award-winning and revered for an ability to dig deep beneath the superficiality of celebrity and fame with a sometimes jarringly unromantic eye.
His piece on McGregor was to be a scene-setter for the so-called "biggest fight the world has ever seen" and someone had given him the bum steer that I might be a valuable contact for detail on boxing in inner-city Dublin.
After an initial exchange of emails, Wright sent me a synopsis of the angles he hoped to explore when writing about McGregor. My response was a single sentence. "Wright, it's not a sports journalist you need to talk to, it's a crime correspondent!"
Thompson wanted to shine a light into areas of McGregor's story that, frankly, were unknown to me. That is, he wanted to write about people the fighter grew up with whose lives had veered off in one direction whilst McGregor's arced in another.
For Wright, the proximity of this Dubliner's gilded life to the story of old acquaintances who might be tangled up in the wretched Kinahan-Hutch gang war offered an irresistible angle for his assignment here.
We never did meet then and he wasn't in Las Vegas on that strange night McGregor went 10 rounds with Floyd Mayweather in an event that, to this day, nobody seems entirely sure whether it belonged on the sports pages or a 'Ripleys - Believe It or Not!' comic book.
Final figures identified the cross-combat contest as the second richest boxing bout in history, generating 4.3 million pay-per-view buys in North America alone, thus coming in only behind Mayweather's 2015 fight with Manny Pacquiao.
Yet had any of it been real?
Funny, there were title fights on the undercard that evening in the T-Mobile Arena, but they passed to the drumming of fingers. Because it wasn't a boxing crowd that had poured through the doors, but a gathering of voyeurs.
The dearest seats were those corralled between the media benches and the ring. A rumoured $5,000 each, they seemed largely populated by a mix of Hollywood A-listers and oddly dubious-looking sorts whose faces somehow did not fit with the expensive tailoring on their backs.
The boisterous Irish supporters who'd given the weigh-in an Italia '90 vibe had, largely, been priced out of it. For them, the fight would be watched in bars and casino hotels with the perpetual Vegas consolation of easy access to the slot machines and blackjack tables.
And, out on the Strip, a flashing neon sign above The Rainforest Cafe advertised McGregor's after-fight party at a beach club. Win or lose, that would be the Vegas way. To party.
So the fight never quite felt understandable in conventional terms. It was, above all, a show, an event, a happening.
And the disinterest Mayweather radiated during an opening three rounds in which he scarcely threw a punch became so difficult to reconcile with his almost blithe dismantling of McGregor thereafter, all of those who'd coldly previewed the occasion as just another Vegas illusionist's trick reaching into gullible pockets found their argument gather traction.
In many ways, the build-up had been the show. The haplessly ugly "press tour" to which both fighters, reputedly, travelled on the same private jet; those leaks from McGregor's sparring sessions that ought really have been titled 'The Paulie Malignaggi Show'; the nightly Sky Sports orgasm; the relentless pre-occupation with seat prices; the debate at home on whether or not McGregor's boxing skills would even win him an Irish title in the National Stadium; the incessant trash-talk, the casual racism, the endless behavioural plunge to the bottom of the barrel... they all became the essence of it. The point.
When it came to the actual fight, it seemed both parties had little enough left to articulate of any compelling sound.
We were, thus, left to marvel at McGregor's creative mastery. Because his comic-book persona had drawn the eyes of the world to Nevada on the basis that he was about to become "the new god of boxing". And, of course, he didn't quite manage that. Instead he ended up so exhausted that - midway through - he all but stopped even feigning interest in the exercise as any kind of credible fight.
And this against a 40-year-old who'd, reputedly, spent much of the week in his own 'gentleman's club', Girl Collection.
In many ways, those of us in Vegas ended up feeling no closer to the story than those at home following the sun of pay-per-view. We, too, were left squinting.
Maybe an hour and a half after he'd left the ring, McGregor re-emerged in a Paisley suit, glass of whiskey in one hand, bottle labelled 'Notorious' in the other. And, as he spoke, it quickly became apparent that we were still listening to mere spin, certainly not to any hint of coherent, adult self-analysis. The cartoon was still active.
As such, one of the most fascinating people in Vegas was John Kavanagh.
The man, into whose Straight Blast gym McGregor first walked as a 16-year-old, has always communicated a faintly subtle distance from his fighter. It, thus, becomes impossible to reconcile his always mature equivocation concerning the dangers of head trauma with the rhetoric of a protégé who approaches the fight game with all the subtlety of a character from Grand Theft Auto.
Kavanagh, you see, doesn't play the loud game.
He has written fascinatingly about a childhood in which he was subjected to bullying, admitting to the skin condition, rosacea, which flares up "if I get nervous".
In his book, 'Win or Learn', Kavanagh writes "I don't like loud noises, I don't like arguments, I don't like confrontation."
On some level, it was hard not to suspect then that here was a man who must, privately at least, have deplored the pitiful extent to which McGregor-Mayweather became a kind of grand, multi-million dollar belch in service to ugly ego.
Yet, it was equally hard not to imagine him feeling faintly helpless as the boy from Crumlin kept flying higher. Because the simple scale of McGregor's fame, the status of celebrity now drawn to his light, the idea that people like Cristiano Ronaldo and Jennifer Lopez and Bruce Willis were entertained by him, probably anaesthetised any sense that this show had begun to lurch into bleak, uncivilised places.
Indeed, the argument had even begun growing in places that maybe McGregor, for all the puerile nonsense and bad taste, had come to represent a generation of people for whom Official Ireland was just a stuffy, prescriptive place that needed, above all, to lighten up.
So Kavanagh smiled when he needed to smile in Vegas. Maybe he just recognised the fiction they were creating, the market being manipulated. And, on 'fight-night' he and Owen Roddy would wear waistcoat and ties when working McGregor's corner, a gesture perhaps communicating some kind of subliminal message that makes more sense now than it did then.
In any event, McGregor's promise that he would put Mayweather on the canvas in round one and, thereafter, "decide whether I will embarrass him in there or put him out of his misery" never did come to pass. Nor did the idea that they'd sell out the T-Mobile Arena, at least eight upper sections of the venue conspicuously empty by the time they got to the ring.
Once all that big talk petered out, what was left was little more than a gossip's yarn. One that just happened to prove a goldmine.
And when it was over, what more did we honestly know about this man McGregor after a summer in which his face was seldom far from our attention?
Nothing really. At least nothing illuminating that might offer the faintest glimpse of what it was that this son, this father, this brother, this partner might actually now represent beyond the noise and bombast.
It was deep into the early hours when he slipped away from us, whiskey still in hand, with partner and baby son in the back of a white, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. The official car of fantasy.
In July, Wright Thompson wrote that McGregor was "at his core, an act of imagination". And, post-Vegas, that line now resonated louder than ever.
Yet Thompson's piece was excoriated by sections of the Irish media, largely for its depiction of McGregor's roots and the everyday dangers of life today in certain parts of Dublin.
Fundamental to the criticism seemed to be his use of that American term "projects" when describing the Crumlin of McGregor's childhood.
The North American definition of 'projects' is "a Government-subsidised housing development with relatively low rents". The definition here of a council house is "a house owned by a local council and rented out to tenants". Scarcely oceans apart.
Still, the connecting of dots between McGregor's story and the Kinahan-Hutch feud, indeed the depiction of newspaper coverage of that feud as reading "like a Dennis Lehane novel" offended many.
It was seen as some kind of opportunistic skewing of reality despite the fact that people were still being murdered on Dublin streets in a vicious, tit-for-tat war.
And now? Three months later?
If anything, McGregor himself has done much to validate the ESPN piece. "The thing his family and friends fear most isn't the next opponent," Thompson wrote. "But the moment when he no longer has an opponent, when the engine of his focus is switched off and he's got to make an accounting of all he's gained and all he's lost."
Thompson also warned that "creating a character to sell always carries the same risk of losing control of your creation and actually becoming the preening egomaniac you once only pretended to be".
So much of that rings true for McGregor now.
What if he is not a cartoon? Who is he if not the braggart flashing cash? And where does he go next if it's not to step into the ring again or another octagon?
Before travelling to Vegas in August, I participated in an online video chat with Paddy 'The Hooligan' Holohan, not simply previewing the looming fight with Mayweather, but exploring McGregor's remarkable rise.
Off-air, Holohan expressed disgust that his friend had never received a single congratulatory message from either Leinster House or the Phoenix Park after his highest-profile victories.
And Holohan was right that Official Ireland was still holding the McGregor story at arm's length, as if sensing something in it might yet prove uncomfortable.
Why? Well, what's been happening in recent weeks, the story of 'The Notorious' drifting towards the front of newspapers rather than the back, may provide the answer.
It surely has to be a worry for people like Kavanagh, people programmed to care more for the human behind the 'Notorious' mask than whatever glamour or profit that mask might bring their way, that McGregor seems to be almost baiting the very community he once managed to escape .
He suddenly seems bored with his life now, specifically a life no longer building relentlessly towards another explosive flashbulb climax. And that boredom may carry a more insidious threat to his future than any trash-talking opponent ever could. Maybe on some deep, deep level McGregor has always understood that.
Because, as Thompson brilliantly put it last summer, "Conor's bravado suggests a scared kid in there somewhere, trying to keep many things at bay, most vitally his own fear that his journey is destined to be a circle, Crumlin to Crumlin with a fairytale in between."
Maybe it's simply time for Conor McGregor to stop running.