There’s no denying Conor McGregor’s talent, but his false ego and forced antics are doing his sport, his country and himself a massive disservice, writes Ewan MacKenna
You didn’t recognise the man that for a few moments last weekend orchestrated the crowd noise in Boston with each brutal punch as if he were a conductor. You remembered the face from hooking up a couple of years ago and understood the talent on show due to determined and knowledgeable words when you’d met. Only it wasn’t the same Conor McGregor you’d spent time with.
That day in April 2013, he suggested getting together in McDonald’s so he could spoil himself with a coffee. The notion that it was a treat was based on health in terms of his training but also the wealth he’d grown up with. He may have won €60,000 a week earlier when becoming the first Irishman to have his arm held aloft in the UFC, but he’d grown used to having nothing. Indeed, not long before, he was the guy in the dole office queue, the guy who fought with his parents after quitting as a plumber’s apprentice, the guy Boylesports refused for a job long before looking to sponsor him.
For sure there were slivers of arrogance, but away from that there also was a fascinating character that studied the method of movement and understood the art of fight. On such topics, you could have listened and learned from him until the tape ran out in your recorder and far beyond.
These days though, that’s all changed. Now, McGregor vents a loud-mouthed smugness and forceful ignorance as if a belated embodiment of the Celtic Tiger. No matter how wrong his behaviour and no matter how valid our reasons for questioning it, we’re not allowed go against populism nor do anything but giggle at his infantile quips. Next we’ll be told we all partied when he won…
From fleeting intersections, you can plot the downward spiral. Leaving McDonald’s that day, excited by his intelligence and potential, it was refreshingly earthy and real to hear him call his girlfriend, asking for a lift to save him a walk back down the Long Mile Road. Yet soon after you’d send his coach, John Kavanagh, a text asking if McGregor might take a call while mentioning you were one of the first to do a major interview with him. The response read: “Everyone’s done a big interview with him.” You merely shrugged at how brushing fame can change people and wished him the best.
Yet more recently you shook your head in disappointment. When it was announced he’d be fighting German Dennis Siver, he wrote “Kiss them feet Nazi,” and followed it up with, “Ich bin ein sowwy”. In fact during an interview on ESPN before the bout you got thinking of the partner he’d called to collect him. “I’ve a long term girlfriend,” he said. “I don’t know about romance but I like to get down occasionally. I don’t really have a romantic side is what I am saying. If I’m going in, I’m going in for the kill. You won’t catch me walking down the beach holding hands; you will catch me going deep.”
It made you realise that as much as his rise on the canvas has been as stunning as fast, his deterioration into caricature, falsity and childishness has happened at break-neck speed too. And as much as he’s grown as a fighter, he’s shrunk as a sports star that people can look up to and admire.
There’s a school of thinking regarding McGregor that he is refreshing and embodies a confident Ireland. For sure it can grow tiresome listening to sportspeople tick the boxes with dull and safe quotes but McGregor has gone to the opposite end of the spectrum and that makes him just as boring. There’s nothing original or insightful, just rehashed fight talk worthy of WWE. He should learn there’s nothing controversial when every word you utter desperately seeks out controversy.
He’s not alone in being to blame for this though. Too many media have avoided his depths, instead looking for cheap, easy and rented bravado to the extent he’s forgotten who he was and where he came from. His team have allowed him to become spoiled too, nodding at his abuse while never letting a word be said against their man without repercussions. In one such instance, Kavanagh tweeted this journalist’s number as retribution for questioning his athlete. All is forgiven as grudges aren’t worth it, mistakes happen, and Kavanagh is very good at what he does, but McGregor is fast becoming unforgivable. Instead he’s becoming the lowest common denominator when his success should hold him to higher levels.
The great pity in all this is that mixed martial arts is an impressive sport and McGregor is an impressive purveyor of this sport. You may not like it, but the skill levels are as astounding as they are diverse and the mental power needed to get into an octagon for such a bloody battle is startling. And while McGregor may have been build up too much too soon – he’s never fought a top-four fighter – he’s still good. That’s why there’s no need to make a fool of himself and no need for UFC to reward him for it.
If McGregor is doing his sport a disservice and his sport is doing him a disservice, then this country is caught in the crossfire. His pseudo-nationalism is selling Ireland in leprechaun-esque fashion with lines like, “They don’t understand these crazy Irish men looking to take their head clean off. This is what we do; we’ve been doing it for generations. We love to fight,” and, “If one of us goes to war, we all go to war”. His community in Crumlin is cheapened too as he compares it to a Brazilian favela to add to his image. In other words, equating it to a place where many children’s fathers have been shot by drug dealers, rape and paedophilia are rife and football pitches can be shallow mass graves.
By now, McGregor comes across like a false prophet from a made-up ghetto and that’s why he does himself the greatest disservice of all. Just consider a fraction of the sound bites. “These custom-made suits aren’t cheap. This solid gold pocket watch, three people died making this watch.” “I’m going to feast on his soul.” “If he does, he dies.” “He’s a quiet little hillbilly from the back arse of nowhere. His cousin is probably named Cletus.” “He’s a midget, German steroid head.” “I will go over to Brazil and take out every man, woman and child to get that belt.” Yawn. Yawn. Yawn again.
Of course it’s all artificial in the name of creating hype. But while he can pick a round like Ali, there’s no word play like that of Bundini Brown to follow. Instead there are tiresome facsimiles that amount to threatening to eat an opponent’s soul. And with zero originality, that doesn’t create hype for the majority, only for a select few who will recite his words in primary schoolyards.
We’re fairly sure McGregor doesn’t even believe most of what he says as so much is contradiction. He talks of honour amongst fighters but before last week’s clash, instead of touching gloves, he shoved a finger in his opponent’s face, and by the post-fight interview he sounded like no more than a thug. “I don’t even know, fuck that, like fuck him anyway…” he ranted. “Hold on, I’ll get me spit bucket, I’ll get me spit bucket and tell him to spit shine that belt.”
That wasn’t the Conor McGregor you met not so long ago, the working class hero you hoped would reach the top. Instead it was a cartoonish imposter staring at a title fight; an imposter that knows that talent can bring money, but one that doesn’t realise fame should bring responsibility.
Sunday Business Post
25 January, 2014