From the moment he entered the public consciousness, Conor McGregor was destined to divide opinion. For quite some time, the brash, remarkably gifted MMA (mixed martial arts) star has tread a tightrope between the outrageous and the plain unlikable. McGregor will fight Brazilian Jose Aldo for the latter’s UFC featherweight title on 11th July in Las Vegas, a fight that will garner massive global attention. The Dubliner has enjoyed a meteoric rise to number one contender as a result of a thirteen fight unbeaten streak and a mouth which has adorned him to the American public. Until now, that is.
McGregor has chosen recently to engage in a series of downright offensive tirades against his opponent and there is the real danger that he is about to cross the line from outspoken, cheeky antihero to loathsome, pantomime villain. Many argue that this approach is all just about gaining the psychological edge and that everything McGregor says is carefully calculated to knock his opponent off balance mentally. This claim may have some traction and there is certainly something to be said for emanating unbreachable confidence when the job at hand is to beat your opponent senseless or force him to submit. The next, more tiresome point you will hear is that anyone who knocks the challenger is simply fulfilling the stereotype of the begrudging Irish. We are not buying that argument for a second.
Firstly, Ireland has produced some truly outstanding sportsmen and women who have managed somehow to find the time to keep themselves grounded. Padraig Harrington, Sonia O’ Sullivan and Brian O’ Driscoll spring to mind immediately. Rory McIlroy is set to go down as one the all-time greats in golf. Extremely self-confident? Yes. Brash and arrogant? Absolutely not. To prove the point further, look to boxing – which like MMA requires bullet-proof confidence – where this island is lucky enough to possess three extraordinarily gifted and humble world champions in Andy Lee, Carl Frampton and Katie Taylor. If these three can not only exist but thrive in the world of boxing then how, might any of the apologists out there explain why McGregor needs to adopt this ‘antagonistic for the sake of it’ persona when he steps into press conferences. Or why he felt the need to scale the octagon, WWE style, and stare down Aldo after his latest victory over Denis Siver. This particular situation was made only more laughable by the fact that Aldo happened, no doubt by complete chance, to be sitting in close proximity to McGregor’s girlfriend in the crowd. To add to the ridiculousness, check out McGregor stealing Aldo’s belt this week. This is a WWF/WWE move as old as the hills.
Assuredly, Dana White, the President of the UFC, is the puppet master behind much of McGregor’s media relations. Not so much in pre-empting what ‘The Notorious’ actually says, but more through his willingness to cultivate an environment where the Irishman can get away with spouting out monumental levels of manure. Initially, the US audience loved McGregor and his devil may care attitude. Indeed, by all accounts they still do. However, and this is where he may wish to show caution, Americans like their heroes to win, but they like them to win with class. McGregor in constant ‘don’t give a shit’ mode is about to alienate the most important commercial audience in the world. Now, we’re not saying for a second that we want to hear him disingenuously ‘give it up to God’, NFL style, but he needs to show restraint to improve his recently deteriorating perception amongst the general public.
McGregor has been treading a fine line since the moment he came to prominence in the UFC and, by extension, the US. He has chosen to be arrogant to the point of being irritating. Offensive to the point of being hateful. Even boxing’s greatest pound for pound fighter, Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather waited until he had beaten all and sundry before he descended into a hole of deplorable, self-infatuation. Dana White and McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh know that they are on to something special. In addition both want to see him dominate first the UFC Featherweight (145 pound) and then Lightweight (155 pound) divisions for years to come. In all reality, however, both men want McGregor to succeed for very different reasons. Kavanagh must get great personal satisfaction in seeing thousands of hours of collective dedication come to fruition. No doubt he genuinely cares for the star of his Straight Blast Gym. White, however, must be thanking his lucky stars that he has landed upon a phenomenally talented athlete who doubles as an indefatigable mouthpiece. White and the UFC are all in on McGregor, fully aware that the sport has taken a massive dive in popularity in recent years.
Conor McGregor has chosen a path from which there can be no divergence, no backward steps. He’s put himself on a pedestal, his endlessly self-serving behaviour meaning if he slips the fall will be steep. When he first came to fame we were among the many who thought he was a charismatic, slightly eccentric breath of fresh air. He carried himself with that little bit more arrogance than the usual fighter, but you couldn’t help but be impressed by his bulletproof bravado and pleasantly unusual presentation. Now, he has crossed into a murkier territory, a place where even his greatest flag wavers will have difficulty defending him. Incidentally, the behaviour of his followers at the press conference this week in Dublin wasn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of the nation but, then again, not every English football hooligan is symbolic of the English nation.
Conor McGregor has incredible hand and foot speed, a nearly unmatchable range of flexibility, almost superhuman levels of fitness and, an unquestionably quick wit. Yet he resorts to crass, tasteless insults which go far beyond the level of achieving psychological superiority. Right now, or at least very soon, the entire nation should be getting behind the man attempting to become the first U.F.C. champion from this country. Yet, something is amiss. McGregor may be in danger of alienating those who wish to be inspired by their sports stars, not ashamed or disappointed.
Many people who make it to the top behave despicably but you don’t have to behave despicably to make it the top. Conor McGregor has the physical ability and glowing charisma to capture a nation’s hearts in the coming months. This is a country that gets behind its sporting heroes like no other. Yet, unless there is an imminent sea-change in his demeanour, many of McGregor’s countrymen and woman will be left cheering him on almost out of duty, while quietly hoping for the day ‘The Notorious’ finally gets his comeuppance.