Ken Early: Conor McGregor remains the man for all seasons
Even in defeat McGregor will continue to polarise opinion and nowhere more than his homeland
As everyone knows, we have a divide in Ireland between the people who love Conor McGregor and think he doesn’t get enough credit, and the people who hate him and think he is an embarrassment to the country. The story of his fight against Floyd Mayweather is only likely to entrench both sides and make the split worse.
In most cases, the way people felt about the fight from the beginning was dictated by their pre-existing opinions about McGregor. If they were fans, the announcement of the ‘Money Fight’ was a dream made real, proof (as if more were needed) that their man had an almost magical ability to will the impossible into being. If they were haters, the fight was a naked cash grab that was only possible thanks to the stupidity of McGregor’s fans. It wasn’t a fight, it was a joke, a con-job, and possibly the trashiest event ever to happen in America.
During the promotional tour, his fans saw McGregor capture the attention of a global audience with his inimitable charisma, while the haters saw him deliberately race-baiting to drum up pay-per-view sales.
On Saturday night the fans saw McGregor go toe-to-toe with one of the all-time greats and deliver a performance that compares favourably with what top boxers like Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Álvarez did against Mayweather. McGregor had put it all on the line and done himself and his sport proud.
The haters will have seen him totally outclassed, only emerging with some deceptively flattering punching statistics because Mayweather had such contempt for his ability that he abandoned the cautious habits of a lifetime and drove forward in search of a knockout. All he had achieved was to prove that MMA fighters are only MMA fighters because they weren’t good enough to make it as boxers.
The fans will point to McGregor’s graciousness in defeat and say that it shows his true dignity and class. The haters will say he took defeat so well because he always knew he was going to lose and was only ever in it for the money. The haters will gloat: you morons seriously thought he could win? He’s been exposed for the fraud he is. The fans will rage: it’s sad that you take malicious pleasure in seeing brave people fall short. When was the last time you made $100 million in a night’s work?
Both sides will look at the same set of events and seeing nothing but evidence that they were correct all along. And each side will feel they are so obviously in the right that there must be something seriously wrong with the other side, whether it be fathomless stupidity, weasel-hearted jealousy, nationalist fanaticism, class hatred, etc . . .
McGregor really has got something for everybody, and it should be obvious by now that the reason he is so interesting is that both sides have some valid points.
The question arises as to why such a split should have arisen in McGregor’s own country. Most sportspeople on his level of fame are near-universally admired in their homeland. McGregor is popular around the world but it’s hard to think of any country besides Ireland and Brazil (whose darling José Aldo he crushed) where he is actively disliked by significant numbers of people.
The most obvious reason for this is that the flag McGregor wraps himself in is the Irish flag, so just as some Irish people feel intensely proud of his achievements, others feel embarrassed by what they consider his bad behaviour. With Ireland a small country that doesn’t get much attention, out in the sea on the edge of the earth, a lot of Irish people are highly sensitive to what foreigners think about us. An equivalent thought would never occur to many Americans, who view their country as the centre of the universe. Foreigners can enjoy McGregor’s achievements and laugh at his antics, but if he does something they don’t like they don’t feel personally implicated by it, which means they are less likely to get angry about it.
Class is also part of the story. Irish people can instantly peg McGregor as a working-class guy from Dublin the moment he opens his mouth. Their personal class prejudice - whether strong or weak, conscious or unconscious - immediately comes into play. This doesn’t happen with foreigners: to them he is just some Irish guy. Look at the horrific McGregor impressions they do on the late-night talk shows and you remember that to the American ear, all Irish people sound like Tom Cruise in Far and Away (I was astonished recently when one American journalist told me that he couldn’t hear any difference between McGregor’s accent and Roy Keane’s).
You see the same thing in England in cases like Wayne Rooney, whose supposed stupidity was for years a punchline on TV comedy panel shows, largely because he spoke in a mumbly Scouse accent and once chewed gum while accepting an award, or Robbie Fowler, an intelligent guy who was widely assumed to be a wrong ‘un because he came from Toxteth. McGregor’s success is threatening to the type of middle-class person who for poorly-thought-out reasons thinks that footballers are paid too much money, and no doubt there are many of these among his haters.
It’s worth remembering that in McGregor’s case the picture is complicated by the fact that he is a star in a sport which until quite recently was considered too brutal to put on major TV networks in America. TV executives in the 1990s were scared to back MMA because, well, frankly, this wasn’t the sort of entertainment well-adjusted people were supposed to be into. Fear of being labelled as some sort of pervert kept them from taking a risk on the sport. It was only when the growth of the internet enabled fans to start bypassing these timid cultural gatekeepers that mainstream networks woke up to the potential of MMA.
The Irish sporting scene is already fragmented by ancient class snobberies - rugby fans who sneer at football as a sport for oiks, football fans who despise rugby as a sport for fee-paying schoolboys, GAA people who think anyone who likes rugby or soccer is a victim of cultural cringe, and so on. When you introduce a strange new sport which frequently involves scantily clad bodies smeared in blood and clasped together like mating frogs, it’s plain that many people will immediately take against it, if for no other reason than fear of being thought of as the sort of person who might get a kick out of that stuff. And once people have made the initial snap decision, they will do almost anything to avoid having to change their minds.
So Ireland is working out a lot of issues through the prism of Conor McGregor and the story has a long way to run. It matters what kind of person he becomes, because he has immense influence. Walking around the Strip in Las Vegas hearing shouts of “Fuck the Mayweathers!” at disturbingly regular intervals, you could imagine how terrifying it would be if McGregor’s values were adopted en masse. The qualities that make him a great prizefighter - his swagger, his ambition, his refusal to settle, his fuck-you attitude - are assets in his world but not equally advantageous in all walks of life. One irritating aspect of the McGregor origin story as it frequently is recounted in international media is the supposed hopelessness and desolation of the time he spent working on a building site as a plumber, when according to ESPN magazine he looked around at his co-workers and saw “the emptiness in their eyes”. Not everybody should aspire to be an international combat superstar with a nine figure fortune. Plumbers shouldn’t have to feel they are failures because they are plumbers.
One hope for McGregor’s future is now that he has reached what he calls “the stage of ‘forever money’”, he stops going on about money all the time. Everyone can feel some magnanimity for a guy who was on the dole four years ago and has since earned a nine-figure fortune, but as the dole years recede into the past the act will lose such charm as it has. The risk is that he starts morphing into Floyd Mayweather. The fear is that he might actually see Floyd as a worthy example to emulate.
And his fans should stop pointing to his material success as some kind of proof of his greatness. Money does not and should not automatically equal esteem. If it did, Ireland’s most-admired man would be Denis O’Brien (though if that were the case we could at least get a great ESPN Magazine story - “just a young kid with a big dream from the housing project of Ballsbridge . . .”)
It would also be great if he never again said anything in public about the Law of Attraction. If we set aside the fundamental problem with the Law - which is that it doesn’t actually exist - there is also a moral problem, in that it places the notion of wanting things at the heart of the human condition. Most of the time when people think they want things, they are just copying other people. There is no intrinsic value to most of these desires and no point striving desperately to fulfil some supposedly sacred personal ambition that is really just a second-hand dream.
Conor McGregor doesn’t have to credit the Law of Attraction for anything he has achieved. He can take back that part of the credit and give it to himself.