McGregor may be idol of new Ireland but real work remains
Shrinking majority not won over by fighter still asking questions about sport’s credibility
Conor McGregor, who fights for the interim UFC featherweight title against Chad Mendes in Las Vegas, throws a high kick during his open workout session in the MGM Grand. Photograph: Getty Images
Conor McGregor at the UFC 189 press conference in Las Vegas. Photograph: Getty Images
Conor McGregor signs autographs for Irish fans at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Photograph: Getty Images
Conor McGregor likes to give the impression that no external force can possibly affect the serene course of his ship of destiny.
“The ship was sailing smoothly,” he told a press conference in Las Vegas on Thursday. “My coach came into my room at 1pm, I was sleeping, and he told me that [Chad] Mendes was replacing [José] Aldo. I opened one eye, said ‘it makes no difference’ then went back to sleep.”
People will decide for themselves whether that sounds like a thing that actually happened. There are those who’ll tell you that McGregor’s reaction to the news that Aldo had injured a rib and might withdraw was not quite as serene as he now suggests. He had toured eight cities in five countries to promote the fight. You could understand him being upset.
The UFC soothed him by declaring that the winner of McGregor-Mendes would become interim featherweight champion – a meaningless trinket for sure, but at least this way people might get to see pictures of McGregor with a belt.
Within a few days of Aldo’s withdrawal being confirmed, UFC president Dana White was telling everyone that the new fight card was in fact a hotter ticket than the old one. It’s always easier when you’re telling people what they want to hear.
McGregor’s UFC career has spanned 27 months. In that time he’s spent just under 27 minutes fighting in the octagon. This brief body of work has been enough to make him the most polarising figure in Irish sport since Roy Keane, who also inspired both fanatical devotion and withering contempt.
McGregor has blazed a trail for Ireland in the world of mixed martial arts, but it’s his big talk about the greatness of Conor McGregor that has made him a trailblazer in another sense. Sift through everything Roy Keane ever said in his years as a player and you’ll struggle to find a single instance of him bigging himself up. Irish people have been taught to regard self-praise as being in bad taste. False modesty has usually been a more acceptable sin.
You could relate it to our supposed culture of begrudgery, but then, maybe Irish people are too hard on themselves about that whole begrudgery business. Begrudgery, which is not unique to Ireland, is a natural and actually quite logical social response in a small, poor country where success has invariably been the result of dodgy dealing or official favour.
Scandinavia has a similar code of modesty, formalised by the writer Aksel Sandemose as the Law of Jante, the essence of which is: you are not to think you are anyone special or that you’re better than us. In the last few years, Zlatan ‘I Am Zlatan’ Ibrahimovic has quite consciously set about breaking all those rules and he has become Scandinavia’s biggest sporting star by far.
A lot of young Swedes were ready to follow a guy who didn’t act like a typical repressed Swede and McGregor’s popularity shows that a lot of young Irish people felt the same way. Of course, even a guy with Zlatan’s swagger couldn’t get away with ‘I am Zlatan’ if he didn’t also karate-kick the ball into the net with remarkable regularity. You have to deliver. So far, that’s exactly what McGregor has been doing.
It’s not just young Irish sports fans who see McGregor as an almost messianic figure. The executives who run the UFC can hardly contain their glee that this guy has dropped out of the blue and landed in their lap.
Last year they were trying to explain that declining pay-per-view revenues didn’t matter that much because other commercial deals had made the business more resilient. Now they can sell a charismatic fighter who might, this weekend, break a pay-per-view record that has stood since UFC 100 in 2009.
As Dana White told Esquire: “He’s a penny stock that couldn’t have worked out better. He’s one in a million. He has that thing that you can’t teach people, whatever it is that makes people gravitate toward you.”
At the open workout session at the MGM Grand on Wednesday afternoon, McGregor shows us what White was talking about.
The first of four fighters to work out is McGregor’s opponent, Chad Mendes.
The stocky, powerful Mendes acknowledges with a grin the boos from the couple of hundred Irish fans who have gathered to watch the session. He immediately gets to work, first wrestling, then boxing.
Along the front edge of the stage stands a row of cameras and cameramen. If Mendes has noticed that these cameras are blocking the view of most of the fans, he doesn’t care. He is concentrating only on his workout, hitting those pads with heavy thuds.
Mendes is followed by Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald, who rattle through their routines. The fourth fighter does not appear at the appointed time. McGregor is making us wait.
When he eventually swaggers into the room he’s wearing shades, as always, and a black tracksuit. He lopes past the stage and makes straight for the fans, moving along the barrier and dealing out high-fives, pursued by a swarm of cameras. He bounds up onto the stage and struts about. He does his gorilla walk to whoops from the crowd and leaps into some spinning kicks. A couple of times his heel whirls inches from the faces of journalists at the side of the stage. You can see that this time, the cameramen at the front of the stage have been made to kneel down so the fans behind them can see the artist at work.
Mendes kept his shirt on throughout his workout, but McGregor quickly starts to peel off items of clothing. The shades are handed off to a team-mate, the tracksuit is discarded, the ‘King Conor McGregor’ t-shirt is flung into the crowd. At the end of the striptease he’s naked except for his tattoos and tight Reebok shorts. McGregor prowls around the stage so that everyone can get a good look at the phenomenal shape he’s in.
Now the key difference between him and the other fighters is plain. While the others either seem oblivious to the spectators or acknowledge them only formally, McGregor’s entire performance is geared towards the crowd. He understands and accepts that people want to look at him. That makes some people awkward, but McGregor loves to be looked at.
What he proceeds to enact is not really a training workout so much as a display of pure physical prowess, a kind of one-man Cirque du Combat. The purpose is to show off the fighter’s body that is an object of fascination for everyone in the room. He struts, stretches, preens and flexes, exults in the easy grace and elegance of his movement, while everyone else stares, films and takes pictures. Looking at the rapt faces of onlookers you notice quite a few McGregor beards and haircuts. For the best part of an hour, the mostly male crowd is captivated by the exhibition of masculine beauty.
It’s an insight into an aspect of McGregor’s appeal that tends to be obscured by all the talk about all the talk. McGregor comes out with a line like “We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over,” and thousands of Irish fans yell in response and you think they’re attracted to his bravado and his success. But they’re also attracted to the way he looks. In the physical sense at least, McGregor is his generation’s ideal man.
Mendes to Aldo: “When we compete, we compete. But you’ll always have my respect. [McGregor] respects nothing. Do I have the support of your fans at UFC 189?” Aldo to Mendes: “The respect is mutual and I’m already looking forward to fighting you again. I know you’ll trample the Joker, and you’ll have the support of all my fans.”
McGregor rages at his rivals, calling them cowards. Nobody bats an eyelid. McGregor is at that stage of outrage inflation where the insults have started to lose meaning. At this point, the most controversial thing he could say would be “I’ve got a lot of respect for Chad, he’s a terrific fighter.” McGregor’s provocations have made him unpopular with other fighters, while his rapid success has made him an obvious target for their envy. He affects scorn for their opinions. “I don’t give a shit about respect,” he says. “I’m here on my own journey. As long as my team respect me, as long as the people in my circle have respect for me and what I’m doing. I don’t have friends in the business.”
The Vegas press corps has been saying that fighting Mendes rather than Aldo at least gives McGregor the chance to answer “the wrestler question”. That might well be the question MMA fans are asking. But among the shrinking majority in Ireland who are not yet UFC converts, the question isn’t really about whether McGregor has the ground game to defeat Mendes. The question is about the credibility of the sport itself. Is MMA a serious sport worth getting excited about, or are the UFC masterminding just another televised racket trying to lay its PPV eggs in our brain?
The UFC’s business model contains a hint as to why the depth of sporting quality can seem questionable. A number of estimates have concluded that the company is paying only about 10 per cent of annual revenues to its fighters. For comparison, the equivalent figure for the Premier League in 2014 was 70 per cent.
Some fighters, notably José Aldo, have been calling for a fighter’s union to help the workers get a better deal from the monopolistic management.
The UFC does not look kindly on such talk. Two years ago, a fighter called Tim Kennedy lamented the low pay and suggested he would earn more emptying trash cans. A couple of days later, Kennedy published a grovelling retraction and apology, reminiscent of those wartime broadcasts when a POW with black eyes and a burst lip explains how well he is being treated. “My comments were foolish, hurtful and inappropriate . . . I apologise to the UFC, Dana White, Lorenzo Fertitta and Joe Silva. etc.” Perhaps the most remarkable line in the statement was the acknowledgement that as UFC fighters “We make more money than the average American”. Some boast, when the average American earns less than $30,000 a year.
McGregor has clout in this debate. But when he was asked how he felt about the union talk on Wednesday, his answer had a distinct overtone of “there is no such thing as society”. “I handle my own business. And my business is good. Handle your business.”
Right now, McGregor is being looked after by the bosses at UFC. He’s one of the few guys in the sport making serious money. But while the current situation is good for his Louis Vuitton collection, it’s not so good for the credibility of his sport.
Lending his voice to those arguing for a better deal for fighters would not be without cost for McGregor. Relations with management would be less cordial. But he would earn the respect of the colleagues he professes not to care about. He would prove that he could stand for something bigger than himself. And he could help to lift up his sport. Better pay for fighters would raise standards across the board. That would be a pile worth topping.
Maybe he sees it as another’s day’s work.