Conor McGregor ends up as Vladimir Putin’s plaything

For all his unimaginable riches, MMA superstar looked a lost soul in Moscow

Vladimir Putin with Conor McGregor at the World Cup final and the fighter with his plate of pasta.

Vladimir Putin with Conor McGregor at the World Cup final and the fighter with his plate of pasta.


Nobody can fully determine the future but in her global bestselling help book The Secret, Rhonda Byrne advises her readers that it helps to “see the things you want as already yours”.

Conor McGregor was a willing visionary and has spoken about its influence on him and about the power of positive projection. But even with the photographs of the Irish star posing with the obligatory raised fist beside Russian president Vladimir Putin, you had to wonder whether, deep down, McGregor really wanted that moment and if it is part of the master plan.

In the shaky video footage that was broadcast of the historic meeting, McGregor comes across as chuffed, dazzled and intimidated as he tries to explain (doing that thing where English speakers believe that if they speak English in a foreign accent, they will be understood) to a disinterested Putin that he had brought a gift of Irish whiskey which had been confiscated by security.

But it was another image which captured the inimitable strangeness of McGregor’s life. It was taken after the MMA fighter had been seated to watch the World Cup final, at which he was Putin’s guest.

The camera is behind him so for once he is unaware of the lens. McGregor is on a corner seat in the VIP viewing gallery. The seat beside him seems vacant. He is holding a small plate of pasta in his right hand. In his left hand he is clenching a fork in his hand, as a small boy might.

Given that McGregor’s catalogue of public images is comprised of the fighter in perpetual triumph and surrounded by people – his minders and crew, the legion of worshipful followers, other celebs eager to be seen with one of the hottest commodities in sport – it is a very lonely image.

Here is McGregor at the biggest sporting event on the planet, in a stadium which is teeming with people creating that unique atmosphere of joy and tension and anticipation that accompanies these once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And he seems like one of Edward Hopper’s lost souls.


If you live McGregor’s life, time must move differently. It is over five years now since he sat down with Ewan McKenna in a McDonald’s off the Long Mile Road in Dublin to talk about his sporting life to date in a terrific interview published in the Irish Examiner.

It reads now like a valuable portrait of McGregor just before he morphed into the persona. He had just won his first real MMA pay cheque a few weeks earlier, a €60,000 bonanza.

Just a month before that, he had stood in line in the social welfare office in Clondalkin. He comes across as smart, earnest, a bit eccentric and completely locked into a dream just beginning to sharpen.

Who couldn’t root for someone willing to take the risk of jacking in his work to chase a sports dream that, at the time, existed somewhere between fabulous and ridiculous? “I’d rather have no money and just train than be in a job I don’t love,” he said that day.

Anyone over the age of 15 can make a fair stab at remembering what they were at five years ago. Most people, with a bit of blessing and luck, are just chugging along and doing ok. McGregor has had an inter-planetary change in life since then. He was the exception that proves the rule that The Secret is hokum.

His re-invention had nothing to do with the book, of course, and everything to do with a combination of his exceptional athleticism, his frightening single-mindedness, the good luck of catching the MMA wave of popularity just when it was about to break and the canniness to project a thug-dandy persona: part Tom Hardy villain, part Tom Wolfe.

It proved to be an irresistible projection and in the space of four years, McGregor’s life was transformed as surely as he had been handed an Aladdin’s Lamp and just wished it all into being – the private jets, the cars, the fame and the shirts; such beautiful shirts.

So in a way, McGregor made all of this happen. But in another way, he could do absolutely nothing to prevent it. Once he inserted himself into the system of social media phenomena, of mega money tinseltown sport and sponsorship, of pay-per-view, of notoriety, into the Kardashian sphere of fame, then he became locked into a 24/7 global entertainment show that is vastly beyond anyone’s scale of comprehension. He was just swept along and the money keeps rolling in at a phenomenal rate.

Little wonder that his Cadillac Esplanade was recently towed away in Dublin for having no tax or insurance discs. Does anyone really think The Notorious is going to log on to and deliberate whether he should go for the six-month option of pay full whack? He is up there on the Forbes list of richest entertainers among a pantomime of celebrities that proves the whole thing is random anyhow: Coldplay, Judge Judy, Kylie Jenner, Howard Stern and, at #1, the last man he ‘fought’: Floyd Mayweather.


That fight took place almost a year ago. And this week marked the fourth anniversary of McGregor’s homecoming UFC night in Dublin when he bludgeoned Diego Brandao into submission. The star was still in early ascent: was able to buy advertising space on the seat of his shorts then.

Over the next two years, McGregor became the figurehead of UFC’s lightning expansion and his move towards the mainstream. But for the last 12 months, the furious publicity that McGregor generated just seemed to stop.

There are reports too that UFC’s popularity has peaked and that its decline has begun: that its core audience has matured and is not being replaced, and that it lacks superstars like McGregor to flesh it out and make it compelling.

It was McGregor’s life story that convinced ESPN to dispatch Wright Thompson, who has written wonderful profiles of Michael Jordan and Pat Reilly among many others, to visit Dublin for a longform piece titled Crossing Crumlin Road, a story which jazzed up the mean-street credentials of the Dublin suburb in a way that left its residents flabbergasted.

The Mayweather fight was just around the corner and the world, despite its better judgment, was vaguely intrigued by the preposterousness and huckstering which inflated ‘the fight’ into the spectacle it became.

It feels as if that bubble has since burst. You can’t go back. And even if he wanted to, McGregor couldn’t return to that day he sat yapping honestly about himself in McDonalds – planning to ring his girlfriend for a lift home afterwards.

Five years later and there he is as Putin’s special guest and, much like Donald Trump, appearing as his plaything. But Trump is 72 and has been a killer in the celebrity world for decades. This has happened overnight for – and to – McGregor. It must be mindbending.

What The Secret can’t explain is what happens when everything you dream and work for and visualise comes true 10 times over and one day you are beyond insanely wealthy and have fought them all and bought everything and have the yachts and planes and everything and where it brings you to is a football stadium in Moscow where you appear as a prop in a photo opportunity for a sinister head of state and are left holding a small plate of pasta.

What then?

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