He is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable and successful faces in the world of sport for the past few years, but Conor McGregor frequently mixes work with play and often winds up in trouble for one reason or another. Some have credited McGregor for his attitude in the face of adversity and ‘haters’, while others believe he makes a mockery of the sport and is more of an act than a professional athlete; regularly taunting opponents and verbally abusing them and their families in the run up to a big fight. So the question really is this: is the Notorious, as a top athlete, a credit to his profession or is he dragging the UFC name down with all of his antics and controversy?
Starting with the positives is always an easier route to take. I’ll readily admit that I knew practically nothing about UFC and the art of MMA until this young Irishman hit the scene and quickly developed a worldwide army of fans. I was encapsulated by his confidence and bravado, and the entertainment he brought to press conferences. I think there’s a very small bracket of great athletes who had such magnetic personalities that almost any mention of the sport was followed by the mention of their name: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Shaquille O’Neal and Peyton Manning come to mind, not the worst company to have. I’m not sure there has ever been a more hotly anticipated and talked about event like the Mayweather vs McGregor boxing match last year. Not content to be restricted to his own discipline of MMA, McGregor challenged arguably the greatest boxer ever to a fight. He lost of course, but has anyone ever tried to transition into another sport so quickly and land a blockbuster bout like that? Whether he’s being criticised for his behaviour; namely his arrest after attacking Nurmagomedov last year and the suspension after the fight last month, or praised for a performance, McGregor is so valuable to the UFC because of the attention he draws, the interest the UFC receives, and the revenue he generates.
And, well, he’s Irish. There’s some deep buried instinct in me to support any Irish athlete I come across. At the beginning, I think he instilled a bit of pride in the country; he was one of our own, a genuine jackeen making waves over in the States, and not giving a flying “fook” what people thought of him. It’s been many a year since Ireland had an athlete as gifted as McGregor with such appeal and talent, firmly placed at the heart of his sport. Conor has been praised for his loyalty and rewarding nature to those who have stood by him, especially his coach John Kavanagh and his fanbase. Recently, McGregor showed some of that generosity when he paid off the mortgage on his parents’ home in Lucan. A real debate opens up around whether he can be seen as a role model. On the positive side of the argument, people point to his never-ending reservoir of self-belief and “never say die attitude”. I’m not going to argue that he’s the best fighter ever, because he’s lost quite comprehensively in the past, but literally the day after a punishing loss McGregor is back on his feet and as undeterred as ever, still firm in his belief that he is the king of the castle. For a lot of children this can be a valuable life lesson, to believe in yourself and not to give up easily.
On the other side of the debate, many people would say that McGregor goes so far overboard in the lead up to a fight, that it borders on harassment. Even as a well-known showman and performer, a lot of what McGregor says and does are quite despicable and have earned him quite a poor reputation in parts of the UFC and MMA communities. Just as easily as one could say that his good qualities can be inspiring, his horrendous actions and verbal confrontations teach very different lessons, and not ones to be followed. The constant to-and-fro of verbal quarrelling and the pure nastiness that he has expressed in some of the press conferences, is enough to alienate a lot of people. Particularly in that last fight with Khabib, it just seemed so unnecessary; good athletes and performers don’t need to resort to accusing an opponent of ‘terrorism’ or mock their religion openly in order to win. I understand that flamboyancy and unpredictability are part and parcel of McGregor’s style and persona, but it’s all stacking up against him recently and fans aren’t the only ones that are sick of his games. It has been reported on a number of occasions that the majority of fighters in the UFC hold a lot of resentment towards McGregor, something I’m sure Conor laps up. But could you blame any of them? McGregor has been getting special treatment for years now and always escapes with little more than a suspension. His ‘hoodlum’ behaviour undermines the values of the sport and those that are trying to expand its success based on the merits of fighting. McGregor is, of course, one of these top fighters, but we have spent so much more time examining his actions outside of the octagon.
Conor McGregor poses a real headache for UFC executives. Is he really worth all of the drama, condemnation, attention? Dana White certainly seems to think so. Whatever your opinion of the man, he’s one of the most successful sports people of our generation, but his position at the moment is extraordinarily volatile. McGregor is one more public meltdown away from losing it all. With every passing event and war of words, I think he loses the public’s affection just a little bit more. The fight with Mayweather, the subsequent year off, and the launch of Proper Whiskey seem like desperate attempts to stay relevant, when all he should be doing is focusing on showing us why he is regarded as one of the best MMA fighters of our time, showing everyone the same form he had a few years. Its long way down from the top, after all.