Tommy Martin: Is McGregor still McGregor without the zeitgeisty hoopla?

Tommy Martin: Is McGregor still McGregor without the zeitgeisty hoopla?
Conor McGregor, left, and Khabib Nurmagomedov in their infamous October 2018 clash in Las Vegas. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

IT will come as news to some that Conor McGregor, the well-known whiskey impresario and threat to public order, is fighting this weekend.

This will be his first UFC fight in 15 months and it is saying something about his antics in the meantime that getting back to kicking people in the head is seen as a return to a more wholesome way of life.

It’s not strictly true that McGregor’s fighting career has been on hold. If you include punching old men in pubs and scuffling with camera-wielding punters, then he has kept up a relatively busy combat schedule in the last year-and-a-bit.

But Saturday night’s dust-up against Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone is his first proper fight since Khabib Nurmagomedov smashed him up in Las Vegas in October 2018.

Remember that fight? Months of rancid, racist press conference verbiage preceded it, a full-on brawl involving both fighters and their camps rapidly followed it, and, by the time the dust had settled on the whole sorry affair, many casual fans decided they’d probably had their fill of UFC’s kooky charms.

What residual goodwill there was for a man who inspired a generation to grow Charles Stewart Parnell beards and dress like Bertie Wooster, soon vanished.

There were the aforementioned incidents of thuggery, tales of the unsuitable company he was keeping and whispers of other legal unpleasantness that may or may not resurface.

In general, while his notoriety endured and his whiskey sold by the crateload, there was a sense that the whole Conor McGregor thing was of a time and a place, that it was all a bit 2016 — you know, the year of Trump and Brexit, when an MMA bout seemed a perfect metaphor for global affairs and an elbow in the face pretty much summed up the level of political discourse.

Back then the scale and unprecedented nature of his sudden success made it seem necessary to have an opinion on McGregor.

He was a danger to society. He was the ultimate product of the social media age in all its vulgarity and stupidity. The world was going to hell in a handcart and he was driving.

Or he was an anti-hero of post-recession youth, Johnny Rotten for the angry austerity kids, spokesperson for the sockless generation.

Tommy Martin: Is McGregor still McGregor without the zeitgeisty hoopla?

He was a master of his craft, a supreme martial artist, a case study in application and discipline.

He was a self-made man, the ultimate class warrior, the law of attraction made flesh. Plumber, fighter, rock star, thug.

Now all that seems a bit too much like hard work. People have made up their minds on what Conor McGregor is and to hell with the sociology.

Where once a McGregor fight was a dangerous and exciting thing, a NSFW meme of braggadocio and triumphalism, to see him back on the UFC fight circuit and the attendant promotion around it is to wonder: ‘Really, are we still doing this?’

McGregor sat down with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani in the build-up to this fight for a long interview which ticked all the necessary comeback plot points. He was humble, he was focused, he was blocking out the haters. He had strayed, but he had rediscovered the path. He was a family man. He had found inner peace. There were Bruce Lee quotes. Ongoing legal issues? “Time will reveal all,” Zen master McGregor whispered.

For the UFC, this is highly sellable shit. Conor McGregor remains their biggest ever draw, their only genuine crossover star, certainly in this part of the world. Getting him back in the octagon is not just good for business, it is the business. McGregor reckons he will make €80 million out the back end of this fight and if the Cerrone bout is, as he promises, the first of three or four in a sleeves-rolled-up, back-to-business year, then everyone’s a winner.

If McGregor’s popularity in his homeland has dwindled a bit since his rabble rousing heyday, when Olé, Olé, Olé would echo around the MGM Grand in all its cringey glory, it is unlikely to affect his worldwide bottom line.

But it is here that the toxic whiff of his extracurricular activities has impacted most and the commitment of his Irish support has been a hot topic in McGregorland.

Tommy Martin: Is McGregor still McGregor without the zeitgeisty hoopla?

“It’s all baloney, man!” McGregor told Severe MMA when they asked him outright. “I walk the streets, and there’s nothing but love and support.”

His coach John Kavanagh concurred when speaking to Petesy Carroll of the Eurobash MMA podcast. “I’d love for people to spend a little bit of time, like I do,” Kavanagh said, “driving through town with Conor or having to call into a shop with Conor, and being mobbed for selfies and people shaking his hand and congratulating him.”

Sounds like a day out with Marty Morrissey, to be honest.

Carroll took matters into his own hands on YouTube and vox popped punters on Dublin’s Henry Street, spiritual heartland of the Notorious tribe. One girl, about 22 years old, talked of McGregor fight parties with the wistful nostalgia of a granny recalling the glory days of the showband era.

A young lad with ginger hair admitted his mates didn’t even know McGregor was fighting, but claimed himself to be buzzin’ for it.

However, his shifty eyes suggested embarrassment about something, perhaps the memory of an ill-advised beard growth or waistcoat-and-pocket watch combo from the middle years of the last decade.

No-one called him a scumbag or a thug, but you got the impression that whatever strain of madness or euphoria infected people in McGregor’s panzer-rush to global domination had now passed safely out of their systems, leaving only the fever dream memory of snug-fit plaid tailoring.

Is McGregor still McGregor without the attendant zeitgeisty hoopla? Are we interested in the UFC’s story of human redemption through grappling with strange men in underpants? For hardcore MMA fans, UFC 246 is a big deal, the return of the king.

The rest of us have probably seen enough.

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