Combination of glitz and combat irresistible to many

Conor McGregor has a different perspective than most when it comes to what the Irish sporting public holds close to its heart.

Combination of glitz and combat irresistible to many

Born in Crumlin and a resident of Lucan, he admitted earlier this week that he wasn’t aware a game of Gaelic football will be taking place in Croke Park this Sunday between his native Dublin and Meath.

He is, he confesses, living in his own bubble right now. Yet, his assertion, one voiced time and again the last few weeks, that the UFC Fight Night which he is headlining at the O2 tomorrow and is being broadcast on terrestrial TV here will “shut this country down” is one you would imagine is aimed at a foreign rather than a domestic audience.

Listening to him say just that on Wednesday at the first of many pre-fight events this week was to imagine a time long ago when gullible American tourists were sold jars of pure Irish air or told stories about leprechauns caught in whiskey bottles and kept captive until they revealed where they hid pots of gold.

Yet, McGregor isn’t alone in his questionable estimations.

Those fronting the UFC’s ongoing colonisation of the planet like to make big claims too. The mixed martial art sport is, depending on who you listen to, being beamed into between 882m and 1bn households on this planet. That equates to up to 71% of the world’s population of 7bn. Really?

It’s stats like these and McGregor’s braggadocio that make your eyebrows combat gravity and yet the sport’s ascendance is undeniable.

What started 20 years ago as an unregulated, hotchpotch of an idea has been transformed into a money-making machine that has supposedly spread into 175 countries containing speakers of 23 differentlanguages and one which is extending its tentacles into prime and previouslyuntapped markets such as India and South America. The world’s fastestgrowing sport, some have called it.

Whatever your opinion about what goes on in the ring, it is impossible not to admire the manner in which they do business outside it. The UFC’s pioneers saw the mess that was boxing worldwide and did everything they could to avoid a similar fate. So, not only are they the fight promoters, they own the brand and are the content owners and producers as well.

The UFC is like a foreign species that has been released into a previously balanced eco-system, devouring existing bodies genetically incapable of resistance against the invader. Hence, other mixed martial art entities, including Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championship and Strikeforce, have been subsumed into the UFC family allowing more of the best fighters to face off more often.

It is a multi-faceted machine, one that has secured sponsorship from big hitters such as Budweiser, Dodge and Harley Davidson and branched out into expos, merchandise, its own chain of gyms and even reality tv through The Ultimate Fighter franchise. Eric Shanks, one of the big wigs in its US tv partner Fox, has said they are “aggressive, smart, creative and get things done”.

That ethos has been apparent already in Dublin this week with its slick marketing campaign, comprehensive media management and the interaction between fighters and fans at the pre-event base in Kilmainham’s Royal Hospital. Yet, for all its plus points, it remains to be seen if it will ever be accepted as truly mainstream.

It is, after all, an extreme combat activity and that makes it sport’s version of Marmite. Supporters refer to the rulesand regulations, the absence of a single death or serious injury this past two decades and the fact its core disciplines such as boxing, wrestling, judo, karate and Brazilian jiujitsu are Olympic sports or others accepted as perfectly practicable sports in their own right.

“It’s not violence, it’s a sport,” Ricky Gervais said recently.

It has attracted criticism on grounds of homophobia, sexism and its drug policy in the past, but most opponents say it simply barbaric. US Senator John McCain labelled it “human cockfighting” in 1995 and Dr Peter Maguire of the British Medical Association recently used the same phrase in condemning it. McCain also called for it to be banned in the USA two decades ago, yet New York is the only state where it is still not legal.

Love it or hate it, the combination of glitz and combat is irresistible to a growing fan base.

“It’s the show, first,” says McGregor in describing its appeal to this column. “You walk in and it’s like a set-up you have never seen before. Then the combat starts and fighting is in our DNA, it is in our blood. Whatever you think about it, whether it’s bad or it’s good, you feel something for it. It is before civilisation. It is just raw and people will feel that when they are in there and it will just take over.”

If that’s not to your taste, there is always Dublin and Meath the next day.

There’s an obvious punchline there, but we’ll leave that to you.

Email: Brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob

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