Battling Conor McGregor wins over the US heartland

The NFL and the UFC have a lot in common. Both are vaudevillian nightmares that shouldn’t work but really seem to manage just fine, says John Riordan.

Battling Conor McGregor wins over the US heartland

Resistance is futile and they are both riding roughshod over the obstacles thrown their way. These are two organisations which combine the right amount of tears and odd grappling routines with enough blood and strange ritual to keep the whole mess ticking along.

Some of us feign sophistication and sneer and some of us are horrified and swear off being as absorbed as everyone else. We fail miserably and watch with confused delight as the Seattle Seahawks take us back from the brink of their own sorry demise.

Many of us gave the UFC night in Boston a shot because the New England Patriots were running away with the AFC title game.

Nothing could have matched how the Seahawks rallied to win the NFC game, the first semi-final on the way to the Super Bowl. The showdown in Arizona on Sunday week will fail miserably to match what happened in Seattle last weekend.

More television viewers tuned into that barely believable feat the Seahawks managed against the Green Bay Packers than any other US broadcast since last year’s Super Bowl.

Which means an astonishing amount of people — probably a very big chunk of the roughly 60 million viewers — sat through a couple of Conor McGregor promos as he teed up his UFC fight, due to be aired on another Fox channel later that evening.

The chief sports commentator for the main Fox channel, Joe Buck, did his best to display full loyalty to the cross branding. McGregor — looking appropriately Irish in his peak cap and wild whiskers — was described as the Irish Muhammad Ali by Buck.

Given the fact that this was coming a day after the Greatest celebrated his 73rd birthday, it was a comment which only became more inappropriate when poor old Buck was forced to regurgitate the spiel during another stoppage in the main event.

It was grossly unfair on McGregor too but, to give him his dues, he played the US media game perfectly over the last few weeks and it wasn’t just the numbers he added to the gate which further endeared him to the UFC. It was his absolute commitment to wringing every last drop of drama out of a fight that paired him with a seemingly past-it veteran.

None of that matters of course because the bottom line was the viewership and with Fox claiming this was the most watched UFC event of all time, McGregor’s appeal is increasing, a solid gold endorsement of his indefatigable approach to his own hype.

It should of course be pointed out that many of the major UFC events are pay-per-view but even so, it’s still some achievement for McGregor and his team

If nothing else, McGregor succeeds in the UFC incubator because he is as willing to evolve as the structure around him. It is, by its very nature, a sport of compromise.

There is enough unyielding physicality to match that compromise and so there you have the major strength. I can’t think of another sport which has evolved so quickly and brought so many faithful fans along with it, all of them learning quickly what makes the sport tick.

Other sports will have to think outside the box now. The GAA is under pressure to completely rethink the intercounty structure and while most people can appreciate that change takes time, the top brass can take heart from organisations like the UFC who have shown malleability to be a benefit rather than a weakness.

Just last week, NBA chief Adam Silver told reporters that his own sport could do with a radical shake-up inspired by the FA Cup. Speaking in London, he said would love to bring a secondary competition back across the Atlantic to give fans something else to shout about.

The reaction was positive among the NBA set in the US who picked up on the significance of Silver’s willingness to study models in other sports around the world, generating ideas for their own game.

Change is tough but if we resist, the rest of the world carries on regardless and they end up having all the fun.

It’s not a fear of missing out that will have me tuned into McGregor’s title bid in Las Vegas in May. I’m still too ambivalent about Mixed Martial Arts.

But when the McGregor bandwagon rolls into the desert, resistance will be even more futile than it ever was. Can we all just admit that?

Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

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