After a chastening defeat last Saturday night he said, “I’m not a big one for excuses. I have to go back and see what I’m doing, because I think it must be something I’m doing.”
Kieran McGeeney is someone who seems to attract as much derision for his disappointments as a manager as he did respect for his achievements as a player.
He pulled off one of the most impressive debut managerial jobs Gaelic football has seen this millennium, taking over a county that hadn’t made it to August since the All Ireland quarter-finals were introduced seven years previously and guiding them to five consecutive last-eight appearances.
For three of those seasons Kildare were among the top-five teams in the country, something a Galway or Meath would love to boast sometime over the last or next five years, but to a good few critics such progress and consistency could be dismissed by the overly-simplistic retort “Yeah, but what did he actually win with them?”
Now his detractors will be revelling in what is indisputably a challenging stint as Armagh manager. Last season their only championship win was against Wicklow. This season they’ve lost three of their opening four league games. Last Saturday they were hammered by Cavan by 17 points.
More sympathetic commentators have pointed out that it’s not like Armagh has players of the calibre of McConville and McDonnell to work with anymore, McGeeney isn’t hiding behind that. “I believe I’ve good footballers in there,” he’d say to reporters outside his team’s dressing room last Saturday. “I just mustn’t be doing the right thing for them to perform like that.”
By admitting and acknowledging that, there’s hope for Armagh and McGeeney yet. There’s also something in it for an even bigger-named colleague from the Straight Blast Gym to absorb.
Conor McGregor has by and large reacted with suitable humility and dignity to his shock defeat to Nate Diaz in Vegas. He credited Diaz for both taking and winning the fight.
He admitted that he himself had gone “into panic mode”, lost his nerve essentially, something you rarely hear even the most candid and humblest of sportspeople admitting after a potentially career-altering setback, let alone one that prides himself on his mental toughness.
McGregor would sign off one interview with a mantra from the gym he and McGeeney both train in: You win or you learn. But some of that learning has to involve exploring even deeper layers of humility.
To pretty much say what McGeeney said. “I have to go back and see what I’m doing, because I think it must be something I’m doing.”
In agreeing to fight two weights above his own class, one of two things were at play. Either McGregor wasn’t afraid to lose, which is admirable, or he felt there was no way he could lose, an attitude which is destructive and overly-arrogant.
The sense is this is the fight where he strayed from the former into the latter. Even Kavanagh has admitted that if he was at the negotiations earlier he’d have pushed for the fight to be at a lower weight. Which begs the question: why wasn’t he there or his advice not heeded. Some of the shots McGregor got in on Diaz would have knocked out a smaller opponent in his own weight but, Diaz could just dismiss him as hard-hitting “for a little guy”.
Long before McGregor was the biggest name in the UFC, that honour belonged to Frank Shamrock. Like McGregor he sometimes came across as brash and arrogant, even though in acquiring his skills, he showed a certain humility.
“Ego is an evil thing,” he’d tell Sam Sheridan for the book The Fighter’s Mind. “Confidence is important, but ego is something false. Humility is the way to build confidence, and ego is hugely dangerous in this sport, because if you’re running on ego you’re not running on good clean emotions. It’s all garbage, the ego is garbage.
“The hardest thing about being an MMA fighter is the huge ego boost you get from winning. To remain normal and relaxed and grounded within yourself is really challenging... Being famous is hard to do – it amplifies everything negative and positive about you. What will you do with our ego and power and influence now? False ideas about yourself can destroy you.”
False ideas that he could win at almost any weight defeated Conor McGregor last weekend. It does not have to destroy him. It could actually be the making of him.
His critics will say now that he’s lost his unbeaten record, any of his past and future self-affirming statements are now hollow. Not true. Outside of Marciano and Mayweather, virtually every fighter and sportsman loses.
Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors also lost over the weekend, to the lowly LA Lakers, but does Curry now stop believing he’s the best player in the NBA as he’s publicly stated? Ali lost to Frazier and Ken Norton before fighting Foreman; did that mean his pre-fight quotes were just the rantings of a deluded man?
(And for those who think it’s blasphemous to bring Ali again into a discourse about McGregor. Yeah, Ali was a much more significant and better athlete. McGregor is the first to admit it.
A lot of us are in that middle ground with McGregor. We know his sport is new and sometimes crass with no great critical mass or tradition. This isn’t boxing, let alone soccer, we’re talking about. But changes in society produce new sports as it does new religions, as much as many of the old ones still endure: the UFC is of the twitter generation.
And there’s a reason it has so few participants. It’s not just because it’s so new, but because very few people are willing to step into that octagon and risk not coming out of it.
It is unjust so to dismiss Diaz as just some ‘journeyman’; that he’s won 18 fights in that octagon and got up from losing 10 times is the record of an incredibly resilient sportsman.
We haven’t been intrigued by McGregor because we ever felt he was invincible. We were intrigued because we doubted if this boy-next-door would be able to back up all the brash talk but he proved our doubts wrong.
Maybe the penny drops now that he can be more class than crass. Can he reign in the ego a bit? Be cocky and witty yet respectful before fights?
McGregor may no longer be invincible – because he never was – but he’s all the more interesting for it now, and potentially all the more engaging and appealing too.
“Fighting is probably the rawest form of sport,” McGeeney said a couple of year ago, “in the sense that you can walk in a man but you could be very much less of a man when you walk out.”
If McGregor takes some other advice from McGeeney by looking in the mirror – without admiring himself too much – he could be much more of a man next time he walks into that octagon in Vegas.