Note the use of the word ‘respected’. When it comes to the polarising figure that’s Conor McGregor, even his critics will concede how big and popular he’s become and few of them begrudge how rich he’s become either. But ‘respected’? To view McGregor as an exceptional athlete and not just a showman and salesman is to leave you open to accusations of being gullible, buying whole the incessant hype surrounding him and his fledgling sport.
The only thing is, it’s not just impressionable twenty-somethings with short memories and attention spans acknowledging this guy as an elite sportsperson, or new media that needs to generate clickbait.
Last week Forever Sport (FS) magazine featured a 25-page spread on who they considered the 50 greatest athletes in the world right now. It had its flaws – not a single exponent of golf, one of the world’s most skilful sports, featured – but as these things go, it was about as rounded and comprehensive as you could hope for.
Normally such lists are overly-insular. US media tend to pick predominantly American-based athletes, barely recognising the globe’s biggest sport, football. Most UK media tend to ignore the monster that is American team sports. FS, a London-based publication, couldn’t be accused of that. Three NFL players made the list, five NBA stars. The most striking aspect though was just how positively diverse and international the list was.
Three Paralympic athletes made the top 40: Daniel Dias, the Brazilian swimmer; Kadeena Cox, the British running and cycling Paralympic champion; and in 21st, Tatyana McFadden, who remarkably medalled in six track events in Rio, ranging from the 400m to marathon.
A Norwegian women’s footballer, Ada Hegerberg, kicked off the list in 50th, for winning the Champions League and Ballon d’Or. A Spanish ski mountaineer and long-distance runner, Kilian Jornet, came in at 27th. Nafi Thiam, a 22-year-old Belgian heptathlete was 14th. The Japanese gymnast, Kohei Uchimura, was ranked seventh.
In third, ahead of global superstars such as Djokovic, Bolt, Williams, Ronaldo and Messi, was the decathlete champion, Ashton Eaton. Simone Biles, the American teenage gymnast sensation, was second only to LeBron James. If FS favoured celebrity over genuine athletic prowess, the likes of Uchimura, Eaton and Biles would hardly have featured so prominently. According to FS, the formula they used for such a subjective task was to rank active athletes out of 20 across five categories: skill, achievement, explosiveness, endurance and, last but not least, charisma. Perhaps it was that last category that tipped Conor McGregor over in to making such an exclusive list, coming in at 42nd, compensating for the one genuine hole in discussing his sporting credentials: just how much of an achievement is it to be a UFC champion, even in two divisions, when the sport has such a short history and a shallow pool of participants and competitors?
What should not be underestimated though – but largely is by his detractors – is his prowess in the other three categories FS prioritised.
Skill, which they defined as technical ability: multi- discipline good, one trick bad. MMA is by definition multi-disciplinary. Within that sport, McGregor is considered one of its most versatile exponents.
Explosiveness: a combination of speed and power, both of which McGregor displayed in dispatching of the likes of Aldo and Alvarez over the past 12 months. And, lastly, endurance, which McGregor showcased in going the distance and ultimately winning in his rematch against Nate Diaz.
What really brought it home was the scale of not just his achievement but his athleticism was catching up with some of the biggest sports shows in America.
ESPN’s First Take features Stephen A Smith, who some might say is a bit like McGregor himself: loud, opinionated, charismatic and prone to exaggeration. But, like McGregor he can also often be witty and insightful with a lot of substance behind all the sound.
He follows and studies a lot of elite sport. The NBA. The NFL. Big-time boxing. Madison Square Garden is like a second home to him, just as it is home to his beloved New York Knicks. He’s taken in a lot of sport there and all over America and the world. Yet two weeks ago he openly professed to being blown away by the McGregor experience in MSG, sitting ringside alongside other household American names, from Madonna to Odell Beckham Jnr, who ranked 13 spots higher than McGregor in the FS list.
“I was there, and I’m telling you now, I have not seen too much like McGregor rolling into an arena the way he did... It was absolutely special. Phenomenal.” There’s something else that must be factored in when we talk about how narrow the base of the participation pyramid for MMA is. As big as the sport might grow, there’ll always be very few people who’ll step in to an octagon and risk the humiliation and hurt that goes with such an aggressive sport.
McGregor has been willing to step into that arena, again and again. That hasn’t been lost on the undisputed No.1 on that FS list, LeBron James. The three-time NBA champion has quoted McGregor as a source of motivation and after the Dubliner’s defeat to Nate Diaz last March, James rightly predicted rebounding from defeat would be a greater measure of the man’s brilliance than remaining undefeated ever would.
In his retirement as Irish rugby team manager last weekend, Michael Kearney revealed McGregor is the one athlete the Irish team want an audience with. Not so they can tweet about or take selfies but to learn more about his extraordinary mental and physical preparation.
A few weeks ago Jamie Heaslip put it out there that McGregor might just be the greatest Irish sportsperson of his generation. FS for one disagree. They don’t even have him down as the best Irish fighter. Two spots ahead of McGregor on their list is Carl Frampton. But when the likes of the two James – LeBron and Heaslip – respect and view McGregor as a truly elite athlete with even more substance to go with the style, then maybe we all should.