The McGregor conundrum

The Dubliner divides opinion, but in a time when we’ve been forced to rethink much of what we thought we knew about the world, the face of the UFC fits in better than maybe any other athlete on the planet, writes Joe Callaghan
The McGregor conundrum

AS one of the most gifted minds of an era that places less and less stock in such gifts, Ta-Nehisi Coates is often a source of comfort. Often... but not always.

In an enthralling interview this week, the writer was asked where his balance was in a world jarred from its axis after 12 tumultuous months. Coates hesitated a second, before responding: “I don’t know. I’m a big believer in chaos...”

Not much comfort in that.

For the believers and the non-believers alike, 2016 has been a chaotic year, of Trump and of Brexit and of the fall of Aleppo and of loss, as cultural icons departed when we needed them more than ever. A most chaotic year. A most notorious year.

What were the odds that amid it all, Conor McGregor would be one of our more reliable constants?

The Notorious one ended 2016 just as he started it and in between times had done plenty of same: He divided.

McGregor’s coronation as RTÉ’s sportsperson of the year last weekend was the signal for that most familiar soundtrack — the wailing, gnashing mash-up of rabid believers and raging non- believers.

If only the national broadcaster had made one minor change, because McGregor may or may not be Ireland’s sportsperson of 2016 — it’s open for debate — but he is unquestionably the sportsman for

2016. In a time when we’ve been forced to rethink much of what we thought we knew about the world, the face of the UFC fits in better than maybe any other athlete on the planet.

“Donald Trump’s victory in the US testifies to the people’s enduring interest in a big-talking, braggadocio male figure who can back up his words by earning billions or winning the next title,” Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, told the Irish Examiner last week. “These are brash, rude, outspoken times, so he is almost the perfect sportsman for these times.”

Starn has spent much of his career exploring sporting icons and their place in the world. He is the author of The Passion of Tiger Woods, a deep dive on the golfer’s standing in US culture. Along with Michael Jordan, Woods was one such icon who helped set the trend of the corporate athlete, speaking plenty, saying nothing. Yet, the kaleidoscope-of-cliches approach has proved tiresome for many.

“This is the vulgar age of social media. Whether it’s a Trump or any other noisy identity, there’s an appetite for the one who will say the incorrect things and will use rude language,” offers Starn. “As there’s a weariness with the sanitised politician, [it’s the same] with the sanitised athlete.”

He continued: “The obvious parallel with McGregor is Muhammad Ali. A lot of this: ‘I’d like to apologise... to absolutely nobody’, goes global pretty much the same way Ali’s aphorisms went global in a pre-social media age. The swaggering wordsmith fighter, the brash, loud intriguing warrior is a kind of archetype that we’re always going to be interested in.”

However, unlike The Greatest, McGregor’s warrior tendencies haven’t yet looked like crossing into the social justice realm.

“That’s what makes him this almost post-modern Ali, stripped of all his politics and causes, yet with all of the words and the swagger,” adds Starn.

“He is a throwback to Ali, but still in a new age where top athletes are living in a bubble. His biggest cause seems to be getting the biggest deal for himself out of MMA, which is perfectly understandable, but you know, it’s about Conor McGregor and the brand of Conor McGregor. Not Conor McGregor and global warming or Aleppo.”

To some, last weekend was McGregor leaving another cavernous footprint in the mainstream. Yet, it’s clear that two years after his move from quirky upstart to full-blown phenomenon, others — whole swathes of the country — still don’t know how to take the 28-year-old, or, for that matter, how to chronicle him.

McGregor’s RTÉ win was unprecedented for a range of reasons.

One was the relationship or lack thereof between the country’s established media and the winner.

Industry naval gazing doesn’t stoke many readers’ fires here on these pages, but stick with us on this one as, at the very least, it’s noteworthy.

None of the following outlets saw fit to dispatch a staff reporter to any of McGregor’s three fights in 2016: RTÉ, TV3, Today FM, this newspaper, The Irish Times, Irish Independent; the Irish Daily Mail, Irish Star, Irish Mirror, Evening Herald; the Sunday World, Sunday Independent, Sunday Business Post.

Admittedly, in these ever-challenging times, editorial budgets undoubtedly play a part in the anomaly. A majority of outlets have commissioned freelancer reporters (this writer among them) for McGregor’s fights and some supplemented coverage from home.

Yet, in the almost 30-year history of the RTÉ award, there can’t have been a single previous winner for whom the same would have been true, never mind one with McGregor’s standing among his sporting peers, saluted one day by Cristiano Ronaldo, by LeBron James the next.

It was a perfectly 2016 outcome that RTÉ’s public vote ended with disputes over the legitimacy of the winner, many arguing the sportsman of the year isn’t a sportsman in the first place.

The Dubliner is lots of things to lots of people. Out of the octagon on fight weeks, he can be insufferable to lots more, but to persist with suggestions McGregor is not a sportsperson — or that mixed martial arts is not a sporting discipline — is as tired as his worst promotional acts.

The issue of the brutality of MMA and those who recycle arguments was thrown McGregor’s way during the RTÉ broadcast last week.

“It is a violent, dangerous business. I’ve witnessed the worst you can witness in this business. If that’s the way you [feel], then it ain’t for you,” he said amid questions about more titles, Floyd Mayweather, and contract stand-offs with the UFC, all on his radar for 2017.

“This is a crazy, ruthless business and I’m on the top of it.”

The end of one Notorious year nears. Whether you’re a believer or not, the chaos is likely to reign on yet.

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