Conor McGregor is undoubtedly Ireland’s most infamous sportsperson. The controversial mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter catalysed what can only be described as a cultural revolution on these isles, with people being drawn not only to his unquestionable talent, but his quick wit and incredible self-belief. A young man from humble beginnings who conquered the world, what was most appealing about McGregor during his rapid rise to the top was that, if he was to be believed, with “hard work and dedication,” it could have been any one of us.
In his own words, he was not talented, he was “obsessed”. The fastest knockout in UFC title-fight history. The highest paid fighter in MMA. The inaugural “champ champ”. A man with the requisite level of fame to taunt the great Floyd Mayweather out of retirement. Once the sporting achievements are isolated from his juvenile behaviour, claims for McGregor to be the greatest athlete Ireland has ever produced are well supported. However, since the fateful Mayweather bout, he seems to be doing everything in his power to tarnish that resumé which he worked so hard to build, and in the process, undo much of the legacy he could have had.
Love him or loathe him, McGregor’s story is inspirational. A wayward teenager who found an outlet through combat sports under the tutelage of Ireland’s first Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, John Kavanagh, McGregor packed in his day job as a plumber in favour of following his dreams. It did not take long for him to forge a career path which had previously not existed in Ireland. Following unprecedented success in becoming a two-weight world champion in a minor UK promotion, Cage Warriors, McGregor was signed by the UFC in 2013. He was only the second Irish person to sign for the sport’s leading promotion. In Kavanagh’s words, this was the equivalent of “knocking around in the lower leagues, but in the end getting scouted by Liverpool”. McGregor made his UFC debut in a featherweight bout against Marcus Brimage. He dispatched of Brimage with relative ease, and undeniable style. Following the victory, he was awarded a $60,000 knockout of the night bonus.
The rest as they say, is history. By 2015, McGregor had knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds to capture the featherweight title. Aldo, a future hall-of-famer, had not lost for ten years before facing McGregor. By 2017, the Irishman was the UFC’s first simultaneous two-weight world champion, having moved up a division to score a knockout win over the lightweight champion, Eddie Alvarez. Come the end of that year, he was fighting Floyd Mayweather, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, in his own sport. His legacy, along with his financial security, was secured.
“He was only the second Irish person to sign for the sport’s leading promotion.”
There are many theories which are perhaps too obvious to note regarding the secret to McGregor’s success. Yes, he was amusing. Yes, he was confident, even braggadocious, but managed to remain likeable. Of course, he was an incredibly talented athlete, and yes, he had the support of a nation behind him – as we all know, if there is one thing a predominantly American audience loves, it’s Ireland. What was most impressive about Conor McGregor however, was his ability not only to overcome adversity, but to broadcast that he was doing it. For example, in only his second UFC fight against the current Featherweight champion, Max Holloway, McGregor tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), facing ten months on the sidelines. Not only did McGregor recover from his injury, but he ensured he remained relevant while doing so. His social media was plastered with rehab photos, and images of him wearing tailor made suits. He even went on the Late Late show with Ryan Tubridy, referring to himself as “too damn pretty” to ever be in an ugly fight. His comeback, a headlining knockout victory over Diego Brandao, only the second UFC event in Ireland, would soon become part of a six-part RTÉ all-access documentary about the fighter. He employed similar tactics when he defeated Chad Mendes to win the interim featherweight championship, despite another ACL tear. This particular renaissance served as a focus point in McGregor’s executively produced documentary, “The Notorious”. He has made sure throughout his career that fans have access to ample McGregor content.
McGregor has increasingly prided himself on his undeniable business acumen, and it is for these reasons that his recent retirement announcement is to be taken with a pinch of salt. While McGregor’s injuries have proven to be marketable roadblocks in his career, undoubtedly his biggest come-from-behind, underdog story was his rematch victory against Nate Diaz in 2016. This is because McGregor made sure we regarded it as such. Having lost to Diaz, a fighter who’s win ratio was barely 2:1 in the UFC at the time, McGregor’s stock had understandably fallen. His first loss in the UFC, many questioned how good he actually was, and whether his success to date had been just a fluke. Understandably, McGregor wanted a rematch to avenge his loss. In order to get that rematch, on his own terms, he decided to announce his retirement in a simple tweet. “I have decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese, catch yous later.” Twitter erupted, the fans had spoken, and McGregor defeated Diaz in August of that year. The fight is currently the second most successful UFC pay-per-view event of all time. Once again, McGregor had highlighted his own adversity and used it to his advantage. His adoring public had fallen for it every step of the way. “Surprise surprise motherfuckers, the King is back,” he exclaimed in his post-fight interview.
Two years on, McGregor finds himself on the back of another UFC defeat, this time to undefeated Russian fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov, and attempting to go back to the well once more. While the circumstances seem similar, the backdrop could not be more different. In 2017, McGregor was a young athlete, who, although universally known, was almost demented in his passion for mixed martial arts. Now, McGregor is a commercial behemoth, who has had more fights with the law than with individuals in a cage since the Diaz victory. He is at the head of a successful whiskey venture, entitled “Proper 12” after his native Dublin 12, his own clothes line in conjunction with David August, and is still swimming in the profit from his “money fight” with Floyd Mayweather. However, he has also invited controversy unto himself for, amongst other things, using a homophobic slur in relation to a teammate’s opponent, attacking a referee at a Bellator MMA event, road traffic offences, and, of course, smashing the windows of a UFC bus in an attempt to get to his future opponent, Nurmagomedov. In the process, he injured two UFC fighters, Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg, forcing both men to pull out of their scheduled bouts. Many have suggested that wealth has corrupted McGregor, a claim which has been substantiated by his actions.
“Unlike in times gone by, not many people want to see McGregor redeem himself.”
Ultimately the bus attack would be used effectively by the UFC to market McGregor’s title fight with Nurmagomedov, but at this point, fans had grown tired of the antics which had, in the past, been forgiven due to his proficiency in the Octagon. In the press conference for this fight, McGregor overstepped even his own line. He mocked Nurmagomedov on the basis of his religion, referring to him as “mad” and “backwards,” and even went as far to refer to Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, as a “mad terrorist rat”. This was not the usual quick wit, nor the philosophically poised insults we had become accustomed to. This was racism, and for the most part, fans recognised it as such. McGregor would go on to be defeated in the fourth round of the fight, and the event was the highest-selling UFC pay-per-view of all time. However, it felt as though people were tuning in to watch McGregor lose, no longer willing for him to win.
It has been two years since McGregor’s last foray into the Octagon, and in search of the Nurmagomedov rematch, he has decided to play the retirement card once again. However, this time his antics have fallen upon deaf ears. Many have congratulated him on his retirement, feeling as though it is the right time for him to step away. In contrast to the Diaz retirement experiment, nobody has called for the UFC to make McGregor Khabib II at whatever cost. This is because, unlike in times gone by, not many people want to see McGregor redeem himself. Yes, his achievements cannot be disputed, and yes, he is at a level of wealth where he does not need to ever fight again, but the general feeling is that that is an adequate place for it all to end. Whether this is due to the combination of controversies mentioned, or his increasingly frequent offensive rhetoric, is uncertain.
In any case, McGregor’s recent actions, if he has actually retired, undoubtedly draw his legacy as a whole into question. To watch what was once an inspirational story become such a commercial circus has been difficult to take for fans, while much of McGregor’s rhetoric, coupled with his transgressions with the law, is unforgivable to many. Unfortunately, the Irish public which once idolised McGregor has begun to turn on this bona fide star. Whether history will do the same remains to be seen, but it is hoped that McGregor’s achievements, along with his crimes, do not become overshadowed by another, and are as such, remembered in equal degree.