There’s an unwritten rule in Irish sport, it goes a little something like this: ‘Should one of our people reach the pinnacle of their sport they automatically become a national hero.’ It doesn’t matter if the sport in question is something we’ve never even heard of or don’t properly understand; if an Irish person is good at it then we’re going to get behind them.
I follow this maxim to the letter, cheering on showjumpers, rowers and walkers alike, all because they happen to come from the same country as me. But there’s one Irishman who has dominated his sport, put it on the map, revolutionised it, all while draped in our tricolour, who I simply cannot abide.
It’s not hard to guess who I’m talking about, it’s Mr Marmite himself, Conor McGregor. He may be one of our most successful exports ever but it’s fair to say that McGregor divides opinion in his homeland. Reared on humble, taciturn heroes, the kind of men and women who’d blush if asked to describe what made them so great, there are some of us who find ‘The Notorious’ a lot to take.
But as much as I dislike him, and it’s quite a lot, I have to hand it to him; the man’s a genius. Knowing nothing about mixed martial arts (MMA) I couldn’t possibly attest to his skills in the octagon. I’m aware that he’s been in some bruising encounters and won all but a couple, and I’m aware that he’s brave, courageous and inordinately skilled in his field of expertise. But that’s about as far as it goes.
McGregor’s true genius, the thing which will soon make him one of the richest Irish sportspeople of all time, is not his ability to walk the walk, but his skill at talking the talk. His exploits in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), although considerable, have not led to this once-in-a-lifetime showdown with Floyd Mayweather. Those knockouts, those bloody battles, those dominant displays, aren’t the reason this fight is going ahead. This fight won’t even be contested in the ring, it will actually cease once the first bell rings. No, it will be conducted via series of interviews, press conferences and behind-the-scenes documentaries, places where McGregor excels, regardless of the sport.
Conor McGregor has made an art form out of self-promotion. Not since Muhammed Ali has an athlete courted the media with such dexterity. He has made it impossible not to have an opinion on him, imprinted his ugly mug, and his even uglier mouth, upon our psyches and demanded that we take note. And we have. His army of followers, and that’s what they are, an army, are among the most fervent, most passionate, band of supporters in any sport, in any country, and his army of haters, myself included, cannot wait to see him get humiliated by the only marginally less loathsome Mayweather.
But all this would have been for nought had McGregor not had the talent to back it up. MMA may be an emerging sport but McGregor is its standard-bearer, he has done for it what Katie Taylor has for women’s boxing. He is the UFC’s standout star, the best in the business, the number one fighter in the world. The pool of talent beneath him may be questionable, but becoming the best at anything, and especially something as violent as MMA, is laudable.
So, having conquered one sport, McGregor now sets his sights on another. Except he doesn’t really. I’m sure there are people reading this who believe he has a chance of beating Mayweather, but you’re wrong. This is a total mismatch, a farce, a joke, whatever you want to call it. And yet I, for one, will be glued to it on the night. I’ll be glued to the prolonged, interminable build-up too. And as I sit there, riled by his impudence, enraged by his bluster, I’ll doff my cap to the abominable Mr McGregor, as he talks his way to a $100million pay night.