Every decent story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The great ones are filled with twists, turns and unexpected segues. The true epics though, they’re the ones that keep you guessing until the very last chapter and always leave you thirsting for more. The story of Conor McGregor was supposed to be the greatest MMA tale of our time, perhaps of all time. The beginning was compelling, nobody saw what was to come in the middle and as for the end? On Saturday night we’ll find out if it has already been written, or if there is still time for a few extra chapters; a redemption arc for the Champion of Tomorrow.
In 1986, legendary comic book writer Alan Moore penned ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’, arguably the greatest Superman story ever told. Set in the future, ten years since the last known sighting of the Man of Steel, it sees Lois Lane recounting his final adventures, trials and tragedies as a hero, before he seemingly vanished into thin air.
Conor McGregor had at one time appeared to be Mixed Martial Art’s Champion of Tomorrow. His was the unlikely story of a man from an unlikely background (at least as far as UFC champions go), who reshaped the MMA world in his image. We laughed when he was arrogant enough to predict that he’d hold two Cage Warriors titles and we roared when he envisioned the same in the UFC. We rolled our eyes when he spoke of multi-million dollar pay days or assured us that he’d box Floyd Mayweather for millions of dollars.
Conor’s story (inside the cage, at least) is one of defiance. He walked into the sport with a decent set of hands, a willingness to learn and a savage single-minded determination to change his life. Following the requisite early hiccups, he endured and improved. The apprentice plumber from Crumlin became a cult hero in the cage, building a following that practically forced the UFC to sign him in 2014. The scales were already tipped in his favour and with every spectacular victory that followed, we witnessed the evolution of a truly unique individual.
Whether it was natural aptitude for organised violence, the team around him, that unquantifiable X-factor or a combination of the above, McGregor had it. He ran roughshod through the UFC, both in the cage and at the negotiating table, with the blip against Nate Diaz barely registering with regards to either. With a belt over each shoulder and the skulls of his enemies at his feet, he apologised to absolutely nobody and ascended to a hitherto unattainable echelon of the combat sports’ stratosphere.
Unfortunately, like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun.
It’s fair to say that when things began to unravel for Conor McGregor, it was not a slow or pleasant process. It was inevitable, some surmised, that a combination of fame, success and millions of dollars would bring out the absolute worst in any of us… let alone a cage fighter from a rough and ready suburb of Dublin.
Before long the victories, the championships and the charitable deeds were forgotten. The Cinderella story began to fade from view as the McGregor Express crashed onward through a series of public relations disasters, always seemingly moments away from coming completely off the rails. A polarising figure on his best day (all the greatest prizefighters are), McGregor’s detractors suddenly found themselves with plentiful ammunition in the online war for moral superiority.
The UFC were hardly an innocent party to the chaos. The promotion have fined, suspended and excommunicated people for lesser indiscretions than McGregor’s. With the peak of Conor’s popularity coming just months after their $4.2bn sale to Endeavour and with bankable stars like Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar and Georges St Pierre away from active duty, the UFC’s eggs were firmly in the Irishman’s basket. It’s laughable to suggest that had the tables been turned and it was a McGregor fight that had been cancelled due to an errant dolly thrown at his bus, that the perpetrator would have been afforded the same ‘hands off’ approach that the UFC took with their prize asset.
In January 2019 things took a considerably darker turn when – following weeks of speculation – the New York Times named McGregor as the ‘Irish sports star’ that had been questioned following allegations of sexual assault. While his management have strenuously denied any impropriety along those lines, strict privacy laws in Ireland continue to prevent further meaningful comment on the matter.
It could be what defines his career or it could amount to nothing, but it’s hardly the only stain on McGregor’s ledger. The bus incident, punching an old boy in the pub, smashing a fan’s phone… there’s a cumulative impact. No matter how big or small the brush strokes, the finished picture is not a pretty one. When you factor in the famously short collective memory of MMA fans when it comes to in-cage accomplishments, a McGregor that isn’t winning is a McGregor that isn’t delivering on expectations.
Simply put, the Champion of Tomorrow, the unbeatable man who was supposed to lead a renewed charge into the mainstream, who was supposed to kick-start a movement for the better treatment of fighters, who was supposed to be the talisman for an entire sport… the Conor McGregor of right now isn’t that man.
Something has to change.
In ten years from now Conor McGregor will be close to 42 years old and almost certainly retired from competitive fighting. It’s impossible to say what will become of the man once heralded as the Champion of Tomorrow, but this weekend will be a huge step in whatever direction his story takes. There is still time for McGregor to change the narrative, to be remembered as ‘The Notorious’ for more good reasons than bad.
In the most practical of terms, his first task is beating something of a glass cannon in Donald Cerrone. ‘Cowboy’ is undoubtedly among the most dangerous men on the planet around his weight, but he is hittable, hurtable and ultimately very beatable for a man with McGregor’s tools. We know that McGregor can win fights, the biggest question might be whether or not he can win favour.
This week’s press conference was a solid start. The foul-mouthed, belt-snatching, arrogant, push-a-glass-of-booze-into-a-devout-Muslim’s-face McGregor was nowhere to be seen. Instead we saw a more placid, humble and grateful McGregor, one much more akin to the chirpy kid that gleefully told us how his $60,000 UFC debut bonus would allow him to finally tell the social services to “f**k off!”.
There are, of course, justifiable moral concerns with the UFC’s decision to promote McGregor in the current climate. Even if you believe in the concept of innocent until proven guilty, there’s an argument that basic humanity should override the laws of man in such situations as these and that the UFC should let any potential pending legal scenarios play out before booking, promoting and paying the former champion millions of dollars. It’s a strong argument. There’s an equally strong argument for an innocent man to be allowed to live as such, especially one with a limited time in which to earn a living in his chosen field, regardless of his current financial status.
The conclusion of ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ revealed that Superman had been alive all along, stepping away from the spotlight in order to focus on his friends, family and other more myopic topics. It was a happy ending for The Man of Steel, or rather Clarke Kent and his family. McGregor also has a family and a legion of fans; unfortunately for them, he can’t slick back his hair and put on a pair of glasses to go under the radar.
Like Superman, The Notorious has the potential to be remembered as a hero. Unlike Clarke Kent, Conor McGregor has no secret identity to hide behind. There are no capes, there are no masks.
If Conor McGregor wants to direct the final scenes of his own story as a fighter and a human being, then it’s time to act like a hero… both in the cage and outside of it.
By Brad Wharton