Conor McGregor: You Can’t Kill the King

Somewhere in the world an apprentice plumber hops out of the shower, having washed away the grime of a hard week’s work. Elsewhere, an aspiring fighter slings combinations into the worn leather of an old heavy bag, always finishing with a stiff left hook. A junior investment banker wows colleagues with embellished tales of his exploits in the white collar boxing ring, while a social media troll furiously thumbs “Who da f**k is dat guy!” into his phone for the hundredth time. They all have one thing in common…

…they see a little bit of themselves in Conor McGregor.

That the star of Conor McGregor has endured for so long, and through so much, should come as no surprise to anyone who paid even the meagerest amount of attention to his meteoric rise. They say that with fame, the more of it you have, the bigger the disconnect from the fan on the street. McGregor didn’t just have fans though; at the time of his signing with the UFC he led a cult and for the true believers, precious little has changed.

All Good Things…

The Helix in Dublin, a small theatre that held a couple of thousand MMA fans if everyone took a deep breath on entry, was quite literally packed to the rafters for McGregor’s 2012 Cage Warriors swansong. More to the point, so was the concourse. But it wasn’t just those milling around the bar and concession stands before bell time. The lobby and – despite a bitter winter chill – the forecourt outside, were teeming with revelers that’d made the trek from central Dublin on the off-chance of acquiring a spare ticket.

Eventually, long after the fights were underway, the remaining stragglers were forced to admit defeat and mooch off in the direction of Temple Bar in search of warmth, libations and New Year’s cheer. Yet as the festivities wore on into the early hours (and indeed in the weeks and months that followed), you couldn’t throw a stone in Dublin without hitting someone who claimed to have been at the McGregor fight.

And why not? The Conor McGregor of 2013 was the epitome of a ‘local boy done good’. A tough kid from the council estate, playing football, working on the tools, claiming social welfare without a pot to piss in; suddenly with the means to tell the social to “f**k off” and buy that very first three-piece suit. It likely cost him less than he spends on a single shirt these days, but at the time it was the aspirational nature of the act that mattered. If he could do it, so could anyone else.

With the sport’s popularity in the UK and Ireland at an all time high, McGregor found himself driving the bandwagon for an entire scene. After his fights McGregor would roar into the mic that the Irish weren’t there to make up the numbers. “We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over!!” wasn’t just a shout-out to his brothers-in-arms, it was the rallying cry for an army that would follow him all over the world, picking up numbers and momentum as it went.

To be a part of it was to be a part of a winning team.

…Must Come To An End

The older we get, the more we realise; there’s more to life than just winning, and the winning team aren’t necessarily always the good guys. There are many bleak chapters in McGregor’s tale and while there’s sometimes value in letting sleeping dogs lie, Conor’s is a story that isn’t complete without venturing into the darker corners of the tapestry.

From the relatively benign missteps of a young man partying excessively, to the numerous physical altercations with members of the public; McGregor is no stranger to blotting his copybook. Darker times came when the New York Times linked him to a sexual assault investigation in Ireland, although McGregor has always denied any involvement and no criminal charges were filed against him.

Closer to his metaphorical home of the UFC, the infamous ‘dolly’ incident began with McGregor and his crew flying out to Brooklyn to defend a teammate’s honor and ended in carnage. In the run up to his eventual in-cage confrontation with Khabib Nurmagomedov, McGregor either tip-toed or (depending on the sensitivity of your moral compass) crossed the line of what constituted ‘acceptable’ trash-talk.

If you assumed that Conor’s various misdeeds had left him out in the cold as the most hated man in MMA, you’d be gravely mistaken. Like all combat sports greats McGregor had always been polarising to a degree, but the juxtaposition of his terrible behaviour and incredible success caused a schism that served only to galvanise both the fans and the haters.

His extra curricular activities emboldened those sections of the MMA fandom that draw from the absolute worst of ‘LAD’ culture. While many groaned at yet another black eye for the sport inflicted by his actions in Brooklyn, many saw the ‘dolly incident’ as the ultimate display of loyalty and brotherhood.

Faithless Is He That Says Farewell When The Road Darkens”

That loyalty is a huge part of the McGregor story. One of the oldest tropes in combat sports is that of the fighter that makes it big, only to forget what – and more importantly who – got them to the dance. By McGregor’s side is the same woman that was there to embrace him backstage eight years ago in Dublin. At the drawing board stays John Kavanaugh, the same man that stewarded McGregor to twin titles in both Cage Warriors and the UFC. Owen Roddy, an SBGi original from the initial charge of Irish MMA, is ever-present in his corner. Phillip Sutcliffe, head coach at Crumlin Boxing Club and the first man to instruct McGregor in the ways of organised violence, remains a key part of the set up.

You could argue that those specific relationships are mutually beneficial, but then there’s the case of SBG Portarlington, one of many small businesses left hanging by a thread due to the impact of Coronavirus restrictions in 2020. When the financial strain became too much to bear and owner Philip Mulpeter – a long time friend and SBG teammate – was forced to announce the gym’s permanent closure, McGregor stepped in with a financial lifeline; saving the business, saving jobs and saving the kind of community hub that does for others what Crumlin Boxing Club once did for him.

Then there’s the 1m Euro of Personal Protective Equipment purchased for Irish hospitals at the start of the pandemic. Or the generous donations to his former boxing gym, local hospital and the football club where he played as a boy. Tales of McGregor’s altruism are hardly few and far between.

Whether you feel such gestures are truly those of a man with the desire to give something back to the people and places that made him, or merely attempts to seek some form of cosmic redress for past misdeeds, will largely depend on your own personal level of cynicism. Only McGregor knows for sure, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a bad word said about him by the kids pulling on their flashy new training kits, before taking to the refurbished pitch at Lourdes Celtic football club. Maybe that end result is what matters most with such gestures.

What matters next though is the small detail of an actual fist fight, as odd as it may seem to say, something easily overlooked through the cacophony of the McGregor machine.

Dustin Poirier is himself a former UFC champion (of sorts) on the comeback trail with a famed charitable streak, but that’s really where any similarities begin and end. While McGregor has remained largely dormant (in the Octagon, at least) for the past four years, it’s been a fighter’s life for Dustin. There have been no luxury yachts, no boxing superfights, no guaranteed eight-figure paydays or dripping bejeweled watches for The Diamond. Neither have there been any pub brawls, court cases or international scandals. So why then, does it still feel like it’s Dustin Poirier with the most to lose on Saturday night?

The answer is, of course, a simple one: Our unshakable loyalty to either loving or hating Conor McGregor. Whether he’s annihilating Eddie Alvarez, or getting crushed by Khabib, whether he’s handing out free drinks or cheap shots, the fervour never truly abates.

Porier, if his championship aspirations are to survive beyond Saturday, can’t afford another defeat, to McGregor of all people. But should Conor come up short? The Diaz fight is still there. Boxing is still there. After a quick ‘get-right’ fight in the Octagon, there will always be the Khabib rematch, or any number of manufactured squabbles that can be settled for the right price. And where McGregor is concerned, there will always be a right price.

The controversy isn’t going anywhere either. A civil suit related to the allegations reported by the New York Times was filed with the Irish courts this week. Yet once again, the kind of scandal that would sink the career of any other man in any other sport, has seen McGregor showered with condemnation and support in equal measure.

Love him or loathe him, for better or for worse…

…You Can’t Kill The King.

Written by Brad Wharton

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