IT WAS ANOTHER cracking week for sport snobbery as Conor McGregor was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people.
Fine words poured forth from abroad but by Ireland’s own reckoning, McGregor mostly remains a representative of a sport not worth talking about. You can’t help wondering about the reams of coverage and column inches that would have ensued had one of our rugby or football stars been given this recognition by Time.
Instead we have the situation where an elite Irish athlete consistently makes history in his field but the legitimacy of his sport is still questioned.
Undoubtedly, a lot of this is snobbery because MMA is still considered to be a mostly working class sport in Ireland. But can McGregor become a fully fledged national hero?
Writing in Time, Arnold Schwarzenegger gushes:
From the first time I met Conor, I knew he wasn’t the type of star you could box into one category. Since I’ve gotten to know him, I can tell you that what you see on the screen—the now familiar face of mixed martial arts—just scratches the surface. The Dublin native is razor-sharp, disciplined and charismatic. His energy is absolutely contagious, to the point where you almost start shouting in an Irish accent after 30 seconds of hearing that world-famous mouth.
MMA’s detractors dismiss the sport as barbaric brawling. John McCain called it “human cockfighting,” which might explain how it’s the world’s fastest growing spectator sport.
The reality is that MMA is a highly skilled sport with competitors generally trained in a number of disciplines from kickboxing and wrestling to boxing and jiujutsu. Each fighter will be well versed in all kinds of combat techniques and employ a fusion of these styles in order to win.
Victory can come via judges’ decision, submission, knockout or technical knockout. And the sport usually produces super high-octane excitement, lapped up by those in the packed out arenas it fills.
Backing up his boasts
Where do you start with McGregor? How do you begin to appreciate the impact he’s had on MMA? There probably isn’t another athlete today like the one-time plumber Conor McGregor. Here’s someone who can talk and talk, spouting outlandish boasts that he then backs up in the ring.
In Rio de Janeiro he declared:
I own this town, I own Rio de Janeiro, so for him to say that he is the king and I am the joker, if this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback, and would kill anyone who wasn’t fit to work, but we’re in a new time, so I’ll whoop his ass instead.
McGregor did just that. He stands out away from the ring too. In an age when even the world of sport often seems obsessed with image, the rough-and-ready McGregor looks like a PR man’s nightmare.
Single handedly changing the sport
“This sport is getting bigger all the time and I’m making it bigger,” he said two years ago. “The numbers are going up and up, the crowds, the ticket proceeds, the pay per view, it is all going to new levels and I am driving it there. I am the one they want to see. I am changing this sport.” He was right.
MMA has moved from minority to mainstream and participation has increased by 19.5% since 2013.
People have very set opinions of McGregor but one thing I think everyone can agree on, regardless of what you think of MMA, regardless of what you think of his approach, is he’s increasing interest in sport and that’s going to have a positive effect.
Just having more viewership is a positive thing for the sport of mixed martial arts. It’s a positive thing for the athletes and it’s a positive thing for other kinds of sport too.
McGregor is good for sport
His success has made mixed martial arts a viable outlet for children around Ireland. And we badly need to encourage more children to get active.
Whether we like MMA or not, and whether we like Conor McGregor or not, he is a world champion and one of Irish sport’s most recognisable faces.
Anyone who reaches the top of their profession warrants the rewards and the recognition. Few of us have the natural talent, athleticism and mental toughness to succeed in such a brutally competitive environment as MMA. But McGregor still has a tough fight if he wants to win over the home crowd.
Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist.