Like a lot of people, I watched Conor McGregor’s performance on the Late Late Show last Friday night week and I smiled. He’s quite the character the way he tells his story, talking up his sport and his place in it. After a lifetime dealing with monotone soccer players and inter-county stars who’ve been muzzled by paranoid managers, it was refreshing to watch a sportsman put on a bit of a performance during an interview. It was so obvious he was embracing the opportunity to promote himself rather than shying away from it. Of course, there was just one major problem.
At this point in his career, McGregor is the most overhyped athlete in the history of modern Irish sport. Never has one man garnered so much publicity out of so little. That was his second appearance on the country’s flagship talk show. What are RTE going to do if he ever achieves anything? Give him his own show. The cynicism might sound harsh but it’s worth pointing out that to this juncture McGregor has achieved much less than a whole lot of hurlers, footballers, soccer and rugby players. And a lot of them are never likely to be invited to sit across from Ryan Tubridy any time soon.
Yes, we know the first Irishman to make any waves in UFC (the fastest growing sport in the world etc) deserves some kudos. However, it’s also ridiculous for the media (RTE are not alone in this) to be swallowing every line McGregor feeds them. Just because he’s got the “Ain’t I pretty” Muhammad Ali-type schtick down pat doesn’t mean journalists and presenters need to avoid asking him serious questions. Entertaining as it is to listen to his overconfident spiel, it wouldn’t go amiss if people put what he’s done so far into some context. Because it really is very little.
After making his name in Cage Warriors, a minor league of the sport where he won ten and lost two bouts, McGregor moved to UFC last year. In his first outing in the big leagues, he defeated Marcus Brimage. It was an impressive knock-out even if Brimage isn’t in the top 50 in the featherweight division. Then, in his second bout, McGregor scored a unanimous decision over Max Holloway, another journeyman, currently languishing 100th in the rankings. Great to get the wins and all but that one independent set of rankings still doesn’t have McGregor in the top 20 in the world shows exactly how far he has left to climb. Not to mention it points up the question as to why the Irish media give him so much uncritical coverage.
It’s obvious here that the UFC, a body that has taken the promotion and selling of their product to a level envied by most sports, recognises this is a charismatic character. The accent works a charm, especially in America, and his love of the microphone ensures that there is a constant queue of journalists waiting to interview him. That Ireland is one of the few countries yet to have produced a genuine superstar in the sport hasn’t harmed McGregor’s chances of getting a shot at that big time either.
But, and it’s a big but, shouldn’t we just wait until he does something before we treat him like the second coming of Ali? It takes more than a sharp suit and an even sharper line in patter to make a champion. And, whisper it, but there are aficionados of the sport who believe McGregor is not all that he’s cracked up to be.
In the official account of his second UFC bout we were told how amazing it was that he hung on to win despite suffering a torn ACL in the contest. Quite an injury to overcome alright but seasoned watchers of the sport saw more in that bout than the rest of us. They saw Holloway (a rather green 21 year old) take McGregor’s best strikes and not even flinch. For a guy whose boxing prowess is meant to give him an advantage over opponents, it wasn’t a good sign that he couldn’t finish off the Hawaiian.
“There’s no doubting that McGregor has a front row seat on the UFC’s hype train thanks to his ultra-marketable heritage and personality,” wrote Mike Drahota on lowkickmma.com recently. “However, he’s called out virtually everyone in the stacked division while turning in a rather pedestrian performance against Holloway, at least compared to the hype he was carrying. That hype may have been impossible to live up to in some ways, but a finish would have at least kept it rolling quite substantially. Perhaps McGregor should own a victory over a Top-10 opponent before he anoints himself the next big thing in MMA. There’s nothing wrong with being confident, just like there’s nothing wrong with being pushed by the UFC. But when you fail to live up to the massive hype, a letdown can be imminent.”
“So I am just trying to jump in there and say to the guy look, you might be all that but you gotta prove it,” said Cole Miller, another featherweight rival, recently. “I’m right here, come and prove it to me. The UFC is trying to buy a country, to get all these fans in Ireland and they’ve got a good fighter in Conor McGregor, everybody is behind him so they’ve turned him into a show-pony.”
Difficult to argue with that.