Illustration by Stretch Thompson
Ireland has never boasted a sporting icon with such cultural resonance as Conor McGregor. Dana White revealed that 10 percent of the MGM Grand Garden Arena’s attendance was occupied by the Irishman’s support on Saturday night, and in the dead of night in the Emerald Isle, Irish of all ages tuned in to watch a sport that they didn’t know existed until 18 months ago.
For the American audience, McGregor represents what they believe to be a stereotypical Irishman. He doesn’t suffer fools or mince his words when he rattles on in his signature brogue. He can be charming, intimidating and poetic. Most importantly, however, he loves to fight.
His brazen introduction to his boss in Sweden, “60 Gs baby”, tattooed him into the consciousness of the most hardcore MMA fans and endeared him to the Irish public as videos from his Stockholm debut began to make the rounds on social media sites.
After his quick disposal of Dustin Poirier on Saturday night, one could only marvel at the effect the Dubliner had on his travelling support. Corner men Artem Lobov, Owen Roddy and his coach John Kavanagh stood beside one of the restaurants in the MGM grand after the post fight press conference before the chants of “There’s only one Conor McGregor” grew closer.
“The Notorious” had been taking some pictures with some fans that spotted him but the Irish gathering that had left the arena together numbered in their scores as they sang the ballad of their hero through the famous casino. When they spotted the Irish featherweight, it was carnage.
Decked out in their suits and bowties, some even had the regal beard and undercut hairstyle of the former Cage Warriors double weight world champion. They bore down on their hero in great numbers to the point where the Straight Blast Gym foursome had to almost retreat.
The spirit of the fans was magnificent and McGregor took as many quick pictures as he could before MGM security had to take him in the bowels of the casino for a much-needed break. The crowd’s enthusiastic pursuit of the Irishman was more of what you’d expect from adolescents at a One Direction concert, but eventually McGregor came out from area that security had brought him to, to eat dinner with his team as his army sang him through every mouthful from outside.
It’s the rag to riches story. It’s the fact that he has come from nothing to be one of the recognizable Irishmen in the world. Young, fearless and successful, the youth of the nation see him as a reflection of how they want the world to look at the Irish.
What was fame before Saturday night suddenly became superstardom on the back of his knockout win on his debut in the fight capital of the world.
GIF by Colson Knight
Despite the evident adoration that most of the Irish public have for McGregor he has not been without his critics, albeit a small minority, after Saturday night. Some are unimpressed by his performance, others question the potency of the shot that dropped Poirier and an even smaller number questioned the legitimacy of the contest: Did Dustin take a dive?
It seems that a lot of the critiques of Saturday’s KO win have come out of ignorance toward the sport. Perhaps they expect a big haymaker to close a contest rather than the precise connection that McGregor made behind the American’s ear. Such was his intent to hit that exact area that the SBG man spoke with referee Herb Dean at length about the rules regarding punches in that proximity just before he took to the Octagon.
The hazards of trading leather with four-ounce gloves seem to be unknown to his begrudgers who fail to see the triumph of their countryman’s scrapping of the fifth best featherweight in the world in less than two minutes. They scoff at McGregor’s killing blow, but the truth is they wouldn’t have even been watching the fights had he not been in action.
The naysayers are every bit as important to the McGregor hype train as the fans. The euphoria of the mass of Irish spectators is only strengthened by McGregor’s constant success in the face of a small cluster of doubters. They are part of the McGregor conversation and once they are talking it doesn’t really matter what they’re saying.
Everybody in Ireland is an expert on the sport now. Whether they are admiring or criticizing his work, they all have an opinion on the techniques, the words and the trajectory of the Dubliner.
“It just seems to happen after I fight these people,” said McGregor on the reaction he gets after his UFC wins in the lead up to the Poirier bout. “It is what it is, I’m sure it will happen again. The same people are going to call Poirier a bum after I put him away. It’s just the way some fans are, the way the sport is portrayed and it will always be the same.”
The youth of Ireland see something in McGregor that they have never taken from another one of their homegrown athletes. He has captured the attention of the nation. Every social media post he makes becomes a headline in the national tabloids and since his debut in Sweden the popularity of beards, bow ties and three piece suits have soared in the country.
Although it can be frustrating to die hard fans of the sport who have been watching closely after the last two decades, who know how legitimate McGregor’s skillset is—should the Dubliner eventually win the featherweight title do not expect silence from the other side of the fence.
They can dislike the man, the can disagree with his sentiments, they can even laugh at the way he dresses and carries himself, but what cannot be argued is his success.
McGregor is around for the long haul. He has been standout since the formative years of Irish MMA and his current 12 fight win streak would lead you to believe he is going nowhere quickly. Every time he fights the number of MMA fans double in Ireland and the people of the nation will continue to debate his exploits in and out of the Octagon, rightly or wrongly, until the day he hangs up his gloves.
“If one of us goes to war, we all go to war,” he roared in triumph with regard to the country after his hand was raised on Saturday night. How correct he was—in more ways than one.
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