An Academic Analysis of Conor McGregor's Trash Talk

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

In the context of mixed martial arts, Conor McGregor’s ability with words is unparalleled.  We said as much when we ranked him as our ultimate trash talker back in 2014. The sport has had other contenders: the rhythm and performance-related quips of Georges St-Pierre, the Chauncey Gardiner-esque wisdom of the Diaz brothers, the Howard Beale-ish rants of Chael Sonnen, and the subtle snarky genius of Joanna Jedrzejczyk, among few others, have all managed to amuse, delight, and vex fans and foes over the course of MMA’s history. But no other fighter has so consistently, eloquently, and quotably managed to entertain and eviscerate outside of the cage almost as well as he does inside of it.

Being the best mouth in MMA doesn’t necessarily mean that McGregor is a good talker in general, though. The greatest sports orators of all time have had a quality and clarity to their words that transcended their respective sports and resonated with audiences all over the world. People who have never watched a second of boxing can still recite Muhammad Ali’s “I make medicine sick.” People who will never care about pro wrestling can still smell what The Rock is cooking.

To find out if McGregor’s words have the potential for similar crossover success, I consulted three experts from the writing world—none of whom have any knowledge of MMA whatsoever—and asked them to analyze some of The Notorious’s most notorious quotes.

The Panel:

Rhiannon Don is an academic writing instructor and a person who knows virtually nothing about MMA.

Erik Missio is the editor of two national architectural/engineering magazines and regularly writes about the conversion of technology and parenting for CBC. He has a master’s degree in journalism. While wholly unfamiliar with MMA, he was raised on a steady diet of comic-book super-villain soliloquies and pro-wrestling heel promos.

Scott Sickles is a two-time Writers Guild of America Award winner, a three-time Emmy nominee, an accomplished playwright and theater producer, and, despite achieving a black belt in tae kwon do in his early adolescence, basically a big sissy. He knows nothing about Conor McGregor outside of what he's learned from these quotations and a somewhat jarring Google image search. He wants you to watch General Hospital.

Their Insight:

1. August 17, 2013- at the post-fight press conference for Shogun vs Sonnen, where McGregor won via decision, and was not impressed with his performance:

“I don’t care what anyone in my weight class thinks. I know what I can do. I know what I do in the gym day in day out. Another thing people are saying oh you got the three rounds in. I do 300 rounds a week. You can stick me in for 30 rounds out there. I wanted the finish. I’m looking to get paid here. we get looked after when we finish. This promotion wants finishes. And that’s what I’m looking for These custom-made suits aren't cheap. This solid gold pocket watch, three people died making this watch. I need to put people away. I need those big fights. I'm going to end up in debt pretty fast. So I’m looking to hurry it along and finish everyone. So that’s my thoughts on it.”

RD: My initial impression here is that he seems quite honest here, or, as Wreck-It Ralph says, his “passion bubbles very near the surface.” Also, why did people die making the watch? For that matter, why does he carry a pocket watch?

(There is a part of me that, before I watched the video, imagined this quotation in Kanye’s voice.)

EM: I admit ignorance about whether these words just flow out his mouth solely in the moment or if he wrote and practiced them in front of the hotel-room mirror the night before. If it’s the latter, then it could benefit from some concision—strike out a third and the point’s still made. If that’s ad-libbed, it’s really impressive, though. The suit/watch part is Ric Flair/the Rock level of trolling braggadocio excellence.

SS: If Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler and John Ford's How Green Was My Valley gave birth during a cage match, these words would be the nourishing placenta.

I do not say that disrespectfully.

In these remarks, McGreogor reveals an work ethic, training regime, and sense of showmanship along with an earnest desire to provide for his own basic needs—needs which could be viewed as luxuries but when you come from a hardscabble background, which is purely an assumption on my part because the Google image search only explained so much, the spoils of hard work, talent, and skill are hard-won. "Three people died making this watch!" They did not die in vain, sir! They did not die in vain!

2. September 27, 2014- after his win at UFC 178:

“I just find that a lot of mixed martial artists get into a rut coming out with that Thai boxing flat-footed style. Against a guy like me that’s in and out and light on his feet, the angles are different. It’s the old days, this is the new age. I wanted to come over to America and show the American public the new era of the Fighting Irish and I brought my whole country with me. If one of us goes to war, we all go to war.”

RD: One of the things that I like about this one is that he actually talks about why he’s successful in a way that has to do with skills rather than machismo. Well, at least for the first two sentences.

EM: He definitely has potential in political speaking. I like how he’s able to simultaneously (a) deride Thai boxing style, (b) point out his strengths, and (c) completely dismiss most of his opponents not only as inferior, but objectively, scientifically, factually outdated. He positions it that if you don’t support him, it means you’re just outmoded too. Also, bonus points for the cheap pop that lets him turn a fight into a unifying cause for Irish nationalism and the immigrant experience.

SS: In the surprisingly brilliant Broadway musical Legally Blonde, these wonderful lyrics are sung with appropriate gusto: "The Irish fear nothing and no one!/They keep fighting till everyone's dead!/I'm not sure where this metaphor's going/I just felt that it had to be said!"

Here McGregor teaches a complex history lesson through the lens of MMA: the evolution of East versus West relations and the different demands the world makes on the individual as new epochs evolve. He ties it all up quite beautifully by reloading a newfound sense of national pride that stands on the shoulders of Irish history and culture.

3. March 23, 2015- in which he discusses Jose Aldo in an interview promoting their UFC 189 title match:

“Fear has a strong stench and he is reeking of it. I simply see fear. […] I look, his eyes turn to glass. They do think it’s a joke and they think… he must have been looking at my career coming up and hearing the talk. “Oh, it’s all talk.” One KO. “No, it’s all hype.” Another KO. “He’s just a joke.” Another KO.”

RD: Excellent use of metaphor here, if a bit mixed.

EM: I really appreciate his promos seem to come from different places. The first was how he’s a bigshot that wins all the time to support a lavish lifestyle we can’t even imagine. But now we’re here, and he’s an underdog who continually defies people’s expectations. This guy is both David and Goliath.

SS: This is great analytical trash talking that combines the power of suggestion, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and resume sites like monster.com. I'm not sure he even enjoys instilling fear in his opponents or even being underestimated by them. He almost seems a little exasperated by those attitudes as though wondering why his greatness can't simply be taken as an empirical matter of fact.

4. Also March 23:

“It’s like in the jungle, one king gets old, he starts getting sloppy, he starts stagnating then a young gorilla comes up and kills him and takes everything he owns. That’s what is happening here.”

RD: Well, I teach writing, so I can’t speak to the biological/anthropological processes alluded to here, but it is a great image. It’s interesting that he sees himself as a gorilla, because that’s an image of brute strength, which contradicts how he’s described himself as a fighter in other quotations.

EM: I think this is literally exact dialogue from a Flash comic where Gorilla Grodd—a super-gorilla with incredible psionic powers—explains the basic paths of royal lineage amongst his culture. Both then and now, I don’t like the overall approach because it seems to suggest eventually another young gorilla will wrest control from McGregor once he eventually gets old.

SS: If Disney did Heart of Darkness with animated primates, this would be the pitch. I may steal it.

5. September 4, 2015- UFC “Go Big” press conference goading lightweight champion Raphael Dos Anjos:

“I can make you rich. I’ll change your bum life. When you sign to fight me, it’s a celebration. You ring back home, you ring your wife – baby, we’ve done it. We’re rich, baby. Conor McGregor made us rich. Break out the red panties.”

RD: Again, hard not imagine this in a Kanye voice.

EM: Contextually speaking, this is kind of funny. Also, I feel “Break out the red panties” could possibly achieve great things as a self-aware idiomatic expression.

SS: [first of all, the phrase "UFC "Go Big" press conference" reeks of Perfect Curve…]

A little crass, a little vulgar, and a spectacular example of great sportsmanship in a capitalist endeavor, McGregor acknowledges the benefits his victories have on his vanquished. It's as though he's giving his defeated opponents a little bonbon on their hotel pillows accompanied by an embossed card that reads "you're welcome!"

6. January 20, 2016- UFC 197 pre-sale press conference, on the current success of UFC PPVs/himself:

“It’s certainly the new normal for me. I hold every record in the game i am simply breaking my own records now at this stage. I am out on my own. I am in a league of my own. The game… the game is on its knees. The game must hold seminars every weekend to pay for their training costs and I’m out here rallying around California in a car that spits fire ,dressed like El Chapo with anacondas on my feet. So I am in a league of my own here ahead of everyone in the game by a country mile. I am finding it hard to even engage with anyone in the game because they are not on my level. Not one single individual in this company is on my level.”

RD: This quotation is my favorite out of all of them; McGregor clearly never met a metaphor (or simile) that he didn’t like, and this set of images is fantastically visual. He’s got flippin’ anacondas on his feet! The other thing that he does here that’s really effective is repetition. It’s very convincing.

EM: OK. This is fantastic, grade-A-plus, extinction-event-level trash-talk bravado. “Anacondas on my feet” is such a perfect line that I immediately Googled it to see if he came up with it or borrowed it from the best rap I’ve never heard. The whole paragraph is like a perfect song in that its core is so purely excellent, any terrible band in the world could cover it and the original spirit remains intact. (Mental exercise: imagine various famous people saying that paragraph while they are absurdly angry. It’s fun!)

Ultimately, I’m kind of glad I’ve never seen Conor (or, uh, anyone) fight because it could ruin my first impressions. I’ll just quietly assume he’s never lost a fight and never will; he’ll remain the immortal gorilla king, wearing anacondas on his feet.

SS: There's an elliptical quality to this diatribe that's rare outside of climactic soliloquies on a Shonda Rimes series, but it also perfectly captures the ennui one must experience when one is unquestionably superior than everyone else in their field. (This must've been what it was like for Michael Schumacher when he was winning race after race, year after year on the F1 circuit.) Even the trappings of success are a mere Band-Aid covering the open wounds left by the intrinsic inferiority of others. He could almost be jealous of his opponents whom, once they regain consciousness, get to run home to their loved ones, dump the money they got for receiving a sound trashing from him out onto the bed, and roll around in it. It is lonely at the top indeed!


Check out these related stories:

McGregor versus Diaz: The Science of Overcoming Size

How Diaz and McGregor Waged a War of Words

Nate Diaz and Surviving a Murk-Or-Get-Murked World