Hulk Hogan is a genius. His pre-fight promos from the late 80s and early 90s are fire. He could rant for five minutes straight while maintaining a level of intensity I’d never seen from a human being. He’d go off on bizarre tangents, and though it may have taken him a while, he’d always find a way to bring it all together in the end. Compared to everything that surrounded them, I always found the actual matches boring.
I’ve always loved bravado and showmanship. Naturally, I was immediately fascinated with Conor McGregor upon his arrival on the international MMA scene. The two-division Cage Warriors champ came with a ton of hype, and acted like he’d been ready for the UFC. He was the great Irish hope with the perfect name and look and swagger. He viewed the fights he’d have to win before getting a title shot as mere formalities. He was born to wear the belt.
I couldn’t bring myself to watch one minute of VH1’s Hogan Knows Best, but friends told me the man with the largest arms in the world came off as a gentle and considerate family man. I’ve seen sit-down interviews with him where he’s reflective and self-deprecating. There are many different Hulk Hogans. I picture him after one of his longwinded rants, sitting backstage with a towel draped over his head, needing some Hulk-time.
In MMA it’s harder to discern the genuine from the hype, but fighters also put on and remove personas at their convenience. The best example is Chael Sonnen. Like the Hulkster, there are many Chaels and I love all of them. There’s analyst Chael, measured and articulate. There’s pre-fight Chael, outrageous, brilliant, hilarious, and then there’s post-fight Chael, humble and respectful, win or lose, just relieved the show is over for a while.
There seems to be only one Conor McGregor. He’s never not boiling over with confidence and love for martial arts. At post-fight press conferences, he appears ready to fight again that night. Often, fighters’ trash talk comes off as forced, particularly when they are not expected to win, like they’re trying to convince themselves they have a chance, like if they can convince others of their greatness, it must be real. But once they step into the Octagon, they seem to deflate under the bright lights. McGregor just becomes a more intense version of himself, annoyed that the opponent had the audacity to sign a contract to fight him.
The UFC has been criticized for its special treatment of McGregor. In only his second fight in the organization, he was given the blackout treatment for his walkout, a ritual usually reserved for champs. But it was Boston, and the energy was incredible. The UFC is a business, and McGregor happens to be more marketable than most fighters. The big bosses have pushed him as a star, but they can’t be accused of protecting him. His debut was Marcus Brimage, a guy on a three-fight win streak, and for his homecoming in Dublin this Saturday, they’ve given him Diego Brandao, a BJJ blackbelt with real knockout power.
He’s basking in the sudden media attention, but it has been put on him as much as he’s asked for it. He talks a lot, but he gets asked a lot more questions than other fighters. I think he just answers honestly. He just says out loud what has been on loop in his head going back to when he was scraping by on government benefit. He’s been the subject of documentaries by MTV UK and Irish media giant, RTE. I bet most fighters would jump at the chance to be featured in a documentary about their life.
What really comes through in all of the content recently put out on him is his relentless obsession with the sport of mixed-martial arts. He’s not just a good athlete using MMA as a means for money and fame. He claims to think of nothing but combat. Hearing him talking about it, it almost sounds painful like he’s driven by something out of his control that never turns off. His sleep is constantly disrupted by new ideas for moves popping into his head. Marks and cracks cover his bedroom walls from him side-kicking them over and over. No one will ever say of him, “Who knows how far he could’ve gone if he’d just stayed focused.” This is at the root of his self-belief, knowing that regardless of his opponent, he will be the more prepared man.
After a win, he doesn’t appear relieved or surprised. It is only the fulfillment of what he visualized and expected to happen. He’s already seen the fight a thousand times in his head. After dominating Max Holloway for three rounds despite blowing out his knee midway through the second, he was apologetic for not being able to finish him for the rabid, Irish-flag waving fans in Boston. I think he’s sincere. I think when he sees Dustin Poirier, Cub Swanson, Jose Aldo, or any other 145er between him and the belt, he sees a victim-in-waiting. I believe he would fight Jose Aldo on a moment’s notice. He believes it is his destiny, and he’s not a patient man.
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