It started with a cult following before descending into global superstardom. Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to ignore him.
Conor McGregor transcended a sport that was already growing at warp speed and he did it like no other before him.
His crossing into the mainstream of popular culture was so meteoric that it has become hard to identify with a man whose popularity rose for the very reason that we could all identify with him.
There are levels of fame and in terms of Ireland, McGregor’s is on a par with Bono’s. It’s got to the point where he’s no longer really one of us.
That’s how famous he is.
He’s made a ton of bad decisions along the way but as is so often the case, that doesn’t really seem to matter.
There was a clear sea change inside the 3Arena last Friday night as McGregor made his first public appearance since video footage emerged of him punching an elderly man in a Dublin pub.
You knew he was in the building before you’d seen him such was the uptick in energy. Hordes of fans (mostly kids) flocked to the front row to catch a glimpse of McGregor as he circled the arena signing autographs, taking selfies, kissing babies, doing whatever it is a global superstar does.
As he took his seat, or rather, position, it became clear there was to be no repeat of the antics that saw McGregor’s relationship with Irish people begin to sour. It was at Bellator 187 when he leapt into the cage and proceeded to verbally attack the referee before throwing a petulant slap at an event staff member trying to defuse the situation.
No no, not this time. This time the ‘champ champ’ stayed within the realms of the real world. He opted for bottled water rather than his own brand of Irish whiskey and maintained a respectable behaviour throughout.
He knew all eyes were on him!
The event may have been marketed as ‘The Jimmy Show’ after headline act James Gallagher, but once McGregor showed up, whether intentional or not, it became ‘McGregormania’.
As a self-confessed casual fan, once the Dubliner arrived it was difficult not to get swept away in his presence and forget the night was about the plethora of talented Irish fighters on show, many of whom friends of his.
The event finished shortly after midnight, meaning it was the wee hours of the morning by the time media duties wrapped up. The late-night, coupled with the crowd’s intensity and a booming speaker close-by meant that sleep was an impossibility.
At 4 am, a YouTube rabbit hole bounced in the direction of McGregor’s first-ever interview with Ariel Helwani. The interview took place six and a half years ago, February of 2013, five weeks out from his UFC debut. It was shortly before McGregor endeared himself to fans by shouting, “Dana! 60 Gs baby!” after winning side 67 seconds.
What struck this wide-eyed, coffee-induced casual was the genius of Conor McGregor.
Hear me out… Rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, it’s clear that McGregor had one goal from the start and he knew how he was going to achieve it. He knew where he was headed and how he was going to get there.
Sure, athletic ability and a left-hand capable of dropping a silverback helped, but upon reflection, it’s weird how the moniker ‘Mystic Mac’ can be seen in action before the Crumlin native was famous outside the confines of Irish MMA.
The interview began with Helwani pandering to McGregor claiming his DM’s had blown up with requests to have ‘@NotoriousMMA’ on his show.
As soon as he starts talking it’s easy to see why McGregor’s star rose so quickly. But what is truly remarkable is how he literally turned his words into action.
“Each fight it just seems to be growing and growing, but it’s only the beginning,” began McGregor
“You know what I mean? This is only the beginning, I am here to take over. I’m not here to shake no-ones hand. I’m not here to be the token Irish guy in there. I’m in there to get in and win.”
“That’s it and I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to showing the people of Ireland what a true martial artist is. Show them the world of UFC and MMA and a martial artist that some of them have never seen before.”
“I’m hoping to drag them back to Ireland, do you know what I mean? Drag them by the scruff of the neck back and get a show going because I have some teammates in the gym that are ready to go as well.
“It’s not just me, there’s a whole load of motherfuckers behind me waiting to go and I’m going to kick in the door and that’s it. I’m just going to kick in the door and drag them back to Ireland.”
It was strong, it was powerful and it was all true!
With one-liners like “we’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over”, and “if one of us goes to war, we all go to war”, McGregor navigated his own meteoric rise with bold predictions that he turned into actions. He was also conscious to use his nationality as a marketing tool. A sprinkle of genius to complement a world-class skillset.
However, with each passing controversy, more and more jumped off the bandwagon. He’s still on another level of fame and popularity, but there’s no doubting many have turned their backs on the Dubliner.
With a list of indiscretions as long as McGregor’s it’s no wonder many decided to shun the country’s most famous person.
But don’t ever say he didn’t warn you!
As that now-infamous interview with Helwani continued, the current ESPN journalist asked McGregor how he acquired a nickname such as ‘Notorious’. His response reads like a prediction of what has since happened since his career took off both inside and outside the Octagon.
“Me (sic) coach came up with that because sometimes I might get into a bit of trouble. I don’t know, just because I am notorious.”
“Just over the years, I’m notorious, I’ve been in and out of trouble. I’ve been with my coach John Kavanagh for a long time. We’ve had some ups, we’ve had some downs.
“This and that but he stuck with me and he believed in me so that’s basically where the name came from. Just getting into trouble and drifting off and doing other things and then coming back.”
Again, it was poignant, it was honest and it was true!
McGregor has certainly got himself into trouble and between the MMA, the boxing and the whiskey he’s drifted in and out of differing worlds creating a reputation as well as an aura that ensures all eyes are on him.
He probably didn’t wish for that to happen, but it’s unavoidable when you achieve fame to that degree. It may be harsh to say, but he used Ireland as a tool to propel himself into this position. He probably loves his country, but that’s what he did and it was a stroke of genius.
Given Ireland’s lovable reputation, notoriously fun-loving fan base and the wrath of Irish-American’s who love to identify with the green, white and gold it was a perfect storm too good to turn away. McGregor’s fame came as a result of marketing and he was plotting it from the off.
The only problem is that the more his star rose, the more he became detached from Ireland and its people. Just like Bono.
If you’re hoping for McGregor’s star to eventually burn out, that’s just wishful thinking. While his next move is vital at this juncture in his life, no matter what the Dubliner does, whether it’s in the Octagon or a Dublin boozer his fame is permanently etched into the annals of popular culture.
His relationship with the Irish people looks beyond repair but he’ll always be a star.
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