Before I even write this article I can already imagine some of the comments and reaction that will follow.
“I’ve been watching UFC since the first Ultimate Fighter.”
“I was watching UFC long before McGregor came along.”
“What are you talking about? We support all the Irish fighters!”
Ireland has some of the best fans in world sport. That’s a fact. Wherever the Boys In Green go, a small army of fans are sure to follow, and while Irish UFC fans will openly and willingly get behind any Irish UFC fighter, there’s one man in particular that peaks the Irish public’s interest more than any other fighter, maybe more than any other Irish athlete for that matter, and that’s Conor McGregor.
If you click on the ‘MMA/UFC’ tab at the top of this website, you’re able to see just how many views every single MMA article has. Even if you just scroll through the first page, you’ll see just how many more views McGregor articles have compared to any other fighter’s – it’s a landslide in favour of the Dubliner.
The ‘Notorious’ is the UFC’s cash-king but he’s also brought a lot more casual eyes to the sport of MMA. He’s a one-man media circus and in a sport that relies heavily on self promotion, nobody has done a better job at creating and pushing their own brand.
No other Irish fighter has come remotely close to achieving what McGregor has done in the octagon and maybe I’ve answered my own question in this very sentence. Maybe that’s why we’re so invested in him as a collective of sports fans – because he’s achieving something on such a level that we’ve seen from very few Irish athletes.
In terms of relative sporting success, McGregor is right up there with the Paul O’Connells, Brian O’Driscolls, Katie Taylors and Roy Keanes as one of Ireland’s biggest and most successful sporting exports. McGregor has arguably achieved as much in his own sport as any of the aforementioned did in theirs.
We are a nation that is not accustomed to achieving high-end international sporting success, so when one of our own competes and wins at the elite level in international sport, we really do cherish it.
Ireland’s rugby Grand Slam win in 2009, Taylor’s gold medal win in 2012, Ireland’s 1-0 win over Germany last year to keep the country’s Euro 2016 hopes alive. These are just some of our biggest sporting achievements over the last few years and McGregor’s 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo at UFC 194 ranks right up there with them.
But there is clearly more to McGregor than just what he’s achieved in the octagon. The obvious attraction with McGregor is the image and the bravado. The three-piece tailored suits, the gold-encrusted Rolex watches, the sunglasses indoors, the luxury car collection, and the relentless verbal warfare with opponents.
He’s a character we’ve never seen at the highest levels of MMA and it’s why he’s an international star and not just a domestic success. He’s polarising, he divides opinion, and whether you want to pay to see him win or pay to see him lose, you’re still paying to watch him fight.
Irish fans seem to have a different connection to him though. Even if McGregor was an English or American fighter, there’s a sense that we’d be watching him anyway given just how entertaining his fights are and all the hooplah that surrounds his bouts.
There’s a sense that you can relate to McGregor, in the fact that you know the type of people where he’s from, that you can see the Crumlin kid come out in him from time to time, that we too would probably be driving around Los Angeles in BMW i8 cars if we had the means to do so. There’s a familiarity there.
He’s also refreshing in the sense that he differs to the traditional Irish athlete who is amicable, gracious and grateful to be there. His brashness and confidence has struck a chord with a certain sections of Irish society that has really bought into what he’s trying to achieve and how he’s trying to achieve it.
They also support what Neil Seery, Gunnar Nelson and Aisling Daly are trying to do, they’re just not as interested in their climbs, and that’s nothing against those fighters or what they are trying to do in their careers, that’s just to do with McGregor’s pull with fans and the numbers that are invested in his journey.
It’s a bit like football in Ireland. It’s the most popular sport in the country, at least by playing numbers, yet the League Of Ireland trails the Pro 12 and GAA dramatically in terms of public interest.
Recent figures show that the average attendance for a League Of Ireland game is just over 1,000 spectators. However, when a League Of Ireland club is on the verge of qualifying for the Champions League that attendance jumps up to 30,000 spectators.
It’s the same team with the same players but when an opportunity arises for that team to do something unprecedented, the public interest spikes dramatically.
It’s the same with McGregor. He was dominating in Cage Warriors before arriving in the UFC but the UFC’s increased exposure and publicity helped McGregor’s star explode.
The levels of support we show for an individual fighter can vary dramatically, for a number of reasons, but with Conor McGregor, while there’s the obvious reasons for his following, there are also deeper factors in his rise and they dig a lot deeper than brashness, bravado and BMWs.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena