Conor McGregor taking a selfie with fans at a recent event at the National Stadium in Dublin.
By Dave Hannigan
You probably won’t have heard of Chris Weidman. He became the UFC Middleweight champion back in 2013, and held the title up until last week. For two years, he was the boss of that division and ranked by independent judges as one of the best pound for pound fighters in the sport. I heard Weidman’s name for the first time 10 days ago. He was featured in an item on our local news here on Long Island. That evening, I also discovered that he’s a native of Baldwin just up the road, went to school and wrestled at Hofstra University and still lives in these parts.
Now, Long Island has about four million people on it, roughly the same size as Ireland. Which made slightly perplexed. After all, I didn’t see any Long Islanders losing their collective minds about Weidman the same way so many Irish people are losing theirs’ about Conor McGregor. Why is that I wonder? What is wrong with us as a people that we must exaggerate the significance of every sporting event where one of our own does anything? Weidman, I’m assured by locals, is a minor celebrity on the island. McGregor is about to get a civic reception for his homecoming in Dublin and all manner of other national accolades.
In the history of Irish sport, it’s difficult to find anything to match the sustained hyperbole surrounding McGregor. Back in the mid-1990s, a Dublin tabloid once ran an item comparing David Connolly (who’d just scored a hat-trick against Liechtenstein) to Ronaldo (the Brazillian one). Oh how we guffawed. It was ludicrous and everybody laughed at the madness of it all. What we have with McGregor is a sustained version of that special brand of insanity. Perspective and context have been flung out the window as the media have bought into the mythologizing of those involved in the (admittedly) best-marketed sport in the world.
Observing it all over the past while, I kept trying to figure out the demographic that has been sucked into this vortex. There’s been a lot of guff written about how it’s a working-class fan base and that the snobbish media are looking down their nose at his supporters because of that. Utter rubbish. McGregor is drawing people in from every class and every walk of life. Even those of us who believe him and his sport to be a very large charade can see that much. So, after some thought and research, we finally happened upon an explanation for why so many people believe in it.
The epiphany came to me when flicking through the channels on a recent Monday. I happened upon the WWE wrestling and stopped when I saw the gurning face of another Dubliner – Sheamus. I don’t know if Sheamus is his real name but I do know that the bearded character is a bit of a big deal in that particular demi-monde. Indeed, it struck me that since he holds some sort of belt or other, it might behoove us to ask if he’s getting a civic reception soon too. Not to mention either that he should be on RTE’s shortlist for sports personality of the year as well. After all, if McGregor is getting this type of kudos, so should he.
The sight of Sheamus doing his thing, hamming it up for the cameras, pretending to be fierce and promising to visit all manner of violence upon some other competitor made me realize something about UFC. The fans of UFC are the boys who grew up watching WWE. The ones who for the longest time believed Wrestlemania and events of that ilk were sporting events rather than scripted entertainment. As impressionable young kids they thought the Rock and John Cena and Triple H were athletes not actors and that the conclusion of every contest was not preordained by scriptwriters strictly adhering to a heel and hero format.
At Christmas, their parents bought these boys figurines of these wrestlers with lots of other paraphernalia such as toy wrestling rings, and chairs and tables for the little men to crash through. They spent many happy hours in their childhoods recreating “matches” they watched on television. Now that they are all growed up, they miss that stuff so much that they are willing to pay $60 to watch UFC matches the results of which are, to anybody who’s paying attention, almost always foregone conclusions.
On Irish radio last week, I pointed out that McGregor would defeat Jose Aldo because UFC couldn’t afford for him not to. They have invested hugely in propagating the legend of the Dubliner and would take a massive hit if he could no longer boast an unbeaten record and be sold as “the greatest ever” etc….Aldo was a great fighter but was utterly useless in terms of promoting the sport to a wider audience. A Brazilian who only speaks Portuguese isn’t much good to people who want their main men and women yukking it up on the late night talk show circuit in America.
Nobody can match McGregor with a microphone in his hand so nobody will be allowed to match him in the ring. For now, he’s the golden goose and will be protected at all costs. Anybody not understanding how preordained the whole business is need only listen to what happened in the immediate aftermath of the “shock” victory over Aldo. Within hours, the UFC’s Dana White (to the boys who used to mess around with wrestlers he’s the new Vince McMahon) was talking about McGregor moving up to lightweight to take on Rafael dos Anjos.
That would the same dos Anjos who is utterly useless with a microphone in his hand, whose broken English is never going to hack it on American mainstream television. Imagine if that fight comes off. How gullible would you have to be to believe that anybody but McGregor will win that contest? Gullible enough, perhaps, to have once believed the WWE was not a steroid-addled pantomime.