Conor McGregor. INPHO/DEREK HOGAN
Sports Opinion / By Dave Hannigan
Someone put a picture on social media the other week, showing rows of empty chairs onto which had been stapled the photographs of dead men and women. There were dozens of them and they were all journalists killed by the regime of Vladimir Putin over the past decade and a half. I’m not sure whether I saw that disturbing image before or after Conor McGregor started posting that Putin was one of the “greatest leaders of our time”, and a man whom he was honored to meet in Moscow. The timing doesn’t matter. The ignorance does.
Nobody in their right mind expects athletes to be rocket scientists. We shouldn’t look on them as role models for our children either, because, apart from all the other reasons this is wrong, it’s our own job to mess up our kids. However, what we can expect and demand from the superstars is a modicum of decency and awareness about the wider world. Everybody who contributed to the successful running of the World Cup this summer is complicit in some way to legitimizing the Putin regime. A stranger tuning in to that event might think Russia was a functioning democracy with a properly elected leader and all that. And nobody is too stupid to believe that, well, aside from maybe one guy who lives in a house on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Of course, the rest of us know better about Putin and the Russian government. Anybody with a pulse is aware of that, so, unless he has taken one too many blows to the head in the octagon, McGregor knows that too. Again and again, we have been told by his followers that the man from Crumlin is a marketing genius, a streetwise character who can’t be duped and has made the whole world bend to his will.
Well, if he’s that wise, he can’t claim not to know Putin is one of the most reprehensible characters on the world stage, a man whose true crimes will probably only emerge decades from now. Then again, given that McGregor once tweeted a photograph of himself reading a newspaper upside down on his private jet, maybe he can claim to be the last sentient being on earth not to realize what a dastardly individual the former head of the KGB really is.
Nevertheless, there are clowns out there who will claim McGregor is entitled to meet Putin because, after all, Donald Trump had a summit with him. Aside from the fact that when you are comparing yourself to the embattled and increasingly embarrassing 45th president these days, you are already losing, heads of state do have a duty to meet other heads of state. Under any and all circumstances. Josef Stalin may have been the worst dictator in modern history but there are plenty of pictures of him and Churchill yukkking it up.
The McGregor thing is different. As his legion of apologists inform us when questions are asked about when he’ll fight again, he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do, especially with the amount of money he’s purported to have earned from his farce with Floyd Mayweather last summer. Which begs the question, why would he want to hang out with a thug in Moscow?
Well, since it’s now going on two years since he fought in UFC and he recently turned 30, we can only assume the Dubliner is just a full-time celebrity/product endorser these days and this was a business decision to do with the Russian market.
Because, he is, to use the most awful word in the modern lexicon, an influencer. Despite coming out with some homophobia and racism in his public comments, and sheer thuggery (shattering the windows of a bus full of people etc), there are many young men and women around the world who look up to him because he has got very rich very quick and they’ve enjoyed watching him on that ride.
With that kind of adulation though comes a certain responsibility. The least of it is that you don’t become the consort of evil dictators. You don’t allow yourself become a high-profile prop for Putin or any other war criminal, for that matter. The danger when you point this out, the danger when you say anything about McGregor these days, is that you are accused of being a snob. His working-class roots apparently insulate him against any criticism from the media.
This is nothing to do with class. He was wrong to hang with the Russian the same way that the golfer Rory Mcllroy was wrong to play a round with Trump last year. Every time an athlete poses for a photograph with one of these awful people in power, they are putting themselves on the wrong side of history. Not somewhere they should ever want to be.