By Dylan Cross and Conor Spielberg
There was a time in Ireland when it felt like Conor McGregor could do no wrong. Coming into the spotlight in 2015, he was confident to the point of arrogance, outspoken to the point of being obnoxious and all with a charm and self-awareness that made him impossible to ignore. In the year-long wait between his scheduled fight with Jose Aldo for the featherweight championship, McGregor sold himself as brash, young, and hungry; with a flair for trash talk and showmanship akin to Muhammad Ali. After almost ten months of being the promising challenger of a man who was at the time considered the pound for pound number one of the UFC; Conor McGregor finished Jose Aldo inside thirteen seconds.
In 2020, McGregor is arguably the world’s most famous athlete, and if that was in any doubt he’ll certainly tell you that he is amongst the best paid. Despite this, his reputation has suffered serious damage this past year that may well be irreversible. In 2019 alone, he was arrested in Miami, Florida for strong-armed robbery and criminal mischief after smashing a fan’s cell phone in March. Following this, McGregor faced further controversy as he had an altercation with an elderly man in a pub in Dublin which was released to the public by TMZ in August. He has also been facing an ongoing sexual assault case in Ireland with two reports published in the New York Times. With all of this looming in the near past Conor has committed to having three fights in 2020, equating it to “a season.” It is clear that McGregor is trying to prove a point with this “Season” but the key questions are: what is he trying to prove and who is he trying to prove it to? In an interview with Ariel Helwani on ESPN, Conor stated that this mission was a matter of “Redemption, retribution, and respect” when he referred to his long-awaited return to the UFC. I would argue it is all of these things, but above all, it seems to be about reputation.
When discussing the reputation of “The Notorious One” there are two very clear distinctions amongst his fan base. His American/International fan base seems relatively unphased by this past year. Yes, he is controversial but few athletes aren’t these days. Professional fighters, in particular, are more likely to evoke controversy than not when they become famous enough to be discussed adjacent to their sport. McGregor’s Irish fanbase, on the other hand, has a much more complicated relationship than him merely being a successful professional athlete. He was an Irish professional athlete. An Irish professional athlete from a working-class background in Crumlin. In a country where Olympic Silver medallist Kenny Egan received a hero’s welcome from Beijing in 2008, Conor McGregor was an unmatched talent in one of the fastest-growing sports of the past decade whose fame transcended the sport he took part in for the Irish public. He became one of the biggest sports celebrities in Irish history representing the Dublin working-class community on an international stage and staring in a six-episode documentary called “The Notorious” on RTE which proved there was an interest in him beyond what he could do in the octagon for the Irish public. Recently, much of the Irish public are reading exclusively about McGregor in tabloids – which in many cases does not paint him in a positive light. The question is then, can Conor McGregor restore his reputation with his more diverse and less forgiving Irish audience?
Because Ireland’s relationship and interest in Conor McGregor is dictated more by the fact that he is Irish than to the fact that he is a professional fighter, the Irish public sees Conor McGregor in two very distinct ways. There are those who watched his ascent to superstardom as fans of the UFC, those who were introduced to MMA through McGregor’s antics, and maybe even took up the sport because McGregor was a genuine inspiration to them. Then there are those who only saw him for his antics, as broadcasted by more critical news outlets and tabloid papers who have a tendency to become more and more critical as a celebrity spends more time in the spotlight. People in Ireland who have little to no interest in the UFC have been exposed to his worst behaviour and little else.
There are some who may argue that McGregor doesn’t deserve our scorn and disdain that he is undergoing right now. That he is nothing more or nothing less than a fighter. I believe that the biggest opponent of this line of thinking would be McGregor himself. In an interview with Ariel Helwani in August 2019, Mcgregor said: “I want to be a better father, a better human, a better role model to these kids.” To his credit, he hasn’t shirked his responsibilities. All the self-aggrandising and the importance put on his image did not evaporate when they were to his detriment. He spoke of “redemption, retribution, and respect”, showing a determination to make these aspects of his public image once again be seen as a positive.
Yet he seems to be seeking these things inside the ring despite his reputation suffering for what he has done outside of it. By intending to take on three fights in one year, after a lengthily time away from competing at the highest level, he is displaying a fresh mindset which is both ambitious and risky. In an attempt to shield himself from the troubles he faces outside of the fight game, he seems to be insulating himself within the realm of something he knows and is good at, focusing on the internal and ignoring the external. For many fans, this will be enough to restore his reputation as a fighter should he succeed. But for the majority of the Irish public, who are at times his most devout and his most critical fans, it will be what he does outside the ring that will restore his reputation.