The fight game has been good to Conor McGregor; it’s made him a multi-millionaire and a transcendent cultural figure in the social media age.
His earnings have skyrocketed from a $76,000 purse on his UFC debut in 2013 to the $30 million he pocketed after losing to Floyd Mayweather in September. That’s a 39,500 per cent increase in revenue. Even Silicon Valley’s finest would struggle to compete.
It’s been a mutually-beneficial relationship with McGregor’s charisma alone helping bring new fans to MMA, maintaining the UFC’s steady growth as the promotion has struggled to nurture and promote genuine star names.
McGregor loves the limelight, and the limelight loves him. And so he should? An apprentice plumber is now one of the most famous sportsmen on the planet. A perfect rags to super-riches tale, and it’s understandable he should be the subject of a documentary film just four years into his professional life.
But amid all the bluster, the trash talking, the foul-mouthed exchanges, McGregor has always carried a sort of playful naievity. An everyman appeal, that’s he’s just here for the “cheese” and enjoying the ride. People have looked to him and enjoyed his meteoric rise through the prism of their own lives. Just like a reality talent show, except what McGregor has done carries genuine credibility.
There’s always been charm to outweigh the crassness. However, as the profile has grown beyond, ‘Conor McGregor: UFC champion’, with each tale of his behaviour away from the sport, a little layer of that affable allure has eroded.
The latest such act was on Friday night at Bellator 187 in Dublin when, in the wake of victory for fellow Straight Blast Gym alumni Charlie Ward, McGregor climbed into the cage to celebrate.
Due to him not being a licensed cornerman, referee Marc Goddard tried to restore order and in the process drew the anger of McGregor causing him to shove the official and then scream in his face.
Later on, he tried to jump the cage again only to be stopped and he reacted by slapping Bellator official Mike Johnson in the face.
Maybe it was an act of self-promotion for him, Ward and/or the event. Maybe he just couldn’t resist being the centre of attention in his home town. Maybe he just got caught up in the moment and, as he and Goddard have recent history, it all came to the surface.
Either way, what he did was appalling, and for all the publicity, attention and discussion it’s caused it’s neither good for him nor the sport in the long run. Tellingly, there’s been zero sign of contrition.
MMA has made huge strides in trying to force itself into the mainstream; from uniform drug testing to it’s notably progressive promotion of female athletes, it’s a vastly different discipline than the bloody cage-fighting cliches of old. But it still carries an air of the brutishness and a sense of an inert chaos bubbling under. It’s part of its appeal, but at the same time restricts it reaching a wider audience.
So, when the sport’s biggest star and public figurehead is clambering into a ring, taking pot-shots at referees, as he’s trying to check if a beaten fighter is medically okay, and calling officials, “rats”, it just isn’t a good look.
Mike Mazzulli, the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), said in the aftermath, “Mr. McGregor is not bigger than the sport of MMA.” Hopefully that is true, although it’s unclear what sort of punishment he will face, if any.
For ‘the Notorious’ brand it puts him in a interesting place. The reaction has been exclusively negative with a realisation that maybe McGregor’s ego may now be bigger than McGregor himself, lurching into self-parody.
His career and earnings have been built, in part, on being the arch non-conformist. But each time he pushes the boundary that bit further, it takes him away from his appeal of old. Maybe that’s what he wants, to be the anti-hero.
Maybe he doesn’t care. But, if it continues, eventually the fight game will stop being good to him.
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