You can be forgiven if Conor McGregor doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think of the world’s savviest and most sophisticated athletes. You might even, at first glance, dismiss him as just another swaggering buffoon, a symptom of society’s continuing decay toward idiocracy.
His list of lowlights is longer, even, than his list of victims inside the Octagon, everything from calling African American boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. “boy” to using outrageously misogynic language to launching a dolly through the window of a bus in an ill-fated attempt to confront his next opponent, Dagestani wrestler Khabib Nurmagomedov.
But trust me: McGregor has levels, has multitudes and, as a result, has millions.
He’s the highest-paid fighter in a sport that traditionally produces paupers. Something, whether you’re willing to embrace it or not, is working in a way UFC fighters’ acts don’t traditionally work in the broader mainstream culture.
Wrestling icon Jim Cornette knows a thing or two about gimmicks and how to talk a crowd into seeing a fight. Twelve times, the readers of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter voted him Manager of the Year, and in his 35 years in the business, he’s worked with a who’s who of top talent, helping launch WWE’s famous Attitude Era in the late 1990s.
And he stands in awe of McGregor.
“Here’s this guy who’s a real live Ric Flair, complete with that cool-ass f–king accent from over there across the pond,” Cornette says. “He’s not just beating people up. He’s f–king ragging on everybody and cuts a f–king promo for the ages. He’s living the f–king gimmick in a collection of expensive suits. He’s winning at life.”
Fans can’t decide if the cocky, dolly-hurling hooligan is the UFC’s top villain or a beloved icon. And that confusion, the gaping divide between stalwart fans and braying haters, makes perfect sense—and is perfect for the UFC’s business. It’s a feature, not a bug.
“He’s embracing entertainment the same way I did,” Bellator fighter and ESPN MMA analyst Chael Sonnen tells Bleacher Report. “But he’s taken it to a new level. Conor is outstanding. I love what he’s doing.”
“One thing I’ve learned watching Conor leverage his opportunities so successfully is that passion is a good thing,” UFC star Elias Theodorou says. “Love or hate are both OK emotions as long as the crowd cares. Indifference is the worst option.”
Like Flair, the original limousine-riding, custom-suit-wearing icon, McGregor’s sometimes buffoonish bullying has divided audiences into competing camps. While created to be a bad guy, Flair’s persona was just too cool to truly hate. McGregor presents a similar dilemma, outsmarting and then outfighting everyone the UFC puts in front of him.
McGregor isn’t merely a man—he’s an archetype, the kind of antihero people are now used to seeing in popular culture. His character seems to have been created with broad strokes in order to be immediately recognizable, more icon than reality. The real McGregor has been buried beneath so many handlers, public relations professionals and carefully crafted branding opportunities that it’s hard to know where the man begins and the character culminates. He might not even know anymore. At this point in his hagiography, he has more in common with fictionalized superheroes and villains than he does you or me.
He’s even reportedly being used as a template for the unhinged antihero Venom in an upcoming movie. It’s art influencing life, influencing art again in turn.
Comic book artist Keith Giffen recognizes it when he sees it. As the creator of the hilariously toxic Lobo and the swaggering Guy Gardner version of Green Lantern, Giffen helped launch what became an overwhelming influx of similar characters, like Deadpool, who blur the lines between good and bad.
“Sometimes the difference between the villain and the antihero is that we know a little bit more about the hero,” Giffen says. “Bruce Wayne, he becomes the Batman. He goes and beats people up in the poor part of town. If I was in Gotham City right now, I’d park my car and look around real carefully for a sign that says ‘No Parking.’ Otherwise, I’ll get beat up by some jackass in a bat suit. He’s a f–king psycho, right?
“Except, oh, his parents were killed outside a movie theater; he’s traumatized. He put all his money into helping people, he built himself up, and he’s Batman. We know more about him, and it doesn’t seem quite as bad.”
McGregor, though not quite Batman, presents a similar conundrum for MMA fans. With his constant trash talk and problematic language and behavior, he’s certainly no hero. But as a rags-to-riches story and an exciting striker who never shies away from a tough fight, he tends to be looked to by MMA fans as a leading man, not a villain. To them, he exists in a gray area, the scoundrel everyone longs to love.
“When you see this guy come out,” Giffen says, “this antihero, and he blusters and he throws his weight around and he’s smacking people around the ring, there’s that little bit of wish fulfillment, you know? You just sit back and say: ‘Hey, let’s enjoy this. Look at him, he’s being an assh–e. Yeah, let’s go!’ It’s like you’re pissed off at your boss and you watch Conor McGregor go through his bit, and, after a while, you’re not as pissed off as you were.”
Take, as a representative sample of his oeuvre, McGregor’s recent performance at a press conference promoting his bout with Nurmagomedov at UFC 229, a blood feud so compelling that you can practically see the cartoon dollar signs spinning in UFC President Dana White‘s eyeballs. Using Nurmagomedov mostly as a 155-pound prop, McGregor proceeded to command the room for 37 mesmerizing minutes.
“This was amazing,” Sonnen said on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “This was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in mixed martial arts. Listen, the punches and the kicks are not enough; they haven’t been enough for a very long time. We have to know why. We have to know that these guys are fighting for something, for a reason.”
Some of it was standard press-conference prattle, your typical boasting and bragging that has become background noise, for the most part as believable and creditable as the professional wrestling promos it’s borrowed from.
McGregor, as you might imagine, does this exceptionally well—his Irish brogue, softened for American ears, a lilt that immediately lifts his gloating and crowing above the din, inviting you to listen in for a bit as he describes basically two things: his vast wealth and what he’s going to do to his opponent.
“Professional wrestling and fighting right now are some of the best superhero movies you’ve ever seen,” Giffen says. “They do it better than The Avengers movies. They do better than the Justice League movie. Because they’re primal. It’s all put out there, and they are like comic books in real life. …
“How are they going to solve their differences? Are they going to sit down and talk? Are they going to negotiate? No, they’re going to beat the s–t out of one another. Did Batman ever stop to think the Joker, tell him you know: ‘You might want to get some help there, pal. You’re a little crazy.’ No, he just knocks the s–t out of him.”
Not all of it is Shakespeare or even Tom King. At one point, he got a big laugh simply saying “Mer, mer, mer, mer” in mocking imitation of Nurmagomedov’s thick accent. Later he implored a reporter to “Ask these nuts” a question. Not all of it made sense, not in the slightest.
Here’s the thing, Cornette contends: It doesn’t have to.
“If you wrote down what some of the top promos in the business said, word for word, and read it, it’s complete f–king gibberish,” he says. “But when they are saying it, when they’re the ones looking you in the eye or looking the camera in the eye and saying it, it makes sense, and you get it. They make you interested.
“It’s the force of the personality. It’s the attitude and that he believes it. You can tell he believes it. … Sincerity is the key. When you can learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.”
It’s a truly enthralling one-man show, one seemingly sponsored by his own brand-new whiskey, Proper 12, which became a supporting player during the production as McGregor offered the devout Muslim Nurmagomedov a drink and then called him a “mad backwards c–t” when he refused.
McGregor’s Proper No. 12 Whiskey was featured prominently.Seth Wenig/Associated Press/Associated Press
After his fight with Mayweather, McGregor came out with a drink. Over the years, we’ve watched him fall in love with custom-made suits. For this event, he’ll have his own whiskey brand on the Octagon canvas and be doing his media appearances bedecked in his own line of high-end clothing.
“Thankfully,” McGregor told the press, “I’m such a crafty individual with my other entities and my entire game as a whole, I don’t have to fight for money no more.”
McGregor is evolving, taking time to shill his own products while also eviscerating the opposition in the media. It’s the kind of multitasking few in MMA history have ever managed, as most fighters are the kind of people more comfortable letting their fists do the talking.
“Khabib was in way over his head,” Sonnen says. “Conor McGregor is in a class of his own. He is a master on the microphone. He knows when the cameras are rolling. He knows how to sell.”
During his extended monologues, you can hear the wheels spinning—can almost see McGregor work his way deeper and deeper into Nurmagomedov’s head. He references his opponent’s strained relationships in his native Russia, mentioning specifically a partnership with Russian oligarch Ziyavudin Magomedov that has suddenly become fraught with peril.
Later, he called Nurmagomedov’s father a “quivering coward” for not standing up to Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. Even Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, took heat, with McGregor calling him a “terrorist snitch.”
Ali Abdelaziz (r) backstage at a UFC event.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
It’s situations like this, Giffen believes, that could create issues for the UFC as it attempts to launch this fight beyond the MMA hardcores and into the mainstream consciousness.
“To put something like an antihero out there for the mass market, for the greatest amount of people, you’ve got to sort of pull back and play within the parameters,” Giffen says. “You don’t want to alienate your audience. If you’re working for a small audience or you’re just doing niche marketing, you can push the limits.
“But [the UFC] is trying to appeal to as many people as possible. And when you’re trying to appeal to as many people as possible, you’re being torn. Is this guy going to find this offensive? Is he going to find this racist? Is this guy going to find this too much? It’s the kind of weird game.”
In an age of increased scrutiny over word choice, he’s seemed mostly immune to repercussions from social justice pushback. So far, McGregor has managed to walk the edge without ever fully falling into the abyss. It’s a dangerous game—and, after signing a new six-fight contract with UFC, one it appears he’ll continue to play and win for some time to come.
“Any top-level athlete, it’s always the same. There’s always that hint of arrogance there. … It’s hard to be humble when you’re the best,” McGregor told Bleacher Report in a 2015 interview. “It’s as simple as that. If you are surrounded by your competition and you are outworking these people, outmaneuvering these people, it’s hard not to let your confidence take over. It just builds and builds and builds.”
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.