No athlete was better built for the shrill, populist moment of the past five years than Conor McGregor.
He had that north-side Dublin thing, which is hard to explain to people who’ve never spent any time there. He is the jackeen par excellence – a loud, irritating, frustratingly charismatic blowhard.
The sort of person you could not bear to go on a long drive with, but who might be fun in short bursts at a bar.
Like someone else we know, McGregor somehow managed to turn himself into a multimillion-dollar-earning, Savile-Row-suit-wearing, personalized-whisky-peddling, monumentally crude everyman. He was of the people, but not for them. He constantly told them that he was better than they were. The people couldn’t get enough of it.
Given events to our south, this seems like the perfect time for that sort of shtick to curdle. Poetic, even. McGregor always did have a wonderful sense of timing, until he didn’t.
McGregor fought on Saturday night in the Middle East. He looked fit, but wasn’t. He had it, but only briefly.
By the end of the first round, McGregor – formerly an inexhaustible antagonist – was sucking wind. In the second, he’d begun to limp. By the end, he was a fish looking for the hook. It ended in a brutal TKO, McGregor crumpled in a corner while his opponent, Dustin Poirier, stood over him half-heartedly finishing him off.
After a nice, long, postfight lie-down on the mat, McGregor gathered himself for a truly bizarre interview. Bizarre because he sounded measured, even self-aware.
You didn’t believe it was possible, but Conor McGregor had been beaten straight. So that’s it for him then.
So while this isn’t his professional obituary, it is a first draft.
When McGregor arrived at the top of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2015, a few years removed from working as a plumber, there was only one type of mixed-martial-arts star. He (and sometimes she) was a glowering, icy thug. A man of few words, probably because he didn’t know that many.
At the time, no one took MMA seriously. MMA fighters compensated by treating their work like they were splitting atoms with their arm bars. No sport is so enthralled by its own jargon, etiquette and negligible history.
McGregor was the cure for that. It wasn’t that he took himself less seriously than everyone else. It was that he took himself so seriously, his personality looped back around to farce.
So when he said things such as, “Me and Jesus are good … Gods recognize gods,” even the bishop couldn’t take offence. It was so patently ridiculous. And he was pretty good with his fists. That was undeniable.
Irishness – which rendered him comfortably “other” for the American audience – also worked in McGregor’s favour. Somehow, deeply offensive or stupid things seem less so when delivered in an accent.
Riding his filthy-minded jester’s persona, McGregor did what only Ronda Rousey had managed before him – he took cage-fighting mainstream.
As with Rousey, it was his look and personality that drew people in. He would eventually make the same mistake she had – confusing celebrity for accomplishment.
People are amused by fighters as long as they are winning fights, and not one minute longer. A fun loser is still just a loser.
In 2016, McGregor was a major star and rapidly losing interest in the thing that made him so. There were two shark-jumping moments in his career.
The first was agreeing to box Floyd Mayweather. Mayweather – who was 40 at the time and never in any danger of losing – risked nothing.
McGregor, on the other hand, had everything to lose. He was not yet 30 and had built his reputation on the idea that he always backed up his tough talk.
The pair of them went on a prefight publicity tour that routinely hit a tone so low only cretinous dogs could hear it. On the big night, Mayweather – never a knockdown artist – carried McGregor through the first few rounds. But around the fifth, Mayweather decided it was time to start boxing. What followed was a pugilistic tutorial session, which is about as entertaining as it sounds.
Of course, McGregor didn’t get how silly he looked. Silly was his wheelhouse. But after that fight, silliness gave way to something darker.
McGregor replaced fighting for a living with mischief. He showed up uninvited at a New York presser and threw a barricade through the window of another fighter’s bus. His comments grew more deranged. He popped up more often on the police blotter than the Sports pages.
The nadir was a 2019 incident in a Dublin pub. After a stranger refused McGregor’s offer of a drink, the fighter sucker punched him. The attack was captured by surveillance cameras.
The Irish love a rascal. They do not love rascals who randomly assault people peaceably enjoying a pint, because that’s something they all like to do.
That was the end of McGregor as an amusing agent of chaos, especially at home. After that, he was just another jumped-up little weasel who thinks a bit of money makes him better than everyone else.
The last person to realize everyone had lost interest in Conor McGregor was Conor McGregor. This would have been a good time to retire or open a gym or give adulthood a try. But McGregor craves attention, there was now only one way to get it.
That brings us to Saturday night and a bout McGregor seemed both ill-prepared and underskilled for. He’s not old – 32 – but that’s still a long way from young. His superpower – self-confidence – has vanished. He will never face a frightened opponent again.
Bottom line – there are no renaissances in the fight game. Once you’ve lost a couple, you’re done. You can keep fighting, but no one believes in you in any more.
In all likelihood, it’ll take McGregor a year or two to figure that out. By the time he does, people will have long since moved on to the next loudmouth.
What’s his legacy? It isn’t MMA. Based purely on his ring prowess, he was one of a crowd. Every year, the crowd gets bigger.
Instead, McGregor was the perfect athlete for the Trump presidency. He traded substance for big talk. He didn’t need your love, just your full attention. There was nothing he wasn’t willing to do or say in order to get it. He always wanted more, but seemed to have no idea why.
More than any of his colleagues, he fully captured a moment in time. The only problem? Moments pass.