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UFC Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor reacts as he leaves the stage after the UFC 205 press conference at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 10, 2016 in New York City. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
UFC Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor reacts as he leaves the stage after the UFC 205 press conference at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 10, 2016 in New York City. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Kelly: UFC’s Conor McGregor is a sports icon for the Trump era Add to ...

In keeping with cage fighting’s rich tradition of political curiosity, UFC champion Conor McGregor said this week that he “just could not give a bollocks” about Donald Trump.

Pressed gently, McGregor veered toward Infowars-lite paranoia.

“I don’t think whoever wins, anything’s going to change. The public are just brainwashed … I don’t think either of those two contenders have any power in anything anyway.”

Then, in a perfectly absurd about-face – would you run for office some day?

“Maybe.”

McGregor is a crude, telegenic blowhard who’s about as bright as a box of hammers. That’s never stopped him from talking. And talking. And talking. McGregor talks the way the rest of us draw breath – without any conscious input. There is something charming about this dimwitted irrepressibility.

Does that sound familiar?

McGregor’s Irish, but he is the athlete America … well, “needs” would be the wrong word. He’s the athlete America’s getting right now. He’s the one they asked for. He’s all their populist fantasies and progressive nightmares made corporeal. He’s a leering, low-rent ubermensch taking control of the white-trash national pastime.

The people who most dislike his vulgar approach can’t stop obsessing about him. He is a natural point of fixation. That might also sound familiar.

What may be McGregor’s greatest attraction is that he is free of worry. In more placid political times, it would make him seem simple-minded (especially since he’s lost before). But now that the world has gone all pear-shaped, that sort of self-confidence qualifies as a superpower.

In unsettling times, the herd moves toward figures that radiate certainty. And no one believes in themselves the way Conor McGregor can. Just ask him.

On Saturday, McGregor will headline a fight card at Madison Square Garden. It’s a big moment for mixed-martial arts – the first blowout since UFC was sold to a Wall Street/Hollywood consortium for $4-billion (U.S.); first time at MSG; first time in New York State; first time McGregor gets the spotlight all to himself.

Most importantly, it’s another first chance to get another first look at another of UFC’s generational stars. We’ve done this a few times before, with mixed results.

All of McGregor’s predecessors as top dog have been flawed in some way. Either they peaked too early in the sport’s development (Chuck Liddell); were dull as dirt outside the ring (Anderson Silva); can’t get themselves together (Jon Jones), or can’t stay on their feet once people get interested (Ronda Rousey).

What UFC needs is simple. They need someone to shout his/her way to the centre of the conversation, then stay there long enough for people to get used to them.

McGregor was their guy several months ago. This week, he’s the guy to the power of infinity.

He has a chance at becoming the country’s defining athlete of the moment – the one who represents middle America’s resurgent under-/over-class (depending on your perspective). Someone outsider-y enough to stay clear of the tribalism, but insider-y enough to send the right coded signals. His bosses don’t need McGregor to talk any particular way. He just has to keep people interested.

At a press conference ahead of Saturday’s fight featuring several of the combatants who will participate, nearly all the questions were lobbed at McGregor. Someone asked which of the group would give him the toughest go. Jeremy Stephens, a minor player with a middling record, saw his moment.

“Right here. Right here,” Stephens piped up from the back. “The hardest-hitting 145-pounder. The real hardest-hitting 145er, right here. This guy TKOs people. When I knock people out, they don’t [expletive] move.”

McGregor, seated in the middle and wearing tinted aviators, craned his head to get a look at Stephens. Stephens got a weird look on his face. He didn’t know exactly what was coming, but he had a bad feeling about it. McGregor turned back around, laughing softly to himself.

“Who the [expletive] is that guy?”

Without putting a hand on him, McGregor had just ruined a man.

On the subject of Saturday’s opponent, Eddie Alvarez, McGregor has been in top, lurid form: “I’m going to toy with this man. I’m going to really, truly rearrange his facial structure. His wife and kids won’t recognize him again.”

He’s promised to “butcher” Alvarez, to give him a permanent brain injury and to end his career. Every time McGregor talks, Alvarez is getting closer to a metaphoric body bag.

If McGregor said these sorts of things in the context of any other sport, people would lose their minds. Imagine a contemporary hockey player saying he was going to “butcher” a guy in a fight or abuse him to the point of CTE. Outrageous! All the resultant panting would add the ozone layer back to our list of problems.

But bloodsport is the last safe space for the cheerful boor and the unapologetically transgressive. At the end of the day, the guy you’re insulting gets the opportunity to beat you into a hospital bed. Even the most pusillanimous deputies amongst the Language Police are willing to give you some latitude on that one.

McGregor’s taking full advantage. On arriving in New York, he declared that the Irish “built this town … Now we’re coming back to claim what’s ours.”

He means it as a joke, but is there a more perfect encapsulation of the American political mood? It’s the rallying cry of both ends of the spectrum.

There are sides to McGregor – he stumped for a gay-marriage bill in Ireland – but for the most part he is an idea-free, rhetorical bludgeon. He says what he likes and sneers at you delightedly for being offended.

It’s been a while since anyone truly famous managed the trick of doing that and getting away with it. But a lot of things are changing now. In general, the great ones make their moments, rather than being made by them. McGregor gets it both ways.

He’s arrived just as people are most ready to receive his sort of braying message. Whether for good or ill hardly matters. As the new president just proved, the real trick is not to convince anyone of anything. It’s to keep them listening.

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