He didn’t come to take part, he came to take over, and he’s done just that.
Conor McGregor is the greatest showman since Muhammad Ali. Even he – much to the shock of many who only tune in for pre-fight press conferences and fights – is humble enough to admit he hasn’t equalled The Greatest.
‘F*ck off does McGregor have humility’ I hear you scream at the screen. If you believe that, then his showman tactics have worked as well on you as those he’s dispatched in the Octagon.
His modesty is in fact no secret:
On comparisons to Ali ahead of UFC 196, The Notorious said:
I take inspiration and motivation from absolutely everything and anything. Y’know, people chasing their dream, putting their head down, working hard.
For me, Muhammad Ali was probably my first combat sports star that I looked up to. I’d never seen anything like that, and I was fascinated by him growing up, but I have been shaped by many people.
But thank you for that compliment, again it’s a comparison that’s been thrown at me a few times but I cannot accept a comparison like that.
Muhammad Ali is a special man, he’s done things that are unthinkable. He changed culture period, so… I’m honoured to even be put in that bracket by some people, so thank you.
So what is it about The Notorious that’s had so many mention his name in the same breath as the late, great, Ali?
Well, simply put, he talks the talk, follows it by walking the walk, and repeats as Ali did.
His record in the UFC reads nine victories, one loss, seven victories by KO or TKO, and two via decision. And just as Ali would have done so confidently, McGregor will call his fights – ‘Mystic Mac’ could give Baba Vanga a run for her money.
When fighting Diego Brandao, McGregor said his opponent wouldn’t get out the first round, he didn’t. The same again was true of Dustin Poirer. Dana White revealed McGregor was so confident of KO-ing Chad Mendes in the second round of their bout at UFC 189 he tried to make a bet behind closed doors to the tune of $3 million – guess which round Mendes was finished?
McGregor then shook the world in staying true to his prediction for UFC 194, needing just 13 seconds to end Jose Aldo’s untouchable status in the featherweight division with a bomb of a left hook, conclusively announcing his arrival as the UFC’s biggest draw.
Even Nostradamus had off days, so it won’t shock you to hear McGregor has been proven wrong – Nate Diaz springing immediately to mind.
Cue the return of a humility people still incorrectly assume the Crumlin-born fighter is incapable of:
But how did the Irishman respond? He hit the gym, got back to work, and avenged his only UFC defeat – but not before channeling his inner showman to sell the rematch by announcing he’d ‘retired’.
I have decided to retire young.
Thanks for the cheese.
Catch ya's later.
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 19, 2016
In combat sports there are only a handful who’ve had the ability to back up their predictions so consistently, while also being capable of bouncing back when perhaps their mouth got carried away.
Both Ali and McGregor achieved master status in regard to the art of hyping a fight and exuding pure confidence – one of the pillars of true showmanship.
In the modern age of sport such antics will make you Marmite.
The media will love you for delivering soundbite after soundbite and headline after headline, peers can love you for bringing attention to their profession or resent the earning potential delivered by quick wit and a smart mouth. Meanwhile fans, well they have to decide if you’re the anti-hero or the heel.
Testament to his well placed confidence, McGregor’s opponents are only too aware this pre-fight hype does more than sell pay-per-views; it swings the fight in his favour before combatants even enter the Octagon.
It’s psychological warfare at its finest, and you need only watch the build up to the Aldo fight and the few seconds of fighting that took place to confirm the effects.
‘Well, he didn’t live up to his word against Mayweather…’
No he didn’t – 49/1 never happened, Mayweather emerged victorious.
But Conor had put himself out there to go toe-to-toe with the best on offer in another fighting discipline, orchestrating one of the largest media circuses boxing has ever seen, fighting with his hands behind his back at one stage, and I’d wager his accountants could argue he did stay true to his word on that one; McGregor banked ‘around $100 million’ for the fight, as reported by Forbes.
But if you need stats to back-up The Notorious’ selling power as a result of his showmanship, as of November 2017 McGregor can boast headlining four of the UFC’s five highest selling PPVs – shock horror, the UFC cashed in on the man’s power to draw an audience, selling in July 2017 for $4 billion.
McGregor changed the game for MMA.
Muhammad Ali’s repertoire as a showman did have a lasting, and different legacy to McGregor, none more so than the arena of civil rights.
Once known as Cassius Clay, at the age of 22 and having taken Sonny Liston’s WBA and WBC heavyweight titles in 1964, Ali confirmed his conversion to Islam and change of name.
He famously remarked:
I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.
The connotations for black society in America during the 1960s is plain to see.
Now, as a white male living in an era of inflated pay for athletes, obviously McGregor’s struggles are incomparable. But that isn’t to say his story is not a source of inspiration for those who hail from a similar background in Ireland – a nation with a population of just 4.7 million and estimated GDP of €294.1 billion.
Compare those figures to the UK, whose population sits at roughly 65.6 million and GDP at an estimated £2.6 trillion, self-made showmen like McGregor do serve as beacons of hope.
The former apprentice plumber revealed after his 2013 UFC debut he’d collected welfare payments in Dublin just one week previous:
I was collecting 180 euros a week off the social welfare and here I am and I’ve got 60 G’s bonus and my own pay.
While his rise won’t see him immortalised as a political renegade, it should serve as evidence to an underprivileged youth, how you can achieve whatever you put your mind to – in exchange for hours upon hours of honing your skillset, whatever that may be.
The man himself is also aware of the example he’s set:
McGregor’s awareness of the role he can play for those suffering back home in Ireland’s capital are typified by his charitable efforts.
The Notorious has had his charitable ambitions, on behalf of Our Ladies Children’s Hospital, officially recognised at the ‘Best of Ireland Gala’.
It was an honour to support Our Ladies Children's Hospital of Crumlin at the 7th Annual 'Best of Ireland Gala' dinner in New York City tonight. Over $800k was raised for the hospital. Tonight alone. Amazing. The highest number of each previous gala. $800k plus thousand is truly a lot of money and everyone involved in this should be very proud. I look forward to hearing and seeing reports of where the money is put to use in the hospital. What a great night! Thank you @deedevlin1 @coach_kavanagh and @orlaghhunter for attending with me.
His work is responsible, at least in part, for the hospital opening a new cardiac catheterisation theatre, an orthopaedic theatre and a cardiac daycare ward, as reported by The Mac Life.
McGregor hadn’t even sought to publicise the work done behind closed doors, but it rapidly caught up with him…
— Matty Craze (@MattCraze) June 24, 2017
It was even closer to home than the 30-year-old knew himself:
Great to meet this little man tonight. My training partner Ciaran Maher, his son and his wife. Ciaran's son was a patient in the cardiac department in Our Ladies hospital before. I went in one day on the low a while back and visited all the patients and helped out in my way for the department, and nobody knew about it, I made sure of it, but Ciaran reached out to me out of nowhere thanking me for it and I was like how do you know about that and was blown away as he told me of his son and his journey and that his life was saved by the people in the cardiac department in Our ladies. I done this on the low and it reached right back close to me out of nowhere. Crazy. It's crazy how you just never know. I invited the little champion, my brother Ciaran and his wife today and it was great to meet the little man, thank you for coming.
Alas, McGregor’s indiscretions must also be addressed, as I’m sure anyone who’s made it this far into this article while maintaining McGregor isn’t a shade on Ali, has probably been muttering something libellous regarding a certain bus attack under their breath.
So, the elephant in the room – would the antics of a true showman cause bodily and psychological harm to their peers outside of competition?
It’d be easy to say no, wash our hands of the debate and condemn Conor to the ranks of ‘out of control gobsh*te’ whose ego has cost his legacy. But are showmen perfect? No, and given the terms showman and role model aren’t synonyms, it seems strange to expect them to be, they’re still human.
With the Irishman yet to have his day in court facing charges of assault and criminal mischief after his Barclays Center escapade, it’d be irresponsible to state either way at this point whether his intention was in fact to do harm.
Was it reckless to throw a trolley at the glass windows of a vehicle full of fellow athletes? Yes, but had that window held or smashed without forcing Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg off the card at UFC 223, all anyone would be doing right now is hyping the intensified rivalry between McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Showmen push boundaries, they go further than those before them, they discover and often define where the line of acceptable behaviour has been moved to.
When you’re the champ-champ – lest we forget Conor was the first two-division champ in the UFC’s history – you’ve literally ripped title belts from their owners pre-fight, officially been handed them after your bout on multiple occasions, verbally and physically sparred at pre-fight press conferences (Google McGregor/Diaz energy drink for reference), new and escalated ploys will always run the risk of condemnation.
— Watch UFC live on BT Sport (@btsportufc) November 13, 2016
The bus attack either sits comfortably in this category, the efforts of a showman gone severely awry, or a moment where the mask slipped. But as Conor has said in the past, sometimes you win and sometimes you learn, and he does need to learn from this incident. Repeats will harm his legacy as a fighter.
The mark of the showman on such occasions is found in their contrition, their ability to drop the act.
Muhammad Ali too was not perfect. Of Joe Frazier he once said ‘He’s the other type Negro, he’s not like me,’ repeatedly labelling Frazier – a legend in his own right – ‘Uncle Tom’.
For a man heralded for his civil rights work, this was a misstep. But one he recognised and later apologised for.
As reported by The Chicago Tribune, Ali was big enough to admit this fault:
In a way, Joe’s right. I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.
I like Joe Frazier. Me and him was a good show. It was a good traveling show.
Frazier accepted this:
I’ll accept it, shake his hand and hug him when I see him. We’re grown guys. Why we been biting off bullets? We have to embrace each other. It’s time to talk and get together. Life’s too short.
Likewise, McGregor has offered an apology for his regrettable actions via social media.
However, many have been quick to point out he doesn’t apologise directly to those most affected, which is true. Rather.
In the post he said:
It is only a lesson if you learn from it.
I learn every day.
Critics are missing the point here though, this apology is as much as Conor can probably say to indicate to fans he’s aware he overstepped.
‘I learn everyday’ in this context should probably be read as, ‘Yeah, it went too far’ – but far be it from me to put words in McGregor’s mouth, as an orator he doesn’t need anyone to do that for him.
Furthermore, Michael Chiesa told Ariel Helwani on ESPN’s MMA Show legal proceedings against Conor were already underway following advice from his counsel.
No solicitor in their right mind would allow Conor to publicly apologise to Chiesa, Borg, or any other fighter on that bus who felt affected while such proceedings are ongoing.
I’m a fair person though – maybe there are others who would like to be considered themselves great showman, but the best since Ali? Hmmmmm.
We’ll start with the obvious – Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, undeniably a great showman.
50-0 says it all. As far as boxing goes, Floyd has been untouchable in his bid to achieve greatness. Defeating Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, Manny Pacquiao, and Conor himself.
But Floyd has admitted that he needed McGregor for their bumper payday.
He told reporters in the build up to their 2017 super fight:
He is a great dance partner, and I do need him for August 26.
Money has also been criticised for the tactical approach to taking on rivals at ‘the right time’. Contrast that with McGregor and what Dana White has to say on the matter.
‘He’ll literally fight anyone, anywhere, anytime’:
So even if Floyd was considered the greatest since Ali, the baton has already been passed.
Tyson Fury – definitely a showman, and definitely not only receiving a shoutout because a colleague insists he be recognised…
He has fought and beaten the best in Wladimir Klitschko. Anyone who would call themselves the ‘fighting pride of Ireland’ certainly is trying to compete with The Notorious.
Fury also knows how to hype a fight through controversial speech. But, despite an incredibly loyal fanbase, and objective credit for his skill as a boxer, he just isn’t on McGregor’s level.
One man dresses in a mink coat to honour Joe Frazier and verify his bank balance, the other a second-rate Batman costume.
And finally Fury’s antics, while entertaining to some, offensive to others, have not assisted in increasing the value of boxing 2,000-fold in the vein of McGregor’s introduction to the UFC, which aided its transition from a $2 million business in 2001 to a $4 billion company in 2017.
So if Floyd Mayweather has passed the baton, Fury was only ever a spectator at the race.
Meanwhile back in the UFC there have been showmen with great popularity, but their stars have faded and risen in equal measure across their careers. Chuck Liddell could put on a show inside the Octagon, Rampage Jackson was a great entertainer, Michael Bisping and Chael Sonnen certainly knew how to talk as well as throw punches – and while they could all be considered as setting a path, McGregor detoured to greater heights.
Many fighters are now employing McGregor’s tactics, but if your showmanship is at best derivative of a contemporary peer, well that says it all.
So to wannabes like Colby Covington, yes you can certainly boil p*ss and earn an interim belt but you’re living in a McGregor shaped shadow for the foreseeable.
Michael Bisping has hit the nail on the head. Controversy ‘for the sake of it’ does not a true showman make, and that is why Conor is lightyears ahead.
— Brandon Knight (@b_808knight) July 11, 2017
The Notorious knows why he talks big, he delivers on it, he’s been a major player in taking MMA to a new level of public interest, and the man can rock a suit.
So, as long as the controversies do not begin to upstage his quality inside the Octagon, he will remain the greatest showman since Ali.
Finally, even if you hate him, I guarantee his is a name you’ve not escaped.
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