Conor McGregor and the problem of promotion

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Craig Smith
Sports Reporter

A great athlete there is no doubt, but why are we not holding McGregor accountable for his behaviour?

Conor McGregor’s reappearance in the octagon after a fourteen month absence against Donald Cerrone brought about an intense interest, the like of which had not been seen in the Ultimate Fighting Championship since his last fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018. The column inches prior to the fight were filled with remarks questioning whether McGregor could rediscover the timing of his potent left hand and how he would counteract Cerrone’s submission game. Talk about whether it was acceptable for UFC to be promoting McGregor, the sport’s biggest name, was far more limited. UFC chose to focus on how this was McGregor’s redemption, a narrative lacking in sincerity given McGregor’s unwillingness to talk about his legal issues out with one interview with ESPN.

The evidence for the Irishman being a distasteful character is plentiful without considering the New York Times story on him. This is a man who has let his trash talking – often praised as one of McGregor’s skills – descend into racism, sexism, and homophobia on more than one occasion with examples ranging from a tweet comparing a picture Nurmagomedov’s wife with an Islamic veil to a towel, to referring to fellow UFC fighter Andre Fili as a “f****t”. His transgressions also go beyond his words, he lived up to his “notorious” moniker when deploying his fists against an innocent man in a Dublin pub. Hanging about with the Murray brothers, both convicted drug dealers with extensive criminal records, is no barrier to UFC promoting McGregor. Nor is the hurling of a dolly at a bus, which led to injuries that jeopardised the prospects of guiltless UFC fighters with Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg unable to participate at UFC 223 due to McGregor’s actions (McGregor’s lack of remorse was also demonstrated here with Chiesa claiming he never received an apology from McGregor). The last of these incidents was even deemed as a marketing opportunity by the UFC as they used video of it in the marketing for McGregor’s fight with Nurmagomedov at UFC 229, damning evidence that the UFC prioritises money and marketability over morals. All of this paints an awful picture but yet he still draws in the Pay-Per-View buys, it seems little matters aside from this.

There is a rapacious hunger amongst the UFC hierarchy, namely President Dana White, to get Mixed Martial Arts into the mainstream and rival boxing as the combat sport with fights which transcend the sport. This is the sport’s dilemma; they lack in stars who have the ability to gain the attention of fans who would not ordinarily watch the UFC but their pre-eminent fighter, McGregor is a man whose violence does not know the bounds of the octagon, a man who has no qualms over using discriminatory language in order to sell a fight and a man whose associates have contributed to an illicit trade that has brought great trauma to Ireland. Dana White views this quandary as easily resolvable: forget the morals and chase the money. If the fans keep purchasing McGregor’s fights then the UFC has no issue in promoting him.

Perhaps it is time we, the public, stop elevating sportsmen like McGregor on a pedestal, quickly forgetting their misdeeds outside the octagon. Sporting greatness, and McGregor is a MMA great considering he was the first athlete to hold UFC belts in two weight divisions simultaneously, should not deem illegal violence, homophobia and racism acceptable. People who misbehave deserve censure irrespective of their talents. The film industry has been willing to “cancel” people in recent years, people have not been nominated for Academy Awards if their alleged actions mean they are undeserving; maybe the time is nigh to be more willing to “cancel” sportspeople and deprive them of the limelight too.

Change can be engineered if people stop purchasing Pay-Per-Views and stop engaging with the product that UFC offers. If McGregor is to become persona non grata then it will be through the actions of the sporting public. The onus is now on them to stop the UFC fostering McGregor’s redemption narrative despite little contrition on the Dubliner’s part. If some MMA fans feel unable to take this step then they might take inspiration from an idea that emerged at the time of the 2015 boxing contest between Floyd Mayweather – a convicted domestic abuser – and Manny Pacquiao. The idea was for people to donate money to a charity equalling what they were paying for the fight. This could help absolve the consciences of those uncomfortable with helping fund an undesirable sportsman as those charitable donations could have a genuine impact. People can boycott, people can donate to charity, but one thing is for sure, something will need to be done if McGregor is to be removed from his position as UFC’s most feted fighter.