Over the past eight months or so something incredible has happened; everyone has suddenly become interested in the UFC.
I am no exception to this. I’m not a UFC or MMA fan and I will be the first to admit I know next to nothing about the sport. Yet despite this I still found myself packed shoulder to shoulder in the local pub on Sunday afternoon, waiting anxiously for the main event to start. This is all thanks to just one man.
I am one of countless others who have been swept up by the wave of charisma that is Conor McGregor. The Irishman has taken hold of UFC by the scruff of the neck and has quickly become the face of the fight game. More importantly though, he has become a household name in a sport that prior to this involvement was watched almost exclusively by those in the MMA community and teenage boys with a thirst for blood.
So there I was, spending my Sunday off in a tiny sports bar that smelt of that delightful combination of stale beer and regret. When the fight finally started I was surprised by just how nervous I quickly became. I leaned against the wall, peering over the drunken heads in front of me trying to get a better view. My beer remained untouched. Like many others around me I was emotionally invested and wanted so desperately for McGregor to win.
Unless you have been living under a rock the past few days you will know how the fight ended. If I was surprised by just how nervous I was before the fight, I was truly shocked by how devastated I was after.
I don’t know McGregor, eight months ago I had never heard of him, I’m not Irish and as I said I am not a fan of the sport. So what can explain my feelings and what is it about McGregor that has seen him capture the hearts and minds of so many?
There is something in the human nature that loves dominance, we want to see records broken and history made. If a football match isn’t a tight contest, we don’t want to see just a comfortable victory, we want the winning team to kick out to an unbelievable margin and to see a star player destroy a record. McGregor was on a 15 fight winning streak leading into this fight and on top of this there was also the attraction of seeing him win after moving up two weight divisions from his usual class. Although this may explain some of the interest, I believe there is something more to the affection felt for McGregor than just a potential statistic.
McGregor doesn’t conform to what many believe an athlete should act like. He is overly confident, comically flamboyant and extremely vocal. He doesn’t speak in clichés and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Leading up to the Jose Aldo fight in December McGregor was more vocal than ever. In the same fashion to the build up to Sunday’s fight, McGregor talked himself up to the extent that failure was almost unfathomable. He even went as far as to predict how he would win the fight. McGregor was right, he knocked out Jose Aldo with a clean left in the first round, became the new Featherweight Champion, and we all started to believe.
McGregor was now walking talking proof that if you work hard and truly believe in something enough then it will come to fruition. And there it is, why people love Conor so much: We have an inherent desire to believe in ourselves as much as he believes in himself.
Personally I find McGregor’s approach refreshing, but his refusal to conform, decision to go against the status quo and loud mouth offends a lot of people. Clearly not all forms of self confidence should be as excessive as telling a man you’re going to ‘drag his head through the streets of Rio de Janeiro through a parade of people’. However, some goals such as McGregor’s require putting yourself out there. Maybe it is finding the confidence to try something you have always wanted to do, but haven’t had the courage to yet attempt. For example; quitting your job to pursue a business venture, trying a new sport, taking time off to write a novel, taking up acting or even entering a talent content. In most cases pursuing your goals and dreams ultimately means taking risks; it means saying ‘this is who I am, and this is what I want do, and I believe I can do it’. It means putting it all on the line. As a collective group we wanted so desperately to see someone like Conor putting it all on the line and succeeding because it would give us the confidence to do the same.
In saying all this obviously modesty and humility are honourable attributes and are to be valued. However, modesty and humility are devalued when they begin to hold a person back from reaching their full potential. In the lead up to a fight, if Conor was to conform to those who wanted him to act in a certain manner, would he still perform the way he does? Would he walk into the octagon with the same confidence as he does now, the same confidence which allows him to be the best in the world? Probably not. He definitely wouldn’t make as much money either. There is a time for confidence and a time for modesty in Conor’s line of work, just as there is in every day life. There are also times and situations where excessive confidence is appropriate in order to achieve greatness. This behaviour and attitude should be accepted without judgement as long as you remain at essence a good person - which is how Conor is described so frequently by those close to him. There lies the beauty of being confident; it doesn’t hurt anyone else.
Sadly, people are afraid to be confident and bet on themselves. They are stifled by fear and therefore do not take risks. This is due to the fact that as soon as you start vocalising your self-belief a lot more is at stake, something that can hurt a lot more than a black eye: Pride. How many of you have not pursued a passion out of fear of what other people will think? The only thing people love more than watching someone succeed is watching them fall. When these people who are bold enough to take a chance on themselves do fail people are all to quick to put them back in their place. They are criticised and laughed at for being stupid enough to think they could ever be anything more than mediocre. Unfortunately, confidence has become a dirty word. Confidence is now known only as arrogance and those who are self-assured enough to attempt something great are considered delusion.
That is why so many of us idolise McGregor; he doesn’t share that fear of judgement. In terms of risking humility, the stakes don’t get much higher than telling the whole world you’re going to win a physical fight. Conor doesn’t allow this risk to drown him like it would many of us. In a sport like MMA fear and doubt are dangerous enemies which McGregor can not afford to entertain. He simply would not be in the position he is in now if he allowed people to dictate how self-sure he should and should not be. Imagine what you could achieve if you approached life with the same mentality as McGregor; with an unprecedented belief in your own talents and capabilities and free of fear of failure and judgement.
Unfortunately, we do live in a judgemental world. So when McGregor lost on Sunday I expected the backlash to be as swift and harsh as one of his left hooks and to an extent I was correct. Although this judgement came mainly from people already familiar with the MMA world. Something which was commonly seen from these people on social media after McGregor’s loss were statements along the lines of ‘I can’t wait for all McGregor bandwagon fans to shut up now’ and ‘Wait for all the McGregor fans to crawl back into the woodwork’.
To explain, a lot of ‘true’ MMA fans resent the affection that McGregor has been shown and to a degree I understand their frustration. I assume watching the UFC would with someone who is new to the sport offering their five cents worth every thirty seconds would be - in danger of getting a bit sexist - like watching the football with your mate’s girlfriend. I believe it is possible that many of these people dislike McGregor simply because he is the crowd favourite of those who are uneducated in the sport.
However, I believe these true fans would have been bitterly disappointed and very surprised when they awoke on Monday morning: Amazingly social media was flooded with overwhelming support and not condemnation for the fallen champ. Of course there was the occasional ‘savage meme’, but the overall tone was positive. This was due to McGregor’s extremely humble post fight press conference along with these words which he shared on Instagram later that night:
“I stormed in and put it all on the line. I took a shot and missed. I will never apologize for taking a shot. Shit happens. I'll take this loss like a man. I will not shy away from it. I will not change who I am. If another champion goes up 2 weights let me know. If your tired of me talking money, take a nap. I'll still be here when you wake up with the highest PPV and the gate. Still talking multi 7's. Thank you to the true support and fuck the hate that came out of the woodwork. I love it all. Its still steak for breakfast. I've been here many times in my life in some form or another. I'll eat it all and come back stronger. Aldo you are a pussy. Dos anjos you are a pussy. When the history books are written, I showed up. You showed up on Twitter. To the fans! Never ever shy away from challenges. Never run from adversity. Face yourself head on. Nate I will see you again.”
He took a risk, he chose to go up two weight divisions when he could have played it safe and chosen to wait and defend his title. He even could have pulled out after Dos Anjos withdrew from injury and nobody would have blamed him. He risked everything to try and achieve something great and it didn’t pay off. So what, at least he tried. We wanted so desperately for Conor to win, but in losing he showed the world something else altogether. He showed that it doesn’t matter. There are always going to be those who love him and those who hate him. Sunday’s result will not have affected anyone’s opinions on McGregor, the way he handled the loss however, may have.
I awoke early Monday morning and read the post through sleepy eyes. I thought back to he vision of Conor getting choked out and the disappointment I had felt it. The memory was a day older and already fading. It was a new day.
Long live the king.