Here's a challenge: try to ignore Conor McGregor.
Try not to give in to the urge to go on Twitter and watch his second-round knockout of Eddie Alvarez at the weekend or listen to his foul-mouthed tirade at the UFC after the fight. Attempt to focus on something else except the noise surrounding this brash, arrogant pup from Dublin, to ignore the endless discussion and conversation about his exploits, the wonder about his talent and what he might do next. Try to do this for as long as you can. But you will inevitably cave in to your curiosity. And once you do, you’re hooked. Whether you like it or not.
If you are in any way a fan of Irish sport, or even sport in general, then even if you didn’t get up at the crack of dawn to watch Conor McGregor’s fight on Saturday night/Sunday morning in Madison Square Garden in New York, chances are you will have checked to see if he won first thing in the morning and spent at least part of your Sunday absorbing the reaction to his achievement. You have to admit, a part of you is attracted to this fascinating man, the brutality of his sport and the worldwide nature of his appeal.
— UFC (@ufc) November 10, 2016
Some of us admire Conor McGregor for similar reasons we admired Brian O’Driscoll when he was playing rugby for Ireland and at times looked half alive and barely aware of where he was, yet still threw himself into tackles with utter disregard for his personal welfare. McGregor is an Irishman representing our country on a global stage and he is putting himself through punishment on such a brutal scale that a part of every individual, no matter how begrudgingly, is forced to tip a cap to his bravery. Yes, McGregor is a businessman with selfish interests at heart who undoubtedly knows what is to be gained from playing up to the 'Fighting Irishman' image in a US market. But he is genuine when he grabs the microphone off Joe Rogan and thanks the Irish fans who have travelled over to support him and when he drapes the tricolour around his neck.
There are those of us who were first drawn to McGregor - whether at an early stage in his career or only recently - thanks to the short video clips of his fights and the sheer gory brutality of his sport. The blood. The violence. In the social media age, where shareable and attention-grabbing short clips spread in a flash (the more extreme or violent the better), McGregor’s left hand has given us endless GIFs and ten-second video clips to whet our appetites and draw us in. For some, the craving for the raw and brutal violence still persists. In others, an appreciation develops of the skill and athleticism involved and an interest in the sport grows.
For many fans McGregor just happened to come along at a time when their interest in MMA was growing. Talk to a McGregor fan and you will often discover an encyclopedia of knowledge about UFC and the sport of MMA. When McGregor started to break through in the sport, interest was already growing in MMA and, as an upcoming Irish talent, he became a focal point for that interest.
But when we look back at the ‘McGregor Phenomenon’ in twenty or thirty years and we reflect on the growth in people of all ages practising MMA in Ireland (and are perhaps watching a new generation of McGregors make their mark while the original model enjoys a wealthy retirement), we will shake our heads in amazement at how McGregor managed to tap into the bits of our consciousness that we perhaps didn’t even know existed.
In a shrinking world, a generation of Irish are entirely comfortable with the thought of emigrating and expanding their horizons and knowledge of the world, not out of necessity but out of ambition. Every year, thousands of Irish students head off on J1s to the States to explore what the world has to offer beyond Ireland's shores and to expand on the global mindset that the modern Irishman or woman instinctively possesses. We are driven to dream of travel and exploration, of achievement and success, and we hold anyone who attains this up for admiration. or at the very least fascination. We express our feelings and desires, our likes, dislikes and opinions on social media and put ourselves out to the world, not afraid to do so (Twitter actually requires that we describe ourselves to the world - or, at least, to anyone interested enough to search for our profile).
And McGregor is the ultimate combination of these tendencies. He is a global, confident Irishman, unafraid to express what he wants and thinks at any given point. His Twitter and Instagram are full of images of success, expensive clothes and cars. In a bygone era, he might have repulsed us. But in this day and age, we can’t get enough of him. He is who many of us want to be.
I'm a fucking pimp, rocking all white Gucci mink, and without me, this whole fucking ship sink pic.twitter.com/XV94e40RSL
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) November 11, 2016
And just when his brashness seems to be getting too much, when he appears close to going overboard, he will bring us back onto his side. Because there is the sense that, behind all the play-acting and showmanship, there remains the man acutely conscious of the days when he couldn’t cobble together $250 for a walkout song. The man who accepted defeat to Nate Diaz with humility and who compliments opponents in victory. The man who seemed uneasy with the concept of having a “celebrity” family, who remains proud of his roots in Dublin. It is that man, underneath all the big mouth antics, who remains relatable to the average Irishman and woman.
Conor McGregor is an incredible social and sporting phenomenon who is, above all, one of the greatest athletes Ireland has ever produced - that much is without question, whatever one thinks of his sport - and who has managed to capture the attention of an entire nation and millions around the world. From Dublin to New York there are kids and adults alike who are fascinated and inspired by his achievements, his behaviour and his amazing ability to deliver exactly what he sets out to do.
You can love him or you can loathe him. You can worship the ground he walks on or you can turn down the volume when he appears on your screen.
But there’s one thing you can’t do with Conor McGregor, whether you like it or not.
And that’s ignore him.