Ultimate fighting, ultimate victory of style over substance

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It is always an occasion of immense pride for an Irish person in America when one of our own graces the cover of Sports Illustrated. Even if magazines are now regarded as relics by the young and are very much the preserve of those of us on the wrong side of 35, we know that having an Irishman looking down from the newsstands on the front of the country’s sports bible is quite an achievement. So it was when Conor McGregor’s rippled body and bearded visage earned that accolade last week.

Of course, being McGregor, he had to try to make more of it than it was, immediately tweeting what a great honor it was to be the first Irishman in history to be so recognized. It was very quickly pointed out to him that Ronnie Delaney and Eamonn Coghlan had been there before him many moons ago. And, just in the past couple of years, Rory Mcllroy had been on the cover three times. Ignoring history, pretending to be achieving more than he is, these are, unfortunately, the hallmarks of the McGregor and the UFC way. It’s almost Trumpian. Always exaggerate (usually in the most foul-mouthed way possible), never explain.

How fitting then that this embarrassing cameo came just as news broke that McGregor’s proposed superfight (they are all super apparently) against lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos on March 5th had been postponed. Dos Anjos broke his foot in training so can’t get in the octagon. Now, that can happen to anybody but you may notice a pattern here. This is the sixth time in McGregor’s last 12 fights that his opponent has had to pull out just before the bout. A more suspicious person might even believe that this sport is not quite on the up and up. That’s an awful lot of last minute withdrawals.

Even if McGregor’s apologists and he has a growing legion of them in the Irish media, a group that is apparently mistaking his outsize celebrity for genuine achievement, will joke that he can’t help it if so many fighters run scared as the battle nears, there’s serious stuff to consider here. The 11th hour withdrawal means that an opponent has to be found at short notice which means that whoever gets in there with McGregor does so at a distinct disadvantage. The Dubliner has the benefits of a three-month long training camp, the other guy has to try to make weight and get sharp in 11 or 12 days. That’s some imbalance.

These significant details are not part of the ensuing narrative once McGregor wins. Then, all that matters is that the legend grows. Never mind that the odds were stacked in his favor to a ridiculous extent, the only thing concerning UFC and all those with a stake in the phenomenon is that he keeps winning and keeps boasting and keeps burnishing his own myth. Imagine our shock then when it turned out that dos Anjos is to be replaced by Nate Diaz. Even by UFC’s standards of loading the dice in Vegas to assist its most marketable commodity, this is ridiculous.

Diaz has fought twice in two years, a win over a journeyman named Michael Johnson last December, a defeat by dos Anjos back in December, 2014. With a pro record of 18 victories and 10 losses, he’s fought just five times in the past three years and hasn’t won back to back fights since 2012. He’s a 30 year old card-filler whose career trajectory is heading definitely downwards. Even those of us who only dip in and out of the combat arena know that the statistics here show a man with no business taking on McGregor, except to facilitate more hot air and braggadocio.

That is if McGregor is as good as he and the UFC’s impossibly slick marketing team tell us he is. Maybe he’s not and that’s why they have put what boxing fans might call a glorified tomato can in against him in a headline contest at the MGM Grand. Indeed, this reeks of the type of mismatching and overhyping of mediocre bouts that has turned so many people off the sweet science over the years. Amazingly, the UFC fans don’t seem to care, they are too invested in what they are being sold to notice it’s rather obviously a bill of goods.

Why is this the case? Well, the people who worship at the tattooed altar of McGregor are young (for the most part) and they have no sense of history or no appreciation that Irishmen and women (Sonia) have been holding their own on the world stage in various sports for a long time. Witness how many of the fans were happy to retweet McGregor’s lie about the Sports Illustrated cover. They know no better. They know a John Delaney from the FAI but Ronnie Delaney? Never heard of the guy. Eamonn Coghlan? The politician? He used to be a runner? When?

A friend has a theory about how UFC is the perfect sport for the social media generation who have seemingly no attention span. These are kids reared on YouTube and on Vines, where the beauty of technology means you just have to watch the highlights of any activity. No need to watch 90 minutes of a soccer match when you can see the goals. They choose UFC over boxing because one requires, at most, 15 minutes of concentration and some rudimentary knowledge of street fighting, the other demands nearly an hour and some knowledge of actual rules. They don’t have the mental stamina for the latter.

Their inability to concentrate and their refusal to try to put things in context is why they will celebrate McGregor’s victory on March 5th like it was a serious athletic achievement. Not just another well-run marketing ploy, not just another victory of style over substance.

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