What is the secret to getting over with an audience? The clichéd notion that there is a thin line between love and hate carries an element of truth in the sporting world, but particularly in combat sports. And arguably no mixed martial artist better exemplifies this fact than Conor McGregor.
Attempting to manufacture popularity is rarely a successful strategy. Chael Sonnen has got away with it by caricaturing himself, but most fans recognise that his tongue is firmly buried in his cheek whenever he is within a dozen miles of a microphone.
Generally speaking, something about an athlete’s real personality has to connect with the audience, whether it’s their charm, their story, their beliefs or any of the other countless qualities fans value.
In the case of McGregor, it was his boundless charisma that first grabbed our attention. Fans in the United Kingdom and Ireland had long been aware of his potential, but many on the other side of the pond were first introduced to the Irishman when he was interviewed by Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour.
His appearance on the show was spellbinding. His affable charm was complemented by a confidence that didn’t merely border on arrogance, but resided a few miles beyond said border. The audience immediately took to him, but seducing a fanbase while giving free reign to one’s ego is always a high wire act.
Indeed, most athletes can’t pull it off. Contrast someone like Muhammad Ali with Jon Jones. The latter carries plenty of appeal, but it would be a stretch to say that he has earned the love of the fans.
The MMA audience is less inclined to embrace a fighter with an unchecked ego. If they are to do so, that better be one charming fighter, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. While McGregor has charm to spare, there is only so much talk an audience can take before they expect him to back it up.
And that may have been the Irishman’s crucial mistake in the fans’ eyes. Rather than concentrating on his rehabilitation, the ailing fighter has continued to take a figurative leak on every potential rival 10 pounds either side of him.
McGregor is perhaps starting to feel the cultural differences that exist between MMA and boxing, with his once-endearing views now regularly being greeted with groans of disapproval from the fans.
As I argued in 2012, boxing’s history is steeped in blue-collar tradition, while the culture of MMA comprises elements of both East and West. The latter’s violence remains somewhat intertwined with Eastern philosophy, which boasts an almost paradoxical association with pacifism and humility.
While this association has been diluted over the years, the sport has retained an appreciation for its traditional roots. We are still more likely to embrace a Bruce Lee as opposed to a Floyd Mayweather.
It seems at times as though McGregor’s persona is more suitable for the boxing world, given the fighters' preoccupation with materialism and the audience’s greater tolerance for hubris.
However, we should be careful what we wish for. MMA desperately needs more personalities. With so many of the UFC’s biggest stars on the shelf, the sport is in danger of enduring a repeat of its disastrous 2012.
I appreciate stoicism, humility and respect as much as anyone else, but it’s easy to forget that MMA is a young sport that requires transcendent figures to help it grow. A fighter like Cain Velasquez might dazzle us when he steps inside the cage, but doctors could reasonably prescribe his talk show appearances for insomnia.
We shouldn’t demonise our more extroverted fighters. Part of what makes MMA appealing is that it attracts so many different personalities. Unlike boxing, we can’t simply copy and paste the same bio for every fighter.
Some may stubbornly cling to the idea that mixed martial artists should conform to the “traditional” archetype, but we need to embrace fighters like Conor McGregor. Without them, the sport may very well stagnate.
James MacDonald is a freelance writer and featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow James on Twitter.
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