It’s been nearly 11 months since Conor McGregor, the mercurial mixed martial arts superstar with a brogue tongue, massive ego and almost unparalleled success, fought someone in a ring.
Instead, he’s caught the world’s attention for behaving badly.
In April, McGregor was hanging out in a pub, pouring out shots of his own Proper No. 12 brand whiskey, when an older man refused the drink. In the surveillance camera footage that leaked earlier this month, you can see them trading words, with the man shoving a glass away every time McGregor puts it in front of him. Without warning, McGregor winds up his famous left hand — the hand “nobody can take,” in his own words — and clocks the man in the temple. The man recoils slightly, but remains perched on the bar stool, unfazed.
“I am sitting on the bar stool just having a quiet pint with my friend then all of a sudden because I refuse his drink I get a punch, you don’t need that in life,” he told the Irish Daily Star. “He is a bit of a bully, a bully with money.”
Naturally, McGregor got roasted alive on the internet for the sucker-punch, both from fans and fellow fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Jorge Masvidal, a fiery contender himself, dismissed McGregor as “the little guy” while offering the older man some “real whiskey.” Chael Sonnen agreed that the punch was “scumbag stuff.” An Irish pub decided to flush their entire inventory of Proper No. 12 and take McGregor’s picture off its wall. And fellow Irishman and boxer Luke Keeley challenged him to an in-ring brawl over the punch.
In other words, it’s business as usual for McGregor, the biggest villain in sports — one who’s lurched from controversy to distraction and back to controversy, winning headlines while losing dollars in court cases and fines. And after so many lowlights and so little action in McGregor’s actual job, fans have begun to wonder whether what we’re watching is a clever man with a nose for making catchy news, or merely an off-his-prime fighter spending more time on bluster than in action.
This is the same character who did the unthinkable and booked a pay-per-view event against legendary boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2017, ultimately getting beat to mush but earning the biggest single check ever for an MMA fighter. Was he a race-baiting asshole during the promotion of the event, pulling on some of the worst stereotypes about black men in order to win attention? Oh, yeah.
He then got into a rage-fueled rampage in the run-up to the UFC championship fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018, while continuing to spit insults about Nurmagomedov’s Muslim religion, his father and his country. McGregor lost in decisive fashion in that fight, getting his neck cranked by a determined Nurmagomedov. The victory did little to soothe wounds — the Dagestani fighter ended up trying to fight McGregor’s entire team as a response to their insults.
Since then, he’s claimed he’s retiring, been investigated for sexual assault, prosecuted for destroying and stealing a fan’s phone, and been at the center of rumors of McGregor vs. Mayweather II — in Japan, no less. At the same time, could McGregor agree to return to the UFC before the end of the year? Maybe!
For now, the best material fans have to work with is a 30-minute ESPN interview that includes a contrite, stammering apology and a lot of nervous energy. McGregor’s nickname of “Notorious” apparently reflects his personal life now, instead of his achievements in the octagon (or ring).
All of these factors make McGregor a real-life heel — a pro wrestling slang term for someone who’s playing the villain. And McGregor has himself argued that he’s aware of the role he plays, claiming that all the offensive language is in service of a plan to mess with opponents’ heads. Elsewhere, he’s played up the notion that he’s striving hard to stay on the straight and narrow: “People are trying to bait me into things. Am I the fish, or am I the whale? I must be calm, I must be zen. I must lead by example,” he says in the ESPN interview. “I have to stop taking the bait.”
But is McGregor a man struggling to maintain control? Or someone who’s gotten used to a lifestyle of pulling the spotlight, time and again? The apologies have fallen on deaf ears, but that’s what happens when someone plays humble like a pitcher throws changeups. It’s tempting to keep seeing McGregor as a clever heel; that’s what I see being alluded to in comments like that from UFC head Dana White. “What’s crazy is Conor McGregor is a smart kid,” he said on The Jim Rome Show. “He’s a very smart kid. He’s financially set himself up. He’s made some really good moves business-wise, and he’s made a lot of money.”
But after a while, ironic toxicity is just… toxicity. And McGregor’s lack of interest in taking a UFC fight seems to suggest the antics are merely a distraction.
There’s another elite athlete who’s been accused of childish antics recently: Antonio Brown. You could credibly argue he’s created more headaches for his new team, the Oakland Raiders, than optimism. But the real tie to McGregor is in how they came up. McGregor was a plumber’s apprentice, planning a life of middle-class Irish banality, when he decided to start fighting (and winning). Brown played college ball at tiny Central Michigan and only got picked in the sixth round of the NFL draft, with plenty of doubt about his small stature. These are conditions that often trigger a certain strain of pride and power in athletes — traits that have led to the label of diva for both McGregor and Brown.
But the difference is that the NFL’s villain du jour seems to understand the limits of courting controversy, whereas McGregor continues to embarrass himself in undignified ways. There’s another uber-talented football player who displayed this undisciplined streak — Ryan Leaf, the quarterback draft bust extraordinaire, who sank under waves of substance abuse, laziness and entitlement. “Once my career started to go downhill, those behaviors were given a spotlight on a national level. I think it was my mother’s worst fear that her son would be found out that way, on that stage,” Leaf told the L.A. Times in 2017. And if online discourse is any sign, there’s a lot of MMA fans seeing McGregor on the stage and not liking what they see.
What’s strange is that other MMA stars with polarizing personalities have managed to capitalize on it without crossing so many lines. Nate Diaz, the trash-talking, scrap-friendly fighter who’s also McGregor’s greatest nemesis, has risen to greatness despite being lawless and free-wheeling and routinely antagonistic to the UFC. Even Jon Jones’ reputation has faired okay despite his run-ins with the law and doping problems; he recently won plaudits for sending an earnest olive branch to subject of his biggest beef, fighter Daniel Cormier.
It’s hard to believe McGregor when he tells ESPN’s Ariel Helwani that he considers his sins with “daily discussions” as a way to better himself — he’s apologized in similar fashion in the past. But I do see truth in another statement: “It’s a forgetful business. It’s a cruel, cruel business. Only the amount of history I’ve made, the iconic moments that have happened in my career… they would’ve loved to thrown me away, discard me,” McGregor told Helwani. “We do it for the fans, for our family, for the people. And when it’s all said and done, they just discard you.”
In his desperate effort to stave that off, McGregor has turned heel. But the lack of sincere effort behind his words is now catching up to him. The final stretch of 2019 will show a lot about his intentions. Until then, McGregor is his nickname, “Notorious,” and little else.