The Many Faces of Notorious
Last month before her title loss to Holly Holm, I took a contrary angle looking at the narrative of Ronda Rousey. Most of the perspective on her career was about her in-cage ability or her outside the cage endeavors. None focused on what those things combined to create of her public image. Who was Ronda Rousey? Or, more accurately, how was she portrayed in the public sphere?
In a couple of days, the fighter currently wearing the crown as the biggest star in the UFC (for 72 hours at least) will step into the cage to face arguably its greatest fighter. He needs no introduction, but here it is: ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor.
As the eyes of the MMA world fall on Las Vegas for McGregor’s bid to unify the featherweight title, let us explore the five Faces of Notorious.
There are many words for it: Conviction. Certainty. Determinist. McGregor’s legend has been built in large part to the inevitability of his charge.
As a pimply-faced teenager: “My dream is to be the world champion of the UFC. And I will be. I guarantee it.” With the interim title, he's halfway there. But some of his other predictions have been truly eerie.
About Diego Brandao he predicted a first round knockout. He cleaned the Brazilian off in 34 seconds. About Dustin Poirier: “It's going to be a first-round KO, mark my words." Outcome? First round TKO. About Dennis Siver: “I feel that under two minutes it will take me to dispatch him.” Outcome? Knockout in 1 minute and 54 seconds. He bet the UFC brass he’d polish off Chad Mendes in the second round. Bingo.
This is my personal favorite McGregor. The power of belief is a tremendous psychological force. Sports psychologists say that on the day of a match, nothing said to an athlete should be in the realm of negativity. It should all be relentlessly empowering and reinforcing. When a person’s mind operates in only certainties — of winning, of success, of greatness — they take on an increasingly supernatural ability not to quit or crack under pressure. Nostradamus McGregor epitomizes this snowball effect: by believing you will accomplish something, when you do, that thing is more powerful than it was before.
When we see this face of McGregor, we are seeing the very face of self-fulfillment. This is the cult of McGregor. It begins as a prophecy, something most people snort at, but becomes increasingly harder to ignore. Soon we march to the same tune and hang on his every word. He’s too often correct to ever be wrong.
This face of McGregor is his most powerful because it is the one we can’t see in shades. From any angle, it’s the same.
This face of McGregor is unique in that it is almost entirely fed by McGregor himself.
Unlike Ronda Rousey, whose UFC image benefits greatly by living in the massive media market that is Los Angeles (power-giver to the legend’s of Bruce Lee and Gene LeBell) McGregor does not have that same luxury. He trains in Ireland, far away from the American media markets.
McGregor is a white, anglo-saxon male with one title win (albeit interim). Not exactly something the UFC can market to the nines like Rousey, a female who literally put her gender’s game on the map. McGregor isn’t the first fighter to talk a great game. He’s not the first to do much, really. Which is why UFC McGregor is not unlike any other fighter pushed by the UFC in the past. He’s dominant. He’s tough. He’s brash. It’s the same old tune.
Except the quality of those elements is entirely one-of-a-kind. The UFC pushes his trash talking and we get soundbite after soundbite after soundbite. The UFC pushes his unique fighting style and we get roundhouse kicks, karate stances, capoeira, and devastating combination striking.
UFC McGregor is the face that overwhelms the promotional machine. The UFC almost has too much they can show of McGregor. He may as well be his own channel.
This is McGregor’s heel turn. Though they are seemingly the minority, those few fans who don’t seem charmed by McGregor tend to point to this aspect, his parallels to obnoxiously arrogant fighters like Floyd Mayweather.
Money McGregor is grandiose, obnoxious, rude, entitled and impossible to ignore. He interrupts when others are speaking. He taunts fighters who aren’t even in his weight class. He speaks his mind and calls it the truth. There is a certain car crash watch ability to this McGregor. We watch as much to see if he’ll say something that goes a bit too far. It’s powerful and ferocious.
It’s easy to see how this public persona of McGregor’s is resented. Most people like their athletes to be humble (‘They play a sport for a living, after all!’) and blue collar — we want only to know that you’re training every moment of every day. Money McGregor treats those things like Donald Trump treats immigrants: with disdain.
Many fans resent this aspect of McGregor because it feels put on. If they feel it isn’t put on, they feel it’s arrogant. Whether he comes off as the WWE’s newest heel (Paging Sheamus anyone?), Money McGregor is must-watch TV. That’s why he’s Money.
'When you sign to fight me, it’s a celebration. You ring back home, you ring your wife – baby, we’ve done it. We’re rich, baby. Conor McGregor made us rich. Break out the red panties.'
One could easily confuse McGregor with those revered sensei’s in grainy black-and-white Aikido videos, making tiny movements to his left before flipping charging opponents one after the other. Of course, we know these to be as big a sham as there is.
In a manner, he’s as deep of a juxtaposition. While they tend to be frauds in the robes of monks, McGregor is a spiritual man wearing the suit of a businessman. This face of McGregor is the most at odds with the other faces.
McGregor truly approaches the game like no one else. One only needs listen to him speak in a serious conversation about the sport to understand. He waxes poetic about ‘movement’ and comparing his style to that of animals. Philosopher McGregor can be seen rolling on mats slow as molasses, ducking staff attacks from Ido Portal, sparring with giants, and doing deep breathing exercises. You would never know he’s as dangerous a human being there is.
Some of his early interviews are truly fascinating glimpses into the psyche of the fighter. His approach in particular has been cited by many in the MMA sphere as a shifting of the paradigm. His observations of the fight game reach a meta level most fighters can’t even articulate.
Philosopher McGregor is the most fascinating because it is arguably the most responsible for his success to this point.
This is the best McGregor, the hottest fuel for his public fire.
The image of McGregor, draped in the orange, white and green of Ireland’s flag, entering the arena to Sinead O’Connor’s ‘The Foggy Dew’ before fighting Dustin Poirier was about as iconic a moment in the sport’s history.
Or how about firing up the Irish faithful, just listen to him yourself.
This public image of McGregor is the truest. McGregor may have a boastful personality, but it’s still spoken with an Irish lilt. The words are one thing but the way the words are said, where they come from, is entirely another. Honed by his upbringing in Dublin, Irish McGregor is understood by the people there — they relate to him because they know where he comes from.
Irish McGregor most embodies what McGregor represents.
Come Saturday night, McGregor takes on the best featherweight there has ever been in Aldo. As good as both men are, there is a major difference, a gulf between the two. Aldo is simple while McGregor is complex. Win or lose, the faces of McGregor will live on, as notorious as the man.