It’s the third round of the UFC 229 main event showdown between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, and I’m perched on the edge of my bed in Dublin, Ireland, rubbing sleep from my eyes. I shout “Gwan Conor!” at intervals, tense as ‘The Eagle’ and The Notorious’ exchange jabs in the centre of The Octagon.
My Mother, who is sixty six years old, presses her hands into a steeple of prayer, cringing when Nurmagomedov shoots for yet another takedown.
“Yes! Thank god!” She exclaims, just short of blessing herself as McGregor defends successfully.
She does not want to witness another two minutes of ground and pound. The fact that McGregor escaped Nurmagomedov’s second-round mauling is a miracle in itself.
When Conor McGregor taps in the fourth, unable to escape a Khabib Nurmagomedov neck crank, we sink in disappointment. As I watch Conor slump back against the Octagon, I feel a real empathy with the man who, having promised to spark Khabib ‘into the nosebleeds’, finds himself defeated.
Yet shortly thereafter, the spell breaks, my reverie disturbed by the out of character actions of the UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov, who tumbles out of the Octagon and catapults himself into the audience, attacking McGregor’s Jiu Jitsu coach, Dillon Danis.
While McGregor can not solely be held responsible for the now well documented melee that ensued both inside and outside of The Octagon on Saturday night, I can’t help but view Nurmagomedov and his teams actions in the context of a people who had been pushed too far.
And so, I begin to question my decision to once again support McGregor. Before I continue, I want to put it on record that I admire Conor McGregor’s success. Through hard work and determination, he has propelled himself from the same unemployment queue I once found myself standing in, to the pinnacle of this beautiful yet unforgiving sport. I also want to add that I do find it distasteful when I hear Irish people openly express glee at his defeats within either a ring or a cage. I do however understand the love-hate relationship that my fellow Irish have with the Crumlin born fighter.
I myself have a strong distaste for the way in which he at times presents himself to the world – brash, insulting, uncouth, arrogant and disrespectful. At the same time, I have a deep appreciation for his charm, wit, passion, perseverance, articulation, dedication and talent.
Conor McGregor is also highly generous with his time and money when it comes to supporting local charities, in particular those which care for and treat sick children. It is an act of kindness that in large part is not broadcast, but his generosity is something to be admired.
Yet back in April of this year, when he rammed a Dolly at the window of a bus filled with passengers, shattering a glass window and subsequently endangering, injuring and traumatizing those onboard, I made a conscious decision to wash my hands.
This took shape in the form of unfollowing him on social media — the ultimate 21st century rebuttal (And yes, I’m well aware that Conor McGregor was not losing sleep over my Twitter unfollow).
I had also, in the spirit of full disclosure, been writing pieces for his website, The Mac Life. While I had made the decision to stop writing for his site before the incident, I undoubtedly would have felt less inclined to be involved with The Mac Life after the dolly-throwing incident in Brooklyn.
How could I have continued contributing to a site that was affiliated with what was frankly thuggish behaviour? How could I now vocally support someone who had participated in such violent and reckless actions without showing a shadow of remorse?
Yet time passed, McGregor dealt with the legal fall out, and UFC 229 was announced.
But I didn’t jump on the bandwagon — not at first.
In fact, my heart did not fully align with McGregor until I saw him speak with The Mac Life, where he discussed his love for the fight game and came across as his genuine, measured, charming, down to earth and passionate self.
That’s the Conor the world fell in love with.
With undoubtedly the toughest fight of his life on the horizon, this quick glimpse of the Irishman I had so previously admired was enough to reel me back onboard the McGregor hype train.
I found myself turning a blind eye to the highly personal and derogatory comments he made at every turn about Khabib; about the champion’s family and his countrymen, and laughed as he embraced the typical Irish stereotype, toting a bottle of his Proper Twelve whiskey, wearing a becoming Irish tweed cap.
Moments before his walkout, the appearance of the Irish flag across numerous screens in the T-Mobile arena also evoked a sense of Irish pride, as Sinead O’ Connor’s The Foggy Dew echoed hauntingly throughout the arena.
Less than an hour later — and irrespective of the result of the fight itself — I was questioning my decision to cheer for the former two-weight champion. Had my sense of pride in my nationality and in turn, a fellow countryman, misled me? Knowing the backstory to the pre fight lead up, and having witnessed the disrespect shown to his opponent, would I have been supporting Conor McGregor had he been say…a Canadian? An American? A Brazilian?
Throughout each round, I encouraged McGregor to KO a man whom up until Saturday night, had presented himself commendably to both the MMA public and media. A man who as a boy, had wrestled bears. A man who had grown in a region stepped in political and economic turmoil following war. A man for whom respect is everything.
Sure, Khabib had confronted fellow fighter Artem Lobov in a manner which was threatening, something I definitely don’t condone, but hadn’t Lobov been highly disrespectful about Nurmagomedov in the lead up?
The purpose of writing this article is not to dissect the whole Khabib Nurmagomedov/ Conor McGregor feud, or to lay the blame on one party or the other.
I simply felt compelled to write this piece as an Irish MMA fan, to put down on paper my ambivalence towards an Irish athlete who in my heart I can’t help but support, yet in my head, on one occasion too many, I am forced to condemn.
While my feelings towards The Notorious one are uncertain, despite his second UFC loss, Conor McGregor is most certainly back, and that is something which does not look set to change anytime soon.
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 10/8/2018.