You want to know something weird? Conor McGregor isn’t beloved by everyone in Ireland.
McGregor is almost certainly the most famous athlete in the history of the country. Nobody comes close, really. But instead of being beloved and accepted by everyone of all age groups, McGregor is polarizing. He is divisive, and the divide is largely along age lines.
Two years ago, I went to Dublin to try to get a sense of the place that helped mold and create him. I discovered two groups: those who love him unconditionally and those who believe his attitude and antics make him a poor representative of the country. The younger generation loves McGregor. The older folks believe he could carry himself a lot better, to be a better representative for his home.
After his loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. last weekend in Las Vegas, I have to wonder if the Irish elders' view of McGregor might be changing.
If not, it should. There may be no better winner in all of sport than McGregor. And there is certainly no better loser.
Leading up to a fight, he’s brash, bold and arrogant to the point of being insufferable. Though the hardcore McGregorites will continue to fawn over anything he says or does no matter how far over the line he may go, there does seem to come a point for the rest of us where enough is just enough.
My personal breaking point came on Day 3 of the seemingly never-ending World Tour the pair embarked on to build hype for the fight. That was when I understood the point a Dublin cab driver tried to make to me two years ago.
"He’s got all the talent in the world," the driver told me. "We just wish he’d carry himself a little differently. You understand?"
I did, but I didn’t.
I do now.
All that pre-fight bravado and buffoonery vanishes after the ending of a McGregor fight, though. In losing to Mayweather, McGregor was again gracious and respectful. You could visibly see the pre-fight veneer he’d constructed melt away. In its place was a fighter thankful for the opportunity to step in the ring with such a renowned boxer. He was grateful for the chance to prove the doubters wrong.
To prove he belonged.
In a sport where so few athletes are willing to give their opponents due credit, McGregor stands alone for his willingness to help build back up what he spent so much time tearing down. He makes no excuses about injuries nobody knows about. In fact, when he was preparing to face late replacement Chad Mendes—who stepped in for Jose Aldo at UFC 189 the first time the pair was scheduled to fight—McGregor was hiding a nasty ACL injury suffered while training with Rory MacDonald.
And even after finishing Mendes, he made no mention of the injury. It would be some time before he’d even confirm it, and even then he downplayed the significance.
Every fighter deals with some sort of injury going into every fight. It is the nature of the sport. The human body simply can’t stand up to the rigors of a full-time training camp without suffering some sort of trauma, no matter how supremely conditioned you may be. But McGregor is one of the few who refuses to use wear and tear or even significant injuries as an excuse for a loss.
In victory, McGregor is just as magnanimous, and sometimes even sorrowful. Witness his words to Aldo moments after their years-long feud came to an end in just 13 shocking seconds.
"I'm sorry," McGregor said. "We'll go again. And again."
McGregor has revolutionized mixed martial arts in profound ways, ways that will forever alter the landscape of what we once thought possible on the business side of things. Generations of future fighters have a new gold standard to model themselves after when it comes to business acumen and maximizing their earning potential. He has broken through the glass ceiling and continues to venture into uncharted territories.
But those same generations of future fighters—and the ones currently plying their trade in today’s UFC and Bellator—can also learn a lot from McGregor about being a professional when the fight is over. The quickest way to lose the respect of the fans is to make excuses for your performance and your loss.
The quickest way to earn it is by doing what McGregor does, by taking responsibility for what happened, by giving your opponent the respect they deserve and by moving forward and learning from the knowledge you gleaned in defeat.