On Conor McGregor's Unfathomable Rise in Modern Sports Culture

Matthew Ryder@@matthewjryderFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor of Ireland relaxes backstage at Madison Square Garden prior to his lightweight championship fight agianst Eddie Alvarez during the UFC 205 event on November 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

There was a moment when it became clear Conor McGregor was an undeniable force.

It was a little over three years into his UFC run.

He was the reigning featherweight champion of the world and was moments away from becoming the lightweight champion as well—the first man or woman to ever achieve simultaneous reigns in separate divisions in UFC history.

At UFC 205, the promotion’s long-awaited debut in New York City, which emanated from the vaunted Madison Square Garden, McGregor headlined against Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez, for his part, was a worthy adversary in every way, a stalwart who could wrestle and box and had gone 28-of-32 in MMA fights before that night.

McGregor appeared unruffled, however.

Entering the cage, he strutted and swayed about, arms swinging exaggeratedly as if to exude a looseness he apparently felt down to his core. It was the pinnacle of physical confidence, this ability to make something so silly into a foreshadowing of the swaggering way he’d dispatch Alvarez moments later.

What’s more, he aped it from pro wrestling icon Vince McMahon. The "Billionaire Strut" was once a staple of McMahon’s villainous on-air persona. In a way, you can’t get much more absurd than that.

Yet McGregor embraced the absurdity. He doubled down on a mink coat (Note: linked article contains NSFW language) he'd worn days prior at the event's pre-fight press conference.

"I’m thinking Vince McMahon must be pissed," he said during a pay-per-view interview in January 2017. "I stole that walk, and that walk is now mine. That’s my walk. I created that walk. I made that walk."

And it is.

It’s his because while McMahon was doing it for years, it was only after McGregor broke it out moments before his crowning athletic achievement that you started seeing other celebrities and athletes aping him.

That was the moment you could no longer ignore McGregor’s unfathomable rise in modern sports culture. Seeing global superstars pinch his act in the name of coolness cemented him as an icon, an inspiration to some and an attention-grabber to all. It’s what’s made him a cultural force well before his 30th birthday.

Not bad for a guy who collected a welfare check back in 2013. 

Now we’re here.

Ten months after arriving at the highest levels of the sports world, McGregor has used his exploding fame to land one of the biggest paydays in boxing history—and the biggest payday ever collected by an MMA fighter.

He’ll fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. on August 26 in a contest that should net him $100 million despite his never having competed in professional boxing.

The notion that it’s happening is a testament to how much people want to see McGregor in action. Yes, he’s fighting the biggest draw in boxing history and that’s where much of the money is coming from, but Mayweather was retired before McGregor came along and drew him back in for one more enormous payout.

"We’re not here to cry about money. I’m tired of all this crying about money and talking about [how McGregor wants] to fight," Mayweather said on a media tour earlier this year, per FightHype.com (Warning: video contains NSFW language). "[He’s] blowing smoke up everybody’s ass."

He continued: "If [he wants] to fight, sign the paperwork, let’s do it. Today, I’m officially out of retirement for Conor McGregor. We don’t need to waste no time."

They didn’t. The bout was announced in June, a mere 10 weeks out from it happening, the ultimate sprint to fight night. As has been known to happen, McGregor got his way when most thought it impossible. 

A big part of McGregor’s rise through the ranks and into prominence has been linked to his cultivation of an image.

He’s a modern athlete for modern times in that sense, speaking in shareable quotes and soundbites, blending streetwise wisdom with inspirational philosophy, using Twitter and Instagram to display decadence and opulence that the famous relate to and the proletariat aspires to.

As Jeremy Botter of Bleacher Report put it in July 2015, "[McGregor] is a quote machine, always good for a headline. He says things few others in the sport of mixed martial arts will, and he takes direct aim at current and future opponents with a razor-sharp tongue."

A quick scroll through McGregor's social media accounts shows him shopping on Rodeo Drive, bragging about having statues made in his image or modeling some variety of clothing or car that only the most confident men on Earth would be caught dead in.

He's shown up at events in a gaudy mink coat, something that looked like it came off of a polar bear but still managed to have a dragon emblazoned across it and, of course, the instantly famous "f--k you" suit he rocked for his first public meeting with Mayweather.

He makes no apologies for who he is, and he makes sure the masses know about it every step of the way. It’s the type of shrewd maneuvering uniquely tailored to his era, where everyone is connected by a device in their pocket or on their desk or in their lap and they can voyeuristically watch his rise to the top whenever they fancy. 

Love him or hate him, there is no ignoring him.

The inability to ignore McGregor has blossomed into full-blown fascination with him now, in sports and beyond. The rich and the famous will be ringside to see him fight Mayweather, and people all over the planet will plunk down $100 to watch him do the same from their homes. 

It's reasonable to expect McGregor, win or lose, will use the opportunity he’s created for himself on August 26 to transcend sports culture and bleed over into the mainstream going forward.

There’s evidence it’s happening already, in fact.

It’s been a meteoric rise the likes of which has almost never been seen in sports, and it’s culminated in circumstances that would never have been possible at any other point in history. It also wouldn’t have been possible with any other athlete.

McGregor understands what it takes to be great in his craft, but he also understands what it takes to be great outside of it. He’s exploded from the shackles of the UFC to become a one-man enterprise, an athlete and promoter who’s the richest in his sport and looking to become the richest, period.

If his bank account continues to grow like his profile has, before long there’ll be nothing absurd about his Billionaire Strut at all.

Follow me on Twitter @matthewjryder


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