By Liam McInerney
The recent UFC 205 New York press conference was a memorable spectacle. Conor McGregor, as has become convention, created, and then stole the show.
Braggadocious boasting and witty prose attacking the identity of fellow fighters; ‘The Notorious’ delivered the entertainment.
Everybody’s eyes, be it those inside the arena, or those streaming online, were fixated on the character with the sunglasses sitting beside his employer. Conor McGregor has a powerful and infectious aura.
His verbal exploits outside the octagon reach global territories with compelling effect.
But a man even more notorious than Conor McGregor initiated this extravagant method of fighter conduct.
That, of course, was Muhammad Ali.
As Thomas Hauser writes in his phenomenally insightful biography of Muhammad Ali, “Before Clay’s fight against Sonny Liston, championship bout weigh-ins had been fairly standard and boring. But Muhammad Ali reinvented the rituals of boxing, and after the show he put on in Miami Beach, weigh-ins would never be the same.”
Ali screamed wildly across to heavyweight champion of the world Liston of how he would beat him that night.
It was psychological warfare. Before the opening bell sounded, Ali had tampered with his opponent’s mindset.
The fearless Liston later admitted he was unsettled by Ali; a man he thought was “crazy”, and therefore perilously unpredictable.
McGregor employs the same aggressive mental torture at pre-fight events.
Back in March 2015, featherweight champion at the time, Jose Aldo, travelled to a hostile Dublin press conference where Conor McGregor outraged his Brazilian opponent.
McGregor claimed he was the “King of Dublin” before callously reaching across a table to pry away Aldo’s gold world title belt and lift it as if it were already his.
The crowd were ecstatic, and the media present knew that they were witnessing UFC history.
Aldo reacted emotionally, and before they even set foot into the octagon, McGregor was 1-0 up.
Muhammad Ali was the master of trash talking in the 20th Century and McGregor has profitably extended that art into MMA. Only McGregor can remotely compare to Ali’s pre-fight bravado.
But what makes Ali and McGregor stand out is their ability to put their bold words into action.
Both were forced to overcome adversity in their combat career; Ali when he lost to Frazier and McGregor when he was choked out by Nate Diaz.
The two special athletes didn’t go about their rematches modestly either, they were just as daring and confident leading up to fight night.
Ali overturned his defeat with a points win over Frazier as did McGregor over Diaz.
Another common trait between the competitors is the generous time they provide to their fans.
At the SBG Tallaght gym opening this year I witnessed first-hand the appreciation McGregor has for his followers.
As he made his anticipated entrance, hundreds of people surrounded their champion.
Despite the claustrophobic and intense environment, McGregor smiled, posed for photos, and thanked anyone who offered words of support.
It was a frenzy that lasted over an hour but ‘The Notorious’ never once complained, a key indication of what the man is like when TV cameras aren’t present.
The ‘Louisville Lip’, as Muhammad Ali was once called by the press, also granted his supporters indelible moments.
In Hauser’s biography of Ali, promotor Don Elbaum tells the story of a training camp in Toronto.
At his hotel after training, Ali would accommodate the kids who came to see him by organising races where he gave the winners and losers money.
Elbaum asked Ali could he call the press so they could write a story about his benevolence.
Ali replied, “Please don’t. I’m having too much fun. If the papers come and write about it, my people are going to get upset and I won’t be able to do it anymore.”
Self-promotion is a crucial aspect of the fight game and Muhammad Ali devoted his abilities into gaining as wide an appeal as possible.
His influence came to the fore during a New York newspaper strike which inspired Ali to travel around the city preaching to anyone who would listen about his upcoming fight.
McGregor also works tirelessly to increase ticket sales and generate interest although social media platforms like Twitter have helped ‘The Notorious’ in his promotional quest.
He tweeted on 19th April 2016: “I have decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese. Catch ya’s later.”
This one tweet resulted in news stories and debates worldwide.
Nobody can outshine the greatest showman of them all, Muhammad Ali. But Conor McGregor is transcending the sport of MMA like nobody before him.
Ali’s legend stands above everyone. His impact on racial and political issues during a turbulent era of American history is staggering.
However, in a sporting sense of how a fighter carries himself, Conor McGregor is the closest equivalent to Muhammad Ali that we’ve witnessed.