Conor McGregor following a well-beaten path for divisive Irish sporting figures
If Conor McGregor’s retirement is the Saipan for the new generation, then those hoping his tweet on Tuesday night will bring an end to the phenomenon are probably going to be disappointed.
A few days after Roy Keane had left the Pacific Island, some believed the story was at an end and went in search of different narratives to frame Ireland’s World Cup around.
Instead the intensity increased and took over every conversation in Ireland. A friend recalls walking along Dublin's Baggot Street in 2002 and realising that the story was now out of control. The husband and wife he passed were talking about Keane. As he went by a pub, all he could hear from inside were the key words belting out and the next few people were engaged with it too.
For years it seemed like it would never end and it rumbled on in one form or another right up until Keane returned to the Ireland set-up in 2014. His presence at the European Championships will probably bring it up again. As Faulkner said, the past is never dead, it’s not even past.
— Ireland Football ⚽️🇮🇪 (@IrelandFootball) April 20, 2016
Keane was a great polarising figure in Ireland subsequent to 2002 and McGregor has had the same effect.
If the sense of shock for those who idolise McGregor as others once idolised Keane is the same, there are key differences.
McGregor’s dispute with the UFC does not have the capacity for friction within Ireland that Keane’s with Mick McCarthy did.
Yet this story will rumble on as Saipan did. McGregor won’t disappear because of Tuesday night’s announcement, no matter how much those who find him disagreeable will it to be so.
The context of McGregor’s tweet and his subsequent exclusion from UFC 200 suggests that, as retirement plans go, this wasn’t a civil servant leaving the Department of Forestry and Fisheries after 40 years of steady service, an index-linked pension and a gift subscription to Open Fairways.
McGregor has a decent pension pot, but he had reason to believe that his earning potential was going to continue to increase, and for a man who has made his wealth central to his mission statement that would seem to provide a context for his retirement.
UFC may feel like they can do without him, and there are those who confidently predict that they can market a new fighter as they have marketed McGregor.
But it may not be that simple. There are many reasons for the phenomenon that is McGregor, just as there are many reasons for the rise of MMA.
Ireland may have become hooked because of McGregor, but his rise has been global and it may not be as easy to replicate his appeal simply because there is a template.
McGregor has positioned himself smartly and his appeal has simultaneously transcended UFC and exposed MMA to a whole new audience.
Some of that audience are reluctant or disgusted viewers who can’t understand the attraction of a sport they don’t see as sport at all.
But this position in the counterculture is part of the appeal, just as previous generations became more possessive as their parents questioned if rock ’n’ roll was really music or if civilisation was going to collapse when their children starting attending raves.
There were moments when it all seemed over and those who set themselves in opposition felt they'd seen off this existential threat.
Often it didn't work out that way.
McGregor might have ambitions beyond UFC but he, too, might discover that he needed their expertise as much as they have benefited from his instinctive cunning and marketing genius.
McGregor’s retirement hasn’t altered the fundamentals. ‘What will Conor McGregor do next?’ has been the question which has driven the story during his rise. It will probably become an even more pressing question during his exile, no matter how long it lasts.