Brendan Crossan: Sports stars don't need to cultivate a bad boy image
SOON after he’d beaten Chris Eubank in Mill Street in the mid-90s, world champion Steve Collins appeared as a guest on The Late Late Show.
The Dubliner was talking the talk. He told host Gay Byrne there had been nothing like him since bread came sliced. Poor Gay, for once, looked a little bewildered by Collins’ brashness and self-proclaimed ring genius.
Then, what sounded like a middle-aged lady called the show and spoke to Collins live on air. The phone crackled a little and with a diffident, almost timid tone, the caller said she thought Collins lacked humility in his interview with Byrne. She was right too.
Maybe it’s an innately Irish thing, but people here don’t like their champions to be show-offs or, in this instance, to completely lack humility. Collins seemed genuinely stunned by the caller’s quiet admonishment. When her timidly delivered words reached him, it was as if he’d been hit by an invisible uppercut. It was one of those interviews that did Collins more harm than good - at least in the eyes of the public.
Fast-forward to the present and Ireland’s mixed martial arts champion Conor McGregor makes Collins look distinctly genteel. In August, McGregor won his eagerly-awaited UFC 202 rematch with Nate Diaz. Fighting at an unfamiliar weight, McGregor exacted revenge for his earlier defeat against the Californian, winning a majority points decision.
McGregor is a talented fighter. His frightening hand speed would give many top-rated boxers trouble in the square ring. He has, almost single-handedly, brought MMA to the mass market. You wonder how he’s managed to do that.
His talent has been key. But so too has his trash-talking. Prior to his Nate Diaz rematch, I clicked onto social media - and there was the Dubliner hurling bottles in the general direction of Diaz at the back of the auditorium. One f-word wasn’t hanging around for the other. In their post-fight interviews, both used the term ‘mother-******’. Classy.
This is how Conor McGregor - and indeed the UFC community - rolls. It’s an arena where bad manners, bad behaviour and foul language are seen as badges of honour. This is our Irish sporting hero abroad, neatly engulfed in the Irish tricolour. Brash, in your face, unruly and lacking in class.
Michael Conlan is a talented kid who got a raw deal in the Rio Olympics this summer. I’ve listened to and read a lot about the Belfast boxer in recent years. Although occasionally brash in media interviews, his blue-collar values come shining through. In many ways, he’s a typical working-class kid from Belfast - the difference is he’s got the God-given talent to become a star in the shark-infested waters of the professional game.
When he gave the middle finger to the judges after being denied a rightful win in Rio, some of us winced. And some of us winced further when he gave that infamous post-fight interview at ringside where he swore freely at the injustice.
Right then, you wanted someone to put an arm around the distraught boxer and guide him away from the rolling television cameras and awaiting microphones. The interview went viral. Twitter went into overdrive. The vast majority shared in Conlan’s pain. Many felt he was right to issue a crude broadside to the whole amateur boxing set-up. Twitter - as only Twitter can be - was dutifully outraged. For a couple of days.
And then we got on with our lives. That’s what Twitter does - it rolls inexorably to the next outrage. It was a bit like Roy Keane walking out of Mick McCarthy’s World Cup squad in 2002. Keane divided a nation. For the Cork man’s supporters, he was the courageous one.
Someone had to take a stand against Irish football’s decrepit standards. Keane did. The upshot? The Genesis report. Remember that piece of work? Fourteen years on, you can bet Keane’s fanatical supporters of the time wouldn’t be able to recall a single syllable of the report that was designed to rid Irish football of all its ills. Keane missed out on playing at the World Cup. I wonder do his supporters back in ’02 still believe he did the right thing?
It would be a crying shame if Michael Conlan’s legacy is that post-fight interview and that middle-finger gesture rather than the sumptuous ring skills that saw him glide beautifully to world champion status in the amateur ranks.
He recently turned pro with Bob Arum’s Top Rank. A photograph was posted of Arum and Conlan smiling and giving the camera the middle finger. The social media post was ill-advised. The photo merely served to copper-fasten the image of Conlan’s worst moment in his sporting life, that this was the guy who gave the middle finger to the judges in Rio and cursed his way through a live television interview. Remember him, folks?
Irish people like their champions to be humble. Carl Frampton has got it right. The Tiger’s Bay man conducts himself with fantastic grace, in and out of the ring, and is a role model for young people living in deprived areas of the city, showing they too can aim high and make a success of their lives.
Katie Taylor is another glowing example of sporting grace. Her injustice in Rio didn’t go viral. The Bray native expressed her disappointment with the judges’ decision in less theatrical terms. She thanked God and moved on. Her perceived blandness killed us on Twitter.
Over the coming years, I hope Michael Conlan becomes a world champion and that memories of Rio will fade, in his own mind and in ours. His talent demands it. Right now though, the Conor McGregor phenomenon and all its tasteless, loud-mouth trappings have taken a firm grip of our senses.
Surely, something’s gone wrong when we celebrate bad behaviour - and we have to close our children’s ears.