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Before Saturday night’s fight at UFC 246, Conor McGregor was a flailing malcontent whose most notable bout in 2019 was when he sucker-punched an old man who didn’t want to try the fighter’s brand of whiskey. McGregor earned additional coverage outside of the cage last year after he was accused in Ireland of sexual assault in two separate investigations, both still open. But just 40 seconds into his match this past weekend, McGregor knocked out Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone—and somehow, all his transgressions faded into the background.
MMA has always been a sport that employs a colorful spectrum of dickheads, but McGregor’s behavior in recent years has exceeded anything from a common heel. In April 2018, he was arrested on an assault charge, and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of disorderly conduct, after he showed up in Brooklyn, threw a metal dolly at a bus full of fighters, and fled. He abruptly retired in March 2019, hours before the New York Times reported that he was being investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman at the Beacon Hotel in Dublin, then unretired 10 days later. He called his previous opponent Khabib Nurmagomedov’s wife “a towel,” although that was more of a bonus insult to all the Islamophobic rhetoric McGregor used in the runup to that fight. He punched the aforementioned old man in a pub last April, then pleaded guilty and paid a fine. The second complaint of sexual assault—which allegedly took place inside a parked vehicle near a Dublin pub—emerged in October. A month later, UFC czar Dana White announced McGregor’s match against Cerrone.
Leading up to the fight, it was as if none of that had happened. ESPN, which aired the match on its subscription streaming service, put together a commercial that called McGregor “the most controversial.” That’s one way to put it. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James found it “humbling” when he was told the UFC fighter considered him a model for his health regimen. When Morgan Campbell, a reporter on assignment for the Times, asked McGregor about the investigations at a presser days before UFC 246, the crowd booed loudly. In a bizarre twist, Cerrone stood up for his opponent. “Why you gotta keep going there?” he asked Campbell. White cut in and repeatedly referred to an ESPN interview done the day before. McGregor never had to say a word, because everyone else in the room put together a defense for him.
That ESPN interview White referenced didn’t provide any useful answers. MMA reporter Ariel Helwani conducted a marshmallow-soft sitdown with McGregor—not terribly surprising for a network loath to spoil the product it’s trying to sell—and asked him a vague question about the “allegations” that failed to specify what those allegations are. McGregor faced as little pressure in the conversation as he did against Cerrone. “I can’t say anything about this,” McGregor replied. “It just has to take place.” He added that “time will show all.”
As everyone waits for time to show all, why not keep pretending that McGregor is only a scumbag for show, in order to preserve the comeback narrative? “Welcome Back Champ!!” LeBron tweeted after McGregor’s victory. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt called the victor “THE KING!!!” A Barstool Sports gremlin had a camera capture his own embarrassing reaction as he watched the entire fight from press row, then preened afterward, as if the haters were supposed to shut up because a bigoted creep knocked out a 36-year-old in the twilight of his career.
McGregor hasn’t been charged with anything, and he and his camp have denied any wrongdoing in both sexual assault investigations. It’s understandable if he wants to stay quiet and allow the legal process to play out. To begin with, Ireland has strict laws on naming the parties involved in cases like this. But that doesn’t mean everyone else has to play dumb.
How many allegations of sexual assault would it take for McGregor to become persona non grata? Three? Five? Ten? Why does Dana White allow him to be associated with the UFC or sign on for fights while he’s the subject of open investigations? Would McGregor be more seriously scrutinized by the MMA media and general public if and only if he lost again, so that everyone could feel more assertive in ignoring him? Is that criteria not screwed up?
There are answers to these questions; they’re just disappointing. The UFC has a habit of hyping up the next big fighter, who more often than not is quickly dispatched after a short run. Because of the roster depth and nature of the sport, it has difficulty creating many long-lasting stars. Ronda Rousey was a sensation until she lost twice and went into pro wrestling. Jon Jones has been one of the current exceptions, although he’s had his own issues with failed drug tests, as well as a battery charge last summer that was eventually reduced to a no-contest plea to disorderly conduct. Conor McGregor is the current best fighter to fit the criteria. He’s 22-4 with 19 knockouts and is adept at drawing all kinds of attention, be it adoration or hatred. Being an asshole has only burnished his reputation, and Dana White knows it. A run-of-the-mill fighter would have been gone a long time ago if they had done what McGregor did in the past couple of years, but the promotion needs him. He is a major reason why pro athletes attend UFC cards and react to results with excessive exclamation marks.
The inherent brutality of MMA might make it easier for fans to overlook any legal troubles, but the sport isn’t unique in that case. The Kansas City Chiefs are a feel-good NFL story for breaking their long Super Bowl drought—so long as you don’t look into the accusations made against players like Tyreek Hill, Terrell Suggs, Frank Clark, and LeSean McCoy. The investigations tied to McGregor will continue to be treated as either a stern aside or, more uncharitably, a topic that cannot be commented on at all until the legal process plays out. The sport’s stakeholders and fans have decided that he will receive praise and airtime until he starts losing or another equally charismatic fighter comes along to take his spot.