Conor McGregor and the Mysteries of Self Knowledge

If you’re anywhere near Ireland these days, the name Conor McGregor should ring more than just a few bells. And if you’re even a little bit into the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), or the sport of mixed-martial arts (MMA) in general, then you likely know the man well by now.


Ireland’s “Notorious” fighting son is all the rage these days—in his hometown of Dublin and outside of it—as MMA’s brashest rising star. He’s the UFC’s newest and most exciting featherweight (145 pounds) contender, poised to challenge for the championship after dispatching several opponents with his unorthodox movement, uncharacteristic power, and Muhammad Ali-like gamesmanship. McGregor is undefeated in four UFC fights, and has a clairvoyant knack for predicting the round within which he’s going to “KO” an opponent.

Last month, McGregor, number nine in the official UFC featherweight rankings, faced Dustin “Diamond” Poirier (ranked number five), a tough 25-year-old American from Louisiana who’s never been KO’d (or TKO’d) in the UFC. McGregor ended up knocking Poirier out in less than two minutes into the fight, which is divided up into three five-minute rounds (unless it’s a “main event” bout, which usually lasts for five). McGregor fulfilled his prediction after talking a whole lot of trash to Poirier, who he referred to as a “nice hillbilly kid.” Despite being only a year older than Poirier, who has more than twice the number of UFC fights under his belt, McGregor characteristically said, again and again, that Poirier “won’t make it out of the first round.” Needless to say, “Diamond,” who only had three losses as a pro, stated that he’d never “hated anyone so much” in his life. Point taken.

Still, for all the jawing back-and-forth, it’s what McGregor said to Poirier right before the two were about to “weigh-in” (a media event which shows that all fighters have made the specified weight for their division before fight day) in front of the media that truly demonstrates his cerebral approach to fighting. The Irishman, who always drapes his country’s tri-colour banner across his back for every walkout to the Octagon (the eight-sided cage within which every UF bout takes place), asked Poirier why he had no flag. Poirier said he doesn’t carry one. Seeing an opportunity, McGregor told his opponent that he carried no flag because he left Louisiana to train in Florida, a “journeyman” move that McGregor deems as unworthy of the mindset of a true champion, who must “celebrate his surroundings.” In contrast to Poirier, McGregor has been training with his coach and team in Dublin for about a decade now. In other words, he was calling Poirier a self-loather who left the “hill-billy” way of life because he was ashamed of it. In McGregor’s eyes, Poirier obviously thought that his pedantic origins were not befitting of a UFC star-in-the-making.

This kind of psychological warfare, if you will, is rare in today’s sporting world. In fact, it’s kind of genius. Whether or not you agree with the guy’s reasoning, you have to admire his instinct for knowing how critiquing man’s past can affect his present state of mind. And even if Poirier never viewed his past in such a negative light, he probably has thought about it by now.

“For me personally, he’s a young hillbilly who up-sticks and moves to Miami,” McGregor said in an interview with Fox Sports Live. “Already I see a weakness in the armor; he believes that where he was born was not good enough, it’s not a good enough place to become world champion…all this fabricated stuff you tell yourself when, really, the answer is not out there—it’s in your mind.”

It took me a while to really understand what McGregor was getting at. By citing Poirier’s pilgrimage from Lafayette, Louisiana to Miami, he was calling Poirier an insecure person—someone who lacks the kind of self-knowledge necessary to be comfortable in one’s own skin. He’s contrasting Poirier with himself, who seems to bring up Ireland every chance he gets in media interviews, etc. His is an unadulterated and conflated sort of nationalist-patriotism that, though obviously coming from the heart, is too homogenous to truly distinguish between the disparate experiences that criss-cross our world these days. Poirier may or may not be ashamed of his past (hell, have you been to Lafayette?), but people all across the world leave their homes for a better life, for better opportunities, and, more significantly, for the chance to give their kids a better shot at happiness. Some even escape abuse, or political persecution—but I digress; McGregor’s comment relates specifically to being a prizefighter.

Nonetheless, his brief fightin’ words should still resonate though with anyone who’s ever had to pack up their bags and fly off to some distant place to begin a new life. In fact, if you’re a Muslim living in the Western world, then there’s a good chance that your family doesn’t go back many generations in their country of residence. Your parents or grandparents (or maybe a little further back if you’re really lucky) probably had to move into Canada, or the US, or the UK, from somewhere else. To establish oneself in a strange place with alien customs and language(s) is a fight, and the crisis of how much of the old country one carries on the inside becomes rougher over time. Not everybody gets to be like Conor McGregor, whose supra-human confidence is connected to his sense of heritage and the homogenous feel for identity through which he sees himself.

His self-knowledge is obviously linked strongly with his sense of place, and his place in the world is, above all, in Ireland—a single country for a single (“geo-cultural?”) identity. Given the globalized, atomized, and disparate world we live in, it’s a kind of gift to be the product of one place—and to have the history/culture of that one place inform the all-important process of gaining self-knowledge. Those of us with multiple identities—hyphenated peoples with different approaches to facing the difficulties of self-acknowledgement in the 21st century—ought to take a hard look at Conor McGregor, who, in an unexpected way, is God’s foil for us all.

I ask the reader’s forgiveness for referencing “us” and “McGregor” (and Poirier, really) in highly essentialized and reductive terms. I’ve never met the guy and can only go with the limited and commercialized information I have access to. But even then, I think contrast carries weight.

I sometimes wonder what my answer would be if God took Dustin Poirier out of the halls of the MGM Grand Garden Arena that night last September and replaced him with me. I probably wouldn’t carry a flag. I’m not much of a nationalist and agree with former war correspondent Chris Hedges when he says that the flipside of nationalism is always a dark racism. Flags resemble the ideological concepts of states and governments, and not of peoples’ sentiments. As a Chinese-born Canadian, I’m not fan of the governing systems/styles of either states that I have been linked to.

What would I say if Conor McGregor asks me backstage why I carry no flag?

Hopefully, I’d be quick-witted enough to shoot back something unexpected—to throw him off the same way he threw off Poirier. But the reality is that the emotionally charged yet draining days right before a fight is no time to discuss the intricacies of identity politics. Maybe I’ll tell him that I don’t need to drape myself in a piece of cloth to show that the country of my birth remains a part me. Really though, I have no God damn idea what I’d say, which is just as well since I’d rather crawl through a mile of broken glass than face the world’s most exciting combat artist.


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    Steven Zhou

    Steven Zhou is a writer and journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Read his work at and follow him on Twitter at @stevenzzhou

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