I have a confession to make. This story is only loosely connected to Conor McGregor the man and more about who he represents and why his rise and the rise of MMA in Ireland has been an uncomfortable one. However as the title hints at this is a story that is also about a team called Mayo.
This is one of those Articles I had to write. Not wanted to write or was asked to write but had to. It is a bloody story that kept me awake all night and won’t let me rest until I write the fucking the thing down. It is shrouded in my mind like a grey Irish mist in January and trying to crystallize it into something recognisable is going to be – God forgive me – a pain in the hole.
Like the heroes of this tale it is a story beset with problems. In the first instance it’s about a team you’ve never heard of, playing a sport you’ve never heard of and losing like you’ve never fucking heard of. Oh yeah…before i forget , i am attempting to use them to explain about the rise of Mixed Martial Arts in Ireland and indelibly connect them to possibly one of the greatest winners in the history of Ireland.
To keep you interested though Let’s call this team, a team of Daniel Cormier’s. A Team who can beat every other team in the land except One. The team of champions that they cannot over come are – Yes you’ve guessed it – an organisation stock full of Jon Jones’s (minus the drugs). Yesterday the Team of Daniel Cormier’s lost to them for the 3rd time in a final in 4 years. Very Narrowly.
The Name of this merry band of losers?. Well they are a Team of Gaelic Footballers and they go by the name of Mayo.
I am not going to bore you with the details of how this game played out or how it is played. But a little background is required at this point. There are a couple facts about Ireland that i can say safely and that are not in dispute. The first is Ireland is an Island and this island is divided into 32 counties across two jurisdictions. And on this mystical and mythical little 32 county island there is one sport that is Lord of all he surveys. Gaelic Football. In Ireland if you’re good at this sport you get the honour of playing for your county. Note I said Honor and not Cash. It is the number one sport on participation numbers on the whole island and that is even more pronounced in the bit of the island we call the Republic.
This sport is indigenous to Ireland. No other country is fucking silly enough to invent it or to try and even play it. It is an awkward looking hybrid of a game. But Yesterday it looked and felt like the most beautiful game on earth. It looked like what the first performance of Hamlet or Macbeth must have felt like watching. Not only that but it felt like i was watching the most beautifully flawed team on earth playing it. And that’s just the losers of the game I’m talking about.
Historically Gaelic Football along with another indigenous Irish Sport called Hurling are what makes us as a country Unique. If you are reading this as a Canadian, American or from the UK you probably have a sense of Irish people being Big drinkers, entertaining and full of good humour. A bit fucking crazy too no doubt. But you will not understand us or why this is. Well Gaelic Football explains Irishness like no poet or Novelist could. It explains our gregariousness, temper, humour and of course it explains the drinking!. If you are a Mayo supporter this morning there are two things you probably have in your possession. A massive hangover and more than a few salty tears on your pillow. Along with that some newly invented dark humour to help you get through the rest of the day.
However like a lot of large Monopolies this infuriating , gut-wrenching and oddly gorgeous pair of indigenous of games are leaving larger tracts of our population unmoved. Especially in modern Ireland. Not through any major fault of its own mind you although Gaelic Football in particular has many faults.
Historically this Sport has defined us as a people for well over a 130 years. Gaelic Football and Gaelic Games aren’t just sports they are the foundational language base we use to communicate with each other. Gaelic Football is our past and present culture. If we played a cultural game of poker and you had W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Roddy Doyle, Sinead O’Connor or even U2 in your hand of cards – I can confidently see that bet and tell you to go fuck yourself with one card. Gaelic Football.
However for most of this 130 years Gaelic Football was played by a country that was 95% Catholic and of course pasty white. Today’s Ireland is no longer 95% Irish Catholic (Republic) and a significant proportion are not of traditional Irish descent. After 20 years of net inward migration to Ireland we are seeing the majority of kids from this sector are not overly turned on by all this G.A.A. Our newest Irish citizens in essence want something different and why wouldn’t they?. MMA is one of the sports and cultures that they are flocking to – and it is in my opinion a good culture and good to have some diverisity away from the monopoly of the GAA.
Into this sporting landscape a new sport and person have arrived. Mixed Martial Arts and Conor McGregor. Other sports have come along to challenge the Hegemony of Gaelic games historically. All have failed. But MMA is different. Not only is it a sport but it too is also a culture.
In Ireland It is a counter culture to Gaelic Football. I would argue that this is the reason we do not cover MMA in anything like the depth we should given we have the most celebrated Mixed Martial Artist in the history of the Sport. The World Wide Icon that is Conor McGregor. Like every town in Ireland has a football pitch, Increasingly every town is starting to also have an MMA Studio.
The people that are drawn to MMA are for the most part the very people who Gaelic Football does not cater for. I have interviewed more than a few MMA fighters. They absolutely love being interviewed. They embrace social media and if you type in any second division Irish MMA fighter you’ll find they have a big following and are probably working on their own Youtube channel!. So what i am saying really is that on the outside they are total opposites to your average Gaelic Footballer. Or maybe your average Irish man or woman. I interviewed a guy last week and at the end he thanked me for going to the trouble of interviewing him. I nearly fell out of my chair. However internally these two sporting endeavour’s share many of the same traits. And that’s where Mayo come in.
MMA Enthusiasts are not just drawn to the fight they are drawn to the culture. A culture of dedication, honesty with themselves and OK at times more than a little bravado. I feel that Gaelic Football rather than be at war for the soul of Irish sport and culture should sit easily with MMA. There is more than enough room in this country for a bit more diversity. There is beauty in both. While it is true that not everyone can kick the winning score in a final, It is also true that not many can lock themselves into an Octagon and risk life and limb for the glory of winning a fight that hardly anyone is watching.
The amazing thing about Gaelic Football is this. Every year kids are born in every country. Kid’s with amazing athletic ability that can run fast, jump high , take hits and dole them out. They quite literally could pick from a whole menu of sports to dedicate their lives to. These kids in every other country will end up playing a professional sport and if they are good enough play that sport professionally and make with a little luck a lot of money.
It is an astounding thing that in Ireland we are able to convince the majority of these kids to play Gaelic Football. An Amateur Sport. But what we are really selling them is not a sport but a culture club. The largest one in the land.
I made the link earlier between Mayo and their conquerors Dublin, to Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones. I should have been more accurate. Mayo are what Daniel Cormier would look like if DC took Drugs. Dublin are what Jon Jones would look like if he didn’t. That’s how closely matched these two teams would be. Just to clarify neither team take drugs. 85,000 people watched these teams play each other yesterday and neither team charged the viewing public a cent to watch them play. While Gaelic Football is an amateur sport all the players train professionally. Yes that means they also have jobs and train 5 times a week. Like most but the top 2% of MMA Atheletes. Think Texas High School Football…Except bigger…with grown men.
One of the things i like about American sports fans is that by and large they celebrate winners. So if you were an American sports fan that fell in love with Gaelic Games you would absolutely love Dublin. They won their 3rd All-Ireland Final in a row yesterday with a team of gloriously talented individuals and closed out a very, very tight game. However I am here to today to Celebrate Mayo and in the process celebrate Conor McGregor. I’ve watched a lot of sports and teams in the last 30 odd years. Lots. No team or individual that I have ever seen loses games like Mayo. I mean no-one. I could lay down a long list of facts about games and titles they have lost and lost narrowly but it would mean nothing to you. But I will say the following:
This is a team i do not support. They are not MY county. In fact they are my county’s biggest rival. That is how beguiling these fuckers are. They Lose and you fall more in love with them. And believe me I’m not prone to falling in love too easily. Again I ask my self the same goddamn question why? Well they just might be the most beautiful losers in the history of sport.
You see this is a team that has a lot of natural shortcomings. Individually they lack a little talent. Not much but just that tiniest bit. Each year they lose they go back and address these microscopic shortcomings only to come back and find a different fire has broken out in a different room of the house. And there is always a fire to put out in the Mayo House. They are not losers in one important sense though and it is what marks them out as special. They have moral courage by the bucket load. Each year they admit to and attempt to address their shortcomings. They throw their bodies on the line and their spirits. Like Daniel Cormier they still cry when they lose. Final defeat after final defeat they have suffered and yet after all the failure that has coursed through their veins they still have the courage to let defeat hurt them. You see Mayo like DC are a team whose Sum is more than a tally of their individual parts.
The current Mayo team don’t underperform in Finals anymore. These fuckers Over-perform in finals and still haven’t been able to get the job done. Imagine that for a second. Imagine Daniel Cormier looking across the Octagon at Jon Jones. He knows he is bigger, stronger and more talented. More ferocious. Yet he still is willing to meet him and perform. Mayo are like that they swallow their fear and spend every ounce of energy they have until they are beaten. And they are always beaten in the end. Imagine being able to do that not just once but always. How great would it feel to walk out of a ring or off of a field and say i wasn’t at 100% today i was at 110%. But I lost. Would you have the courage to keep taking the walk?.
Greatness in any sport is associated with winning and not just winning dominating. Conor McGregor is a winner and he is Great. He has lost but he is a winner – you only have to look at him and you can feel it.
In any rational analysis of Mayo they are one of the biggest losers in the history of sport if not the biggest. They are Losers but here is the catch – They too are Great. There is an oft used quote used about wars. Winners write the history. Well today after 5 years watching this team i feel that not only will this team not be forgotten Mayo will be the Losers that wrote the history about this period of the national sport. They are the Losers that somehow managed to inhabit greatness by dominating defeat.
At the moment in Ireland The worlds and cultures of MMA and Gaelic Football don’t understand each other. What they must do is recognise that both have their place. For there is indeed greatness in both cultures and weakness. However i feel both sports have much to teach us about Honour, selflessness and dedication. About moral courage even. They just have different methods of teaching and instructing us.
The simplest way i can put it is that it is OK to love Conor McGregor and Mayo because in the end both are unquestionably and uniquely Irish and both embody our collective greatness and sure….more than a little of our weaknesses too.