Martial Artist and Prize Fighter


Conor McGregor is the new hot thing in the MMA world, an incredibly confident Irishman who swallowed the Blarney Stone and has so far made all of his opponents in the ring look terribly over-matched. He’s so much fun to listen too, and fun to watch in the ring as well. There are a host of videos about him out there, and here are a few that will give you an idea of what he is like:

The Notorious Documentary

A Day in Dublin

UFC on the Fly

Portraits: Conor McGregor

I wasn’t sure what to think of Conor, as he was talking his way into his most recent victory over #5 ranked Dustin Poirier, but in his post fight interview he said something that I found to be very insightful. It’s a comment that I think goes to the heart of what martial arts and fighting are all about, and also the core of who Conor is as a person:

“Prize fighting is short. Get in, get rich, get out. But martial arts is a way of life.”

When I was in Japan at the Saitama arena watching the UFC bouts up close, I felt the old inexpressible draw of bloodsport. The entire arena was charged for many of those fights, and we shared it communally, we sat in rows above the ring and watched men and women fight it out, and it was beautiful. The emotions were powerful, visceral. I saw and felt things that I had never seen nor felt before: single-minded animalistic ferocity; cold, calculating menace.

These are words you may read in a novel, but in a public fight between two trained individuals, you can feel it. It was amazing and it was pure. There is a connection there between the viewership and the contestant that makes me think of ancient stones in Greece. The president of the UFC, Dana White, likes to say that “fighting is in our DNA,” and for him that is a great catch phrase to deflect criticisms that may come from people who feel that fighting in a cage is just bloodsport. A step backward for humanity. But after being at several events, I agree. Fighting is in our DNA.

Conor has turned some of that on its head though. When you see videos of him training, or hear his philosophy in regards to improvement, martial arts, and what his purpose is, you realize that the UFC and the events are just the public manifestation of a very private, very internal process. It’s like a book report performed before the class; a performance; a justification and confirmation of the process and perhaps a catalyst to drive the process ever further forward. He is one of the most outspoken, charismatic fighters in the MMA world, and everyone – especially the higher ups like Dana White – love him and hang on his every word and action.

But he refers to his performance as just that, a show, a prize fight. Something that pays him and allows him to get off welfare and eat steaks cooked on slabs of hot stone. It’s refreshing to finally hear a popular, powerful MMA fighter publicly and very lucidly describe the difference between the UFC/MMA world and the martial arts lifestyle that takes some people into the prize fighting arena. A lot of fighters I know – martial artists! – are concerned primarily with money.

My master, a Southern Fist Kungfu practitioner, is always worried about paying the bills. Vaughn Anderson, a good friend and cage fighter for a decade, is worried about bills. The UFC published the salaries for UFC 178, and I assume that most of those fighters are worried about money. Only 2-3 of them made enough to cover all of the costs (training, travel, living) and still have some to put in the bank and “eat steaks”.

I think this distinction is very important for me to internalize and understand properly. I have dove head first into this world and although I have asked similar question many times (What is MMA and how does it relate to martial arts? Is the UFC a bloodsport, just men bleeding and sweating, or is it an art form?) I spent most of my time posing the question and not really answering them. I had no true answers.

Conor’s comments helped me get a bit closer to the truth, to the clear lines that surround and delineate lifestyle, financial prerogative, philosophy, and the communal, necessary event that is a public prize fight.

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Published on: September 30, 2014

Filled Under: MMA

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