Conor McGregor
Photo: Frank Franklin II/AP

How Come Conor McGregor Isn’t a Thug?

Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather spent much of last week on a multi-national, four-city press tour to promote their fight on August 26. It’s the custom for opponents to be testy, rude and straight-up disrespectful during joint press conferences—affairs that usually culminate with the obligatory photo opportunity of the fighters standing nose-to-nose, pretending to be on the verge of tearing each other’s heads off. All of that happened during the meetings of these two infamous trash talkers, but McGregor has caught flack for his overly aggressive performances. In between expletive-laden threats and verbal jabs, on more than one occasion he’s mixed in insults that can be interpreted as being racially charged, including a zinger attacking Mayweather’s alleged illiteracy.

That said, it would be a mistake to cast Mayweather as an innocent. He has a reputation of being abusive towards women and there are reports that he mistreats and underpays his employees. To most, he’s a rich piece of shit—a fair assessment. But the most fascinating aspect of these joint press conferences wasn’t the dynamic between the two fighters, it’s been the fact that no one has called McGregor a “thug” yet, even after doing things that would easily result in other athletes being labeled as such.

McGregor, a UFC mixed martial arts fighter, beat his chest for months as he pushed for the World Boxing Organization to allow a blockbuster boxing match between him and Mayweather. Boxing analysts felt that the money would never line up. UFC enthusiasts didn’t think notorious league founder Dana White would entrust McGregor with the sport’s reputation. Mayweather is a career 49-0 fighter. Great boxers have lost because of the welterweight’s blinding quickness and defensive mastery, so the prospect of a non-boxer defeating him outside of the octagon, seems far-fetched to even most MMA obsessives. But McGregor has been steadfast in his desire to make the leap, and during the press conferences, he’s only turned up the intensity.

At the fighters’ Los Angeles debut event, Mayweather and McGregor exchanged insults and bragged about their conquests like two middle school jocks. But if you do a simple search on YouTube, you’re likely to find much worse. Still, it was McGregor who told Mayweather, “Dance for me, boy.” He then said, “Dance for me, son,” but the scandal had already been born. Press outlets questioned whether McGregor was aware of the racial undertones that a phrase like “dance for me, boy” carries when spoken to a black person. Was his quick correction of a word choice an attempt at reconciliation or a cover-up? McGregor also showed up wearing a suit that day whose pinstripes read “fuck you,” a subtler message to Mayweather.

Thug is the fallback term sports pundits use to describe athletes of color who dare to exude some sense of personality or individuality during games, or don’t follow the proscribed rules when dealing with the press. Mayweather himself has been called the “thug king” of his sport—a title that’s stuck to him for years. Now outlets have increasingly questioned the racist tone of some of McGregor’s comments—like his recent claim that he’s black “from the waist down”—yet the UFC star has escaped the media’s thug moniker.

McGregor’s antics have been jaw-dropping at times, and during last week’s events he played up the very racial insensitivity he’s been accused of in the past. After he said last Wednesday that Floyd that he couldn’t read, Undefeated senior writer Mike Wise took to ESPN’s Outside the Lines to set the record straight: “In America, when a white man says that to a black man, there’s obvious racial overtones.”

His questionable behavior hasn’t just involved race or been confined to the press tour with Mayweather. For years McGregor has been a free-wheeling antagonist. He once swiped a championship belt from an opponent during a press conference and told a “little Brazilian” fighter, “You are going to die.” He followed that by joking about pillaging an entire village in Rio de Janeiro, then claimed that he was merely a truth-teller. But his suits are tailored and his hair is parted perfectly, so no way he’s a thug. That’s just what athletes do, right?

Other athletes—specifically athletes of color—haven’t benefited from that same line of thinking. Richard Sherman was famously called a thug by sports media after a defiant 2014 postgame press conference in which he shouted reminders of his greatness into Fox Sports cameras. Allen Iverson wasn’t even rowdy, he just wore baggy clothes and was once wrongly accused of starting a brawl. Even Cam Newton was called a thug during 2015, his career year. Yes, that Cam Newton, the one that happily grins as he hands autographed footballs to sick children. Too bad he also dabs after scoring touchdowns. The fact that the above-mentioned athletes mentioned are all black and don’t subscribe to the normal dress code of their sports shouldn’t be ignored. It begs the question: If McGregor was a black MMA fighter that wore a track suit instead of tailored suits, would there be as much of a permissive response to his antics? Probably not. And even Mayweather has taken notice.

The Mayweather vs. McGregor fight spotlights a severe flaw of the social commentary landscape. Black athletes are more easily the targets of rampant criticism than white athletes, who more often are celebrated or forgiven for similar or worse behavior. Colin Kaepernick has, for all intents and purposes, been blacklisted from the NFL for his decision to grow his hair into an afro and speak out about his political beliefe, while drug user and domestic abuser Johnny Manziel has reportedly been negotiating his return to the league. With little to no stakes on the table—other than bragging rights—the Mayweather vs. McGregor press run leading up to the fight feels like little more than a vessel to showcase that imbalanced dichotomy. And my money’s on McGregor, regardless of whether his behavior worsens, never being called out as a thug.

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