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Opinion: Why it's OK to compare Conor McGregor to Muhammad Ali

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Phil Mackenzie offers an explanation on why comparisons of the UFC's latest star to Muhammad Ali might be incorrect, but that they are not, in fact, sacrilege.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to and following Conor McGregor's inevitable blowout win over Dennis Siver last weekend at UFC Fight Night: Boston in the TD Garden, one of the statements doing the rounds is how he's been referred to by the UFC brass as "The Irish Muhammad Ali." It's led to an lot of spluttering, going so far as to warrant a confused and fluffy hit-piece from Forbes, and even the occasional pointless elucidation of exactly why McGregor isn't anything like Muhammad Ali. This is often along the following lines:

"Even if we put aside the competitive nature of McGregor's wins, which are far below the quality of that which Ali achieved in his lifetime, we can look at the context, analysing Ali's relevance to the era, his relationships to the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, imbuing him with a degree of cultural relevance which McGregor simply cannot approach..."

To which the correct response is: Yes, that is true. Well done!

If Zuffa management are occasionally obtuse, they are rarely stupid. McGregor is not being compared to Ali on any literal one-to-one basis. Instead, "The Greatest" is being used as cultural shorthand, to communicate concepts ("He makes fun of people and he's good at fighting") to a wider audience.

Godwin's Law

In order to be able to be able to transfer some kind of basic understanding of who someone is and what they comprise, big and blunt concepts are a necessity. This is behind phenomena like Godwin's Law, where the longer an internet debate goes, the more likely it becomes that someone is going to get compared to a Nazi.

When this happens, the offending party doesn't normally mean to literally compare their debate partner to a German National Socialist, but to paint them with the broadest negative strokes, using a cultural concept so widely known that their point will get across to a stranger. Everyone knows Nazis, and yes, everyone knows Ali.

This may look like I'm advocating deliberate adherence to Godwin's Law. I'm not. In fact, I'd suggest actively avoiding comparing other people to Hitler over the interwebs. But there's a time and a place for hyperbole and exaggeration, for the big and the bold... such as in fight promotion. Among other things, wild statements tend to galvanize people, and are a sizeable reason for why Conor has gotten quite so big, quite so fast in the first place. McGregor makes crazy statements, people wonder if he can back them up, some of them tune in to watch him succeed, some of them to watch him fail. So every time someone makes an angry tweet about "The Irish Muhammad Ali" there's a little chance that someone else who didn't know him and didn't care gets interested and tunes in.

Of course there are alternatives to this kind of hyperbole- sober, responsible promotion where a more realistic assessment of potential skills and ceilings are given. I present to you:

"Conor McGregor is exciting and thrilling! His combination of knockout performances and promotional savvy have gotten him a shot against the skilled but bland champion, where there is a good chance that his flashy style will get broken down by the champ's focus on fundamentals. He's like the Irish David Haye!"

Might be more accurate, but doesn't have quite the same spark, does it? Instead, it makes more sense to throw out universally known concepts to get people interested. Then, while the combat sports aficionados and boxing historians are frothing over the disrespect of it all, others are coming to the conclusion -entirely of their own accord, and on the basis of their own research and observations- that maybe Ronda Rousey isn't exactly like Mike Tyson.

I mean, she doesn't even have a lisp.

Muhammad Ali was the American Conor McGregor

The reason why it might have abraded quite so much is that Muhammad Ali is not Muhammad Ali, he is MUHAMMAD ALI. That he's a universally relevant cultural icon means that any comparison to him must, by definition, fall short, as his exploits have long since passed into myth. No longer a witty man who punched other men and didn't go to war, but a living embodiment of some of the better moments in 20th century America such as the Civil Rights movement and the public stand against Vietnam. Something awfully close to sacred.

Even the irreverent McGregor has balked at the comparisons:

"For me, Muhammad Ali is a special individual. He is out on his own and I cannot lay claim to something like that. He changed the cultural landscape of the world. So, Muhammad Ali is a special human being. For people to say that, I am honoured. But Ali is a special, special man. I am on my own journey and doing what I do best."

But Ali didn't start off as MUHAMMAD ALI (or even Muhammad Ali). When he was Cassius Clay, he too found himself facing the weight of history. After all, Joe Louis had defeated Nazism, relegating it to the internet forums of the future. Jack Johnson had (along with Joe Gans) broken the colour line, and was being loud and abrasive and arrogant long before Clay was born. What else was there to accomplish for someone like Cassius in the "modern" era? What new ground to break? Quite a lot, as it turned out. But still, others were less convinced that he'd make his mark than he seemed to be.

George Plimpton wrote of Clay, and how truly unpopular he was among the assembled press before he fought Sonny Liston (emphasis mine):

"What should have appealed, Cassius surely being the most colorful, if bizarre, heavyweight since, well, John L. Sullivan or Jack Johnson, none of this seemed to work at all. The press's attitude was largely that of the lip-curling disdain the Cambridge police have toward the antics of students heeling for the Harvard Lampoon.

One of the troubles, I think, is that his appearance does not suit his manner... His great good looks are wrong for the excessive things he shouts. Archie Moore used the same sort of routine as Clay to get himself a shot at both the light-heavyweight and heavyweight championships - self-promotion, gags, bizarre suits, a penchant for public speaking- but his character was suited to it, his face with a touch of slyness in it, and always humor... Clay's face, on the other hand, does not show humor."

Let's spare a moment for poor Cassius. Too good-looking to be a real star.

So, young fighter are always held up to the template that past fighters made, eliciting grumbles when they don't fit into the mould. In the unlikely event that Conor McGregor does end up being some kind of transcendent combat sports athlete, he won't do it in the way that Ali did. Instead, he'll make out his own path, which will bear little resemblance to the ones that came before it.

Fun!

David Remnick wrote of Ali, looking back in 1998:

"He was not the sort of sweet dumb pet that writers were accustomed to. Clay also did not need the sportswriters as a prism to find his way. He transcended the sports press. Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith, so many of them, were appalled. They didn't see the fun in it. And, above all, it was fun."

The bitterness and the doubt expressed by many writers faded with time. The onward march of history has sanitized Ali's life and retrospectively justified many of his choices. In addition, people just don't get as naturally wound up as they used to. Sports journalism is no longer quite the taut, angry drum it was, booming out if you tapped it, and journos and bloggers are typically a good deal less provocable than Messrs Smith and Cannon were.

It still worth noting the lesson, though. Whether the McGregor hype train keeps rolling through Jose Aldo or whether the Brazilian pound-for-pound great represents its terminus, remember that you can just relax and enjoy the ride.

It's fun.