This past Saturday night, while UFC featherweight champion Connor McGregor was notching his first loss in 15 fights to Nate Diaz via second round rear naked choke, I was sitting in the Barrymore Theater in Madison, Wisconsin, watching a concert by the High Kings, “Ireland’s No. 1 folk group.” Though I’m not self-important enough to believe that this coincidence has any more weight or meaning than what I’m about to construct, the universe threw me a bone, and I’m going to gnaw it down to the marrow.
I’ve talked about McGregor before. Equal parts pugilist, gadfly and showman, the Irishman debuted in the UFC nearly three years ago, won his first two fights, then was sidelined for over a year due to a serious knee injury.
During that time, he began to sow the seeds of his “Mystic Mac” persona, a bawdy, public amplification of himself obviously styled after Floyd Mayweather’s “Money” character. It kept him in the limelight and helped build anticipation for his imminent return in Ireland against Diego Brandao, a dangerous but hot-headed and limited Brazilian brawler. McGregor KOd him in the first round, then ensured himself a title shot by doing the same to German kickboxer Dennis Siver in the second round a few months later. A victory over perennial contender Chad Mendes for the interim title followed, after which McGregor put the stamp on his improbable run with a 13-second KO over long-time champion and all-time great Jose Aldo.
The mania surrounding Mystic Mac was thick, palpable. He expressed a desire to move up immediately and challenge Rafael dos Anjos for the lightweight belt, a request that was granted without much hesitation at all from the UFC brass. A foot injury to dos Anjos derailed that plan, but the UFC and McGregor settled on probably the greatest Plan B of all time: Nate Diaz.
Mercurial, hard as tempered steel and capable of defeating anyone across two weight classes on any given night, the fact remained that Diaz could be defeated with the right game plan, as Ben Henderson, Josh Thompson, Gray Maynard, Rory MacDonald and others had shown. Because the match was made on short notice, and Diaz was a career lightweight, the fight was actually signed at welterweight, a full two weight classes — 25 pounds — north of where McGregor normally competed.
The prevailing theory was that, despite the weight discrepancy, McGregor’s slick footwork and stylized, but laser-accurate boxing would win out. And for the first round, that notion held true: Diaz was tagged time and time again by McGregor’s straight left, overhand left and trademark lead uppercut. By the end of first round, his face was lacerated and bloody.
McGregor, however, unused to his opponent taking multiple flush shots and not going down, had expended his energy and was tiring. Diaz pounced, eventually catching him with a punch, forcing McGregor to go for a takedown, which Diaz used to reverse and sink in a choke.
Let’s make a hard left turn here and talk about the High Kings. A young-ish quartet of native Irishmen, they’ve made a huge splash in their home country and over here in the United States by performing the kind of slickly produced, immaculately performed traditional Irish music that caters to a broad spectrum of listeners.
It helps that they’re mostly family-friendly — I’ve never heard them perform “Seven Drunken Nights” or even the neutered version that leaves out the X-rated final two verses — but that they retain enough pride to at least outright refuse, as they did at this concert, to perform “Galway Girl.” The same, I hope, would apply for “Danny Boy.”
Still, it was fairly jarring — if you take the trouble to think about these things way, way too much — to hear songs like “Fields of Athenry,” “Parting Glass” and “Leaving of Liverpool” sung so pristinely, so perfectly harmonized, to an audience of hundreds who sat politely, listening and applauding, only getting up to dance when invited. Hell, there was only one Obligatory A-hole in a Kilt that always shows up at one of these things.
Just among those three songs I mentioned, issues like starvation, wrongful imprisonment, forced immigration, death and famine are dealt with. Conceived and written in response to the fallout of the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century, they are gritty, heartbreaking, and meant to reflect a shared experience or educate.
It would be easy to decry both McGregor’s public persona and the High Kings’ approach to traditional Irish music — lord knows I have, in the past. But Connor McGregor’s meteoric, calculated rise to the top of the MMA game is a direct parallel to the mass influx of Irish immigration to the States in the mid to late 1800s, only instead of using the proliferation of Tammany politics, bolstered by the importing of old country terror societies to build a constituency and ride it all the way to the bank, McGregor identified two key needs of the American populace: first, the need to have a villain to root against, and, second, the need, the now seemingly evolutionary pull, to obsess oneself with image and social media. Keep in mind, McGregor, only four years ago, was collecting welfare in Ireland.
With the High Kings, if you broaden the view a little and take this in the context of Irish music as a whole, you see a similar pattern: a slick repackaging of native traditions and tendencies for sale to an American populace eager to adopt something foreign as their own — America, remember, is a nation of immigrants, and is still in the process of figuring out its “quintessential” cultural identity. It’s not difficult to see this pattern play out in other ways: the Caucasian adoption of blues (roots in Africa), barbecue (roots in Africa and the Caribbean) and more.
Do the High Kings and Connor McGregor owe their success to America? In part, yes, due to the broad, culture-hungry market. But we owe them more: for exhibiting some element of our past selves, a slice of the human experience that triggers some long-dormant part of our brains — maybe our souls — that reminds us what it’s like to suffer. Truly, truly suffer.