And people say summer is the dead period for sports in America.
I don’t know, but I don’t remember many weeks better than the one we just had. Starting with “The Match” last Tuesday and culminating in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game this Tuesday, you were sure to have your itch scratched at some point, no matter what your sport of choice is.
Novak Djokovic won his 20th major at Wimbledon, the Tampa Bay Lightning won its second straight Stanley Cup and then proceeded to damage it during a second celebration on Monday, college recruiting, the NBA finals and the MLB draft are both ongoing and, until Monday, my favorite moment of the week was Kurt Busch outdueling his younger brother Kyle with a little help from teammate of the year Ross Chastain at Atlanta on Sunday.
For the most part, it’s all been fun and, well, a lot of games. But there were a couple of moments that stood out more than the others. Moments that demanded a deeper, more emotional reaction, for better or worse.
One was UFC 264 on Saturday. The other was Monday’s MLB Home Run Derby. And the dichotomy between the two athletes that lost the main events at both was too striking and left too big of a Stanley Cup-like dent on my consciousness not to write about just for a bit.
I’m talking about mixed martial artist Conor McGregor and Baltimore Oriole Trey Mancini. McGregor is nicknamed “Notorious.” Mancini’s story should have long since made him famous.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, McGregor lived up to his moniker and then some. On Monday night, Mancini nearly authored his own fairy tale but at least introduced himself on the biggest national stage in the game, outside of arguably the World Series.
I hope your kids were watching — that is, if UFC events didn’t start after midnight. But if you let them stay up, they got one heck of an example of what not to do, what not to say and what not to be. On Monday, they got the opposite.
By now, I’m sure you know what happened on Saturday. McGregor’s leg snapped as he slid backward to set up for a punch, the tibia and fibula both fracturing. Picture Joe Theismann minus Lawrence Taylor. Tough to watch.
But the aftermath was even tougher. As McGregor sat on the canvas and gave a classless, deplorable interview with Joe Rogan, spouting nonsense about how he was winning the fight (he wasn’t), how a check by opponent Dustin Poirier likely fractured his leg first (it probably did) and about Poirier’s wife, who was standing in the octagon at the time as well, being in his direct messages.
Can somebody please explain the appeal to me? I’ve never gotten it. People point to it being a purposeful WWE-style heel turn, and maybe it is. And though I haven’t watched professional wrestling since I was in middle school, I do remember enough to know I didn’t root for the villains.
And yet McGregor has his minions. Mostly from my observations, Affliction-clad middle-aged men who try to curse in an Irish accent. I can only imagine these same people rooted for Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” and Ivan Drago in “Rocky 4”.
But at least in Drago’s case, we know that the villain is talented. Can the same really be said for McGregor? He’s 3-4 in his last seven MMA fights with a boxing loss to Floyd Mayweather thrown in for good measure. The antics only work for so long after the talent begins to dry up. Let’s hope McGregor starts to fade from the national consciousness just as his skills have faded.
Mancini, on the other hand, is a guy anyone could and should root for. He beat Stage 3 colon cancer as a 27-year-old during the COVID-19 pandemic, only to return and resume his role as an important and consistent contributor on the Orioles roster. He entered the All-Star break hitting .256 with 16 home runs and 55 RBIs.
Playing for a Baltimore squad that has scuffled in recent seasons, Mancini’s story is largely unknown, but there he was on Monday, beating Oakland’s Matt Olson and Colorado’s Trevor Story in back-to-back rounds before finally succumbing to the Mets’ Pete Alonso, who picked up his second-straight Home Run Derby title in emphatic fashion.
During a mid-competition on-air interview, Mancini spoke of how grateful he was just to be there and how humbling the entire near-year-long war had been. He smiled. He crushed baseballs. He provided plenty of souvenirs in the outfield at Coors Field. He continued to inspire and win fans.
Rewind to Saturday as McGregor, with a broken leg, barked muffled curses and insults toward an opponent who only moments earlier, in his own interview, said he hoped McGregor made it home safely to his family.
Two men far across the sports spectrum revealed who they were in front of the country in the past few days.
One is a warrior. The other is Conor McGregor.
And there’s rarely been a clearer picture painted of who should and shouldn’t be rooted for in America and beyond.