In response to a comment from a right-wing influencer last week, Elon Musk appeared to endorse the idea of Conor McGregor – the former UFC champion – running for political office in Ireland.
“Not a bad idea,” Musk posted to his 164 million followers.
The billionaire, who also criticized Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, claiming that “the Irish PM hates the Irish people,” is the latest in a series of controversial figures to endorse McGregor in the wake of the riot that took place in Dublin last month.
Much of that support came after Irish police began investigating various social media accounts for “hate speech” to determine whether they incited the chaotic events that resulted in shops being looted, vehicles set ablaze, and anti-immigrant thugs clashing with officers. McGregor is reportedly among the figures being investigated.
“Ireland, we are at war,” McGregor posted the night before the riots.
As rioters descended on Dublin following rumors that a knife attack that left three children hospitalized was committed by an immigrant of Arab descent, McGregor continued to stoke tensions, asserting that “we are not backing down, we are only warming up. We are not losing any more of our women and children to sick and twisted people who should not even be in Ireland in the first place.” In a separate post, he added: “You reap what you sow.”
McGregor subsequently stated on X that he did not “condone” the riots before hinting at a possible pivot to politics.
In response to far-right figure Paul Golding urging the UFC fighter to lead a “freedom march” in Dublin, McGregor asserted that he is “in the process of arranging. Believe me, I am way more tactical and have backing.”
He added: “There will be change in Ireland, mark my words. The change needed.” Then, on Sunday he tweeted a photo of himself with the caption: “Ireland, your president”.
Ireland, your President. ☘️❤️ pic.twitter.com/MdLQZzUwiI
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) December 4, 2023
This isn’t the first time that McGregor has hinted at his interest in politics. When asked by TMZ Sports in 2018 whether he was considering the move, he said: “Maybe, who knows?! I know they’re shakin’ in their boots anyway!”
It’s important to note that any talk from McGregot about running for office should be taken with a pinch of salt: his recent interest in politics could be merely his latest ploy to gain attention. But he has remained vocal about the Irish government’s handling of immigration. He claimed that the incumbent government makes him “ashamed to be Irish” and urged his fellow citizens to demand change. His approach suggests that he no longer has faith in the government or Varadkar, and that he may be throwing his hat in the ring.
On the surface, it is difficult to imagine McGregor being taken seriously as a political candidate in Ireland. Then again, that’s why they said about Donald Trump in the US. The MMA star’s career has been plagued with scandal. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for his role in an attack on a bus at a UFC event in 2018, was fined for punching a man in a Dublin pub in 2019, and has faced several allegations of sexual assault and indecent exposure, none of which have resulted in criminal charges.
Yet McGregor has found a way to leverage anti-immigrant tensions and diminishing faith in his government’s policies to resonate with a subset of Irish conservatives, as well as the far-right community around the world. The UFC fighter’s comments have been defended by the likes of Chaya Raichik, the woman behind the anti-LGBTQ+ social media account Libs of TikTok, US based white supremacist Nick Fuentes, and American conspiracy theory website Infowars, among others.
And McGregor wouldn’t be the first UFC fighter to pivot to rightwing politics.
In 2020, former UFC champion and QAnon adherent Tito Ortiz won a seat on the Huntington Beach city council in California, becoming mayor pro tem of the city, a largely ceremonial role that would have required Ortiz to step in if the mayor became incapacitated. He resigned less than a year later following a series of controversies.
Two years later, former UFC lightweight champion BJ Penn launched a campaign to win the Republican nomination for governor of Hawaii. He lost by a significant margin but refused to accept defeat despite the Hawaii supreme court dismissing his election complaint.
Most recently, former UFC heavyweight Alistair Overeem ran for a seat in the Netherlands’ House of Representatives as a member of the right-wing populist Belang van Nederland party in 2023. Neither he, nor the party won any seats in parliament.
Numerous UFC fighters have actively supported right-wing populist leaders such as Trump and former Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro. And several MMA fighters, including legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, have campaigned for Vladimir Putin, while other Russian fighters (including a handful in the UFC) have publicly supported their country’s invasion of Ukraine.
While McGregor is part of an ongoing trend of MMA fighters pivoting to right-wing activism and politics, he would also be one of the most popular and influential fighters to make the switch, making him a potential threat to the current establishment.
McGregor has more than 58 million followers on his social media platforms and was once the highest paid athlete in the world. His wealth and influence ensures that he would have the resources to fund his ambition and an unrivalled platform to reach his audience.
The 35-year-old already appears to be switching tactics following his incendiary social media posts, focusing instead on messages of reform. In a statement to the Guardian last week, McGregor said that he did not condone violence and is “praying that the streets will remain calm and peaceful. We Irish are known for our beautiful hearts, and we have a proud history of not accepting racism.” But he also called on the government to reform Ireland’s immigration and refugee policies and that officials needed to act “in the best interest of Irish citizens.”
In a post on X last week, McGregor also accused the government of using him as a “scapegoat” to distract from recent events: “if it makes you feel better, I will take it,” he wrote.
It remains to be seen whether McGregor will leverage his newfound political clout into a run for office, and the political and social landscape is very different from that of the United States. And much of the support thrown his way appears to be from outside Ireland. Yet as far-right activists continue to fuel angst related to crime and immigration, the potential for the fighter to emerge as a prominent figurehead for their populist movement seems increasingly likely.
Karim Zidan writes a regular newsletter on the intersection of sports and authoritarian politics.