Home Arts & Culture Conor McGregor embodies the myth of Sisyphus. But don’t we all?

Conor McGregor embodies the myth of Sisyphus. But don’t we all?

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Daring Dubliner believes he is capable of something no one has ever done before

 Conor McGregor embodies the myth of Sisyphus. But don’t we all?

Conor McGregor: What he is doing is what everyone is doing – pushing the rock up the mountain. Photograph: David Sleator




The myth of Sisyphus is a metaphor for the drudgery of life. There is no greater iteration of life’s struggle in microcosm than fighting, and the repetitive, wearing grind that fighters endure to prepare for a physical struggle against the heft and skill of another person.

References to Dublin UFC star Conor McGregor – who has never fought in a professional boxing match and yet will tonight (or Sunday morning, sometime after 4am) take on unbeaten boxing champion Floyd Mayweather – are at saturation point this week. Hopefully this is the only article you will read that links fighting, McGregor and philosophy.

Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus is one of the most liberating short essays you can read. In it, he takes a careful look at the case of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the Gods to ceaselessly roll a huge rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back to the bottom and have to start again. Some accounts of Sisyphus portray him as wise and good; others suggest him to be a scurrilous scamp – it doesn’t really matter which is true. The important element of the story is that the Gods saw fit to punish Sisyphus, and decided to do it by condemning him to an eternity of meaningless and entirely hopeless labour.

Solving problems

When the thinking, analysis and assessment are finished, fighting is the fundamental exercise of physical struggle to solve problems. It is a constant in the state of nature. The task of becoming a good fighter is a long process of sweating, straining, hurting, and becoming comfortable in your own discomfort. It is a Sisyphean effort.

The instinct of disdain towards something new seems to come naturally to us. This fight is something new. Dubliner McGregor has the audacity to believe he is capable of something no one has ever done before. It’s been called an “improbable challenge”. To many, the immovable object of his confidence is an affront, and they hope the unstoppable force of Mayweather’s boxing legend will somehow push McGregor out of the certainty that so unsettles the rest of us.

Something different

Disdain for this fight is rife. Some of the criticism is legitimate. Some isn’t. We innovate by trying something different. If we succeed, people follow. If we fail, people laugh and feel smug, satisfied with the lack of change, with the confirmation of their biases and the sense that the world is indeed what they always thought.

Yet, what McGregor is doing is what everyone is doing – pushing the rock up the mountain. He has taken the advice that Camus gives in his essay to make the rock “his thing”, and become immersed in this work so successfully that he has monetised it beyond what most of us could imagine. It is processes, and not outcomes, which ultimately matter, because processes are always the now.

Most of us cannot undertake the Sisyphean effort that is life without the gnawing of doubt and self-pity that comes with excessive, paralysing self-reflection. The possibility of failure is so stultifying that we presume those who persevere underneath its perishing glare must not be conscious of its likelihood.

Why would someone like McGregor even bother, we think, when trying something new so publicly is so likely to result in failure? No one could stand the pressure, the fear and the ridicule. Anyone who would must be either deluded or stupid. They must not have thought enough about the action they are taking. You might suggest that money or fame are great enticements. Wealth and status (he has both) bring with them less motivation to push the rock; to grind and to hurt, not more. McGregor is not a penniless young fighter – he does not have to do it.

Simply the process

Each day since the day he decided to commit himself to doing so, McGregor has awoken and embraced the action of pushing a rock up a hill. When he wakes up tomorrow he will have won or lost but there is no overall meaning to the struggle we embrace or eschew in our lives – it is simply the process.

The process of training, working, thinking is never finished. Each day, the fighter, like everyone else, finds themselves back at the bottom of the hill, with a steep incline between them and achievement. They know the pain they must endure to force tired limbs and raw hands to do the work, but they do it. We are all Sisyphus.

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