It’s quite a thing to see an athlete from a niche sport breakthrough into a nation’s broader cultural consciousness. In April 2013, Ireland had yet to break the back of a crushing recession and almost out of nowhere emerged a young, brazen Dubliner.
Winning $60,000 for his ‘Knockout of the Night’ over Marcus Brimage in Stockholm, on returning home Conor McGregor’s first ports of call were opening a bank account and informing the social welfare that he had found meaningful employment in the UFC’s Octagon.
At 25, the John Kavanagh protégé was roughly the same age as the average Irish graduate. For many who had just finished college the only viable route to a career was immigration and there was a sense of doom and gloom around the Emerald Isle despite the economies reported upturn.
McGregor was flashy. He waxed lyrical about frivolous purchases – a car, three piece suits, a gold watch – and his unabiding quest for success appeared to rail against society’s foreboding. He was raw, there were no airs and graces to him, but his self-sacrifice, positivity and determination had brought him to the biggest mixed martial arts stage of all.
That being said, it wasn’t just his personality that separated him from other prospects in the European scene.
The future UFC featherweight’s boxing skills, honed under two-time Olympian Phil Sutcliffe at Crumlin Boxing Club from an early age, gave him a notorious calling card early on in Ireland. Having clocked up a record of 3-1 in his first four professional outings, when McGregor returned to competition after a two-year hiatus to face Conor Dillon at Chaos Fighting Championships 7 he was already being billed as “the most feared lightweight in Ireland”.
His stock was bolstered under the Cage Warriors banner when he began fighting for them in 2011. Irishman Graham Boylan’s overtaking of the promotion in 2010 saw Irish MMA’s finest pitted against the best in the world for the first time. McGregor, Neil Seery, Chris Fields and Cathal Pendred would repay his faith and claim world titles, but it would be “The Notorious” who would benefit the most from their global reach.
The Straight Blast Gym man’s annihilation of Dave Hill to claim the vacant Cage Warriors featherweight strap in June 2012 put him on a pedestal. Teeing off on the experienced Brit, McGregor almost reluctantly finished the fight in the second round with a rear naked choke, his sole submission win.
His routing of Ivan Buchinger for the Cage Warriors 155 lbs strap on New Year’s Eve 2012 set internet forums ablaze with talk of his imminent move to the UFC and the deal was signed and sealed two months later in February 2013.
McGregor’s isn’t the only name that the Irish MMA community was looking out for in terms of the world’s flagship promotion. Nearly every teenager who has taken a Brazilian jiu jitsu class in the country has heard the story of stoic Scandinavian, Gunnar Nelson.
The prodigious Icelandic welterweight cut his teeth on the Irish scene under the watchful eye of SBG boss John Kavanagh and it was no surprise to anyone who witnessed his early performances how he has remained unbeaten even after three tests in the Octagon.
An honorary Irishman, Nelson’s grappling prowess won him an invitation to the ADCC and his lack of animation inside and outside the cage has shrouded him in a certain mystery. Looking to break into the UFC’s top ten and challenge for the welterweight title in 2015, a win against Zak Cummings in his home away from home would surely put him among the sharks of UFC’s 170 lbs bracket.
The reception Norman Parke will receive in Dublin on July 19th will act as a symbol for the continued respect that has been shown between the Republic and Northern Ireland throughout the developmental years of MMA in the country.
The Antrim man’s aggressive style set him apart from a lot of other lightweights on the European scene when he first emerged. His propensity to finish in his fledgling days has not carried over into the UFC and that has provided Parke with a modus operandi for his July 19th clash with Japanese veteran Naoyuki Kotani.
Team Ryano’s Neil Seery has had a ressurgence since moving to flyweight and proved worthy of his short notice UFC call-up when he fought Brad Pickett to a decision back in March. A full-time worker on top of coaching and his own training, the Dubliner’s diligent style reflects his life outside of competition and he constantly pushes the pace on his opponents.
Winning a host of new fans over after capturing the Cage Warriors flyweight belt in June of last year with a submission win over highly touted Finnish talent Mikael Silander, Seery’s fast hands and gameness impressed Dana White who claimed he should have signed the Irishman on a ten fight contract after his display at UFC Fight Night: Gustaffson vs Manuwa.
Ahead of his second clash with Phil Harris, Seery knows nothing less than a win can guarantee him another outing in the Octagon. Courting underdog status throughout his career, Seery has a patent for the upset and his coach Andy Ryan believes he can make a run at the UFC’s gold if he strings a few wins together.
The dominance of John Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym on the advancing Irish scene in the mid to late 2000’s was largely correlated to their dominance on the ground, and there was no better proponent of that than former rugby star, Cathal Pendred.
“The Punisher” had a knack for imposing his will on opponents and won his first national title in 2010 under the Cage Contender banner with a win over Liam Shannon. Proving a worthy dance partner for anyone put in front of him, the Dubliner went on to claim the Cage Warriors welterweight strap in March of last year after taking a decision win over Gael Grimaud.
Pendred proved he had many strings to his bow with his striking display against heavy-handed UFC veteran Che Mills in June 2013 en route to a TKO victory, prompting fans to rally to see the Irishman in the UFC. Through his performances on The Ultimate Fighter: Team Edgar vs Team Penn, the SBG man again showcased a new found ability on his feet.
Despite not being satisfied with his performances on the reality platform, Pendred is looking to put on an “unforgettable” show in his full UFC debut in front of his home crowd on July 19th when he meets fellow TUF cast member, Mike King.
Paddy “The Hooligan” Holohan has mesmerized Irish crowds with his fluid submission game since his introduction to the MMA community in 2007. His KO win over Damien Rooney cemented him as the best bantamweight in the country, before he claimed a victory over one of Irish MMA’s greatest foes, Artemij Sitenkov.
The Lithuanian had spoiled the Irish party on a few occasions before their meeting, handing McGregor his first loss via kneebar in 2008 before using the same weapon to see off Seery four years later.
Attacking the legs of Holohan early in their meeting in June 2012, Sitenkov’s assault did not prove tricky enough for “The Hooligan” who nonchalantly escaped from the attempt. Spinning a web of his own, Holohan chained his attacks together – an armbar, an omoplata and finally a triangle – forcing the tap from the eastern European.
Dropping down to flyweight with a view to competing on TUF 18, Holohan’s early exit after suffering a back injury has lit a fire under him. Dreaming of the UFC’s return to Dublin since failing to make into the TUF house, a stern test against Josh Sampo should force the best out of the jiu jitsu phenom.
Usually when a fighter pulls out of a main event the absence can have big implications on ticket sales. However, when Cole Miller pulled out of his meeting with Conor McGregor, just days before the tickets became available to the public, the renamed UFC Fight Night: McGregor vs Brandao still went on to be the fastest selling event in the promotion’s history.
Although Tom Egan became the first man from the Republic of Ireland to step inside the Octagon when UFC visited the Irish capital in January 2009, he appeared to be plucked from relative obscurity compared to the new breed of the Fighting Irish.
A throwback to McGuigan, Collins and McCullough, in McGregor the Irish believe they have found their new champion. A man of the people, his infectious charisma has turned new eyes on the once illicit sport. Indeed, the Pied Piper of the sport in Ireland, he has opened the door that his fellow countrymen have walked through.
Nationwide MMA clubs have noted growing numbers since McGregor’s arrival. Beginners taking their first training sessions donning beards, Wayfairer sunglasses and three-piece suits have become commonplace. The Dubliner’s cultural profile is so prominent that whether they have seen him fight or not, everybody has an opinion on “The Notorious”.
Of course he has his critics. Perhaps they are intimidated by his optimism. Famously cynical, the Irish have cried out for sporting success over the years but there are still a minority who like to dismiss the greatness of our athletes regardless of how evident it might be.
However, the vast majority of the nation is readying itself for McGregor-mania in The 02 on July 19th. It is the homecoming of MMA in Ireland and the card is fittingly star studded with the fruits of John Kavanagh, Andy Ryan and Rodney Moore’s labor, the founding fathers of the sport in Ireland.