In 12 days Conor McGregor will make his UFC debut in Sweden, and in the maximum allotted time of 15 minutes he will not only define his existence as a martial artist to date, but also attempt to justify a movement that has bubbled beneath the surface of mainstream Ireland for a number of years.
John Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym produced the first charge from the Republic of Ireland to step into the octagon when Tom Egan lost to John Hathaway at UFC 93 in Dublin, and they were always destined to return based on the trail they blazed not only through Ireland, but through Europe and beyond.
It seemed the Long Mile Road club owned every title in Ireland at one stage or another—Paddy Holohan at bantamweight, Owen Roddy at featherweight, Myles Price at lightweight, Cathal Pendred at welterweight, Chris Fields at middleweight, etc.—and more often than not one of their fighters would have to headline a card to give it a stamp of approval.
Local events took in decent numbers of people attached to the sport, those who loved it, as well as the usual conveyor belt crowd sporting shirts with decayed skulls and infected pit bull terriers to go with scowls that took them weeks to master in their bedroom mirrors.
A community grew inside the events and more clubs came of age and contested for the national titles as SBG’s Aisling Daly, McGregor, Fields and most recently Pendred claimed world titles under different promotions.
Despite the obvious talent in the Irish MMA ranks, the country’s society and media struggled to legitimize the sport with the only papers that featured the sport regularly being a local free publication, Dublin Gazette Newspapers, while a handful of online magazines kept the fire burning for the community.
Cage Contender was always, and continues to be, the dominant MMA promotion in Ireland and the crowds still come in droves to see the gyms from the South of the border take on the teams from the North.
However, there was always room for young upstarts to hone their craft and compete for titles in many other national promotions—BattleZone, Rumble in Rush, Cage Gods, Celtic Gladiator, Ryoshin Fighting Championships, Man of War, Clan Wars and The Fight Before Christmas among others—with the audience being made up of teammates of the fighters, a couple of media members and fans of the sport.
Despite the level of talent that was on display, as well as former UFC veterans who continue to make appearances on the Cage Contender cards, national papers would literally laugh at the idea of featuring the sport on their back pages.
Maybe it was the hangover from the old “human cockfighting” days, the Irish attachment to boxing, the lack of people willing to advertise or just misinformation about the sport.
While interning at a national newspaper three years ago, every morning meeting for the sports section nearly descended into a sketch scene where I would blabber on about the future of the sport and the importance of being the first publication to feature it. This, while the other hacks would harmlessly laugh at my youthful innocence and steer me back toward the “newsworthy” path.
It was always going to be McGregor. He was focused, aggressive, dominant, incredibly talented and even more driven. The first time I saw “The Notorious” fight, I can remember him being perplexed after he weighed in because his original opponent had pulled out due to “car trouble.”
The notion of it had stuck with me and I can remember myself and Andrew McGahon, the only other copy journalist I’d see in the early days, laughing about it until we realised that “car trouble” was as good an excuse as any.
The replacement, Mike Woods, was torn apart by the young Dubliner after he landed a flurry of punches that signalled the end of the bout in just over 10 seconds.
McGregor took the mic and praised the last-minute replacement, a mature act for a young man of 22, and from there his case to be among the best in the world snowballed.
Just over a handful of fights and two world titles later, won in his beloved Dublin, McGregor is one of the hottest pieces of property in Irish sports. He is a knockout artist that has shown fantastic grappling skills, charismatic, hilarious and unconsciously intimidating.
The papers that once chuckled at my attempts to get work published now herald the dawn of the future champion, MTV made a documentary and national news stations can’t get enough of him.
Now when Irish people hear that you are interested in MMA they might bring up a UFC fight they’ve seen, ask you if you train, maybe even bring up McGregor.
It’s a far cry from the days when people would nearly expect you to be a criminal, some type of "hard man"or just an individual who was drawn to violence.
McGregor does not want to be “the token Irish guy” and with a five-fight deal penned, he certainly isn’t. His performances have won him a place on the UFC roster and now the future is as bright as he wants it to be.
A lot is hanging on this debut, not only for Conor, but the whole MMA movement in Ireland. With a win we can expect the media intake to get even more frenzied and maybe some jobs will be created out of it. We can also expect a whole new breed of regional MMA fans to be created in the country and a new level of understanding to be acquired about the sport. If he continues to win throughout his contract we can expect the global flagship promotion to return to Ireland sooner than expected.
Having long admired McGregor, it’s hard to even consider a loss. It would seem his intensity alone could win him the bout, but in Marcus Brimage he is faced with a very serious opponent that has already notched three wins in his UFC career.
Like in any war, mixed martial arts’ battle with the Irish mainstream may lose some ground if its champion doesn’t bring home the bacon on April 6, but it’s a resilient animal and I’m sure the Irish athletes will pay back the investment the publications, people and community have made in them as they take on the giants of the UFC in April and the future.