With five years having passed since the last time the UFC was in Ireland, a return show at the 02 Arena in Dublin was always going to be big.
It was always going to sell out. However, due to one man it surpassed “big.” It was huge. Due to one man, it didn’t just sell out. It sold out in less than a minute. That man is Conor McGregor and this past Saturday night, he was a superstar of the highest proportions.
I knew going in that the atmosphere for the main event of McGregor vs. Diego Brandao would be pretty special but I wasn’t prepared for the level it would get to. A big part of this was the fact that from the very first fight of the prelim card, everything was coming up Irish. The atmosphere and the momentum of the show built and built, ready to peak for the main event. It quite literally did in fact, as the decibel level of the crowd noise (which was being recorded by a UFC staff member) reached a high of 111 decibels during Conor’s entrance. A rock concert, according to Dana White, is 110. Things couldn’t have gone any better for the UFC, the Irish fighters and of course the Irish fans.
As noted, things were kicked off in the best way possible for the Dubs, as local boy Paddy “The Hooligan” Holahan was successful in the opener after some exciting back & forth action on the ground where he went from nearly tapping to an armbar to escaping and finishing the fight with a rear naked choke. His interview afterwards showed just the kind of charisma that Dubliners relate to and enjoy.
Irish middleweight Cathal Pendred, fresh off an appearance on The Ultimate Fighter, was tasked with carrying the ball that Holahan had gotten moving. A routine victory would have been good and the crowd would have been happy. However things did not go that simply. Fellow TUF alum, Mike King, had Cathal in all sorts of trouble and very nearly ended it in the 1st round. There was an instance where the ref could have stopped it as King unloaded with ground and pound, and there were several close submissions but Pendred survived… barely. The crowd’s show of support for their local fighter was honestly quite moving, and you could see it simultaneously firing up Pendred and demoralising King as the second round began. It was back and forth for a few minutes before Pendred caught his tired opponent in a Gable grip choke and won the fight to a thunderous eruption from the fans. Where Holahan’s interview was charming and funny, Pendred’s was fiery and passionate. The crowd was going nuts by the time he put the mic down.
Things just kept getting better. Neil Seery is a fighter with a great story. His only previous UFC fight was as a last minute replacement against Brad Pickett in England, and he put in a great showing despite coming up short. Two days later he was back in Ireland and back working his day job in a warehouse. In his mid 30s, Seery has a family to support and was in no position to quit the day job to chase the dream. In the weeks leading up to this fight he had to balance training, work and routine family life. Then on top of all that he was faced with awful tragedy as his young nephew passed away the week of the fight. Yet he came into the octagon and thoroughly dominated Phil Harris. The result never looked in doubt and Seery even had time to lead the crowd in cheers as he wound up for leg kicks to a grounded Harris.
Two more hometown victories followed but it was for fighters who weren’t exactly in their hometown. Northern Ireland’s “Stormin” Norman Parke made it easy for the Dublin fans to completely forget about borders and politics as his energy and positive approach in his fight against Naoyuki Kotani won him their support. Then Gunnar Nelson, coming from the even more Northern location of Iceland, defeated Zak Cummings with the crowd firmly behind him. Reason being that Nelson trains in the same Dublin camp as McGregor, Holahan and Pendred and is basically adopted Irish.
“There’s only one Gunnar Nelson, only one Gunnar Nelson… walkin’ along, singin’ his song, walkin’ in a Gunni wonderland!”
That was the song which was reverberating around the O2 during a pretty uneventful first round. Even if the action was slow, this crowd was intent on having a great time. When Gunnar fully woke up from the nap which he looked to have been having before the fight, he took out Cummings in emphatic fashion. The likeable Icelander got a superstar reaction from the crowd post-fight.
With that, it was time for the main event. It was time for “The Notorious” Conor McGregor. It was a wall of noise. I couldn’t hear the ring announcer. I could barely hear the Notorious B.I.G entrance music and I definitely couldn’t hear myself think. The question about McGregor that I had was whether this would overwhelm him. Was the cocky braggadocios personality just a front, and was the real man underneath someone who might freak out with all of this happening around him? Conor answered that question when he entered the cage and proceeded to put on a karate taunt display ending in a cartwheel, looking 100% in his element. He was LOVING IT, and he looked like there was zero doubt in his mind that he would be doing as he said – defeating Diego Brandao in the first round. He was right.
I’ll never forget the moment I got soaked in beer as the referee called for the stoppage and beverages soared over press row into the octagon. My prevailing thought was “God dammit, duck for cover Alan,” but somewhere else in my brain I was soaking in what an amazing moment it was. Don’t get me wrong, McGregor can be a bit over the top; a bit of an eejit as we’d say in Ireland, but he’s our eejit and more importantly, he’s winning. If he keeps winning, the potential for this guy as a superstar not just in Ireland but around the world, is endless.