Before October 24th's UFC Fight Night Poirier vs. Duffy at the 3Arena in Dublin, Ireland, journalist Ralph Welch takes a look back at the last time the UFC visited The Emerald Isle from unique perspectives. Today, we get Welch's first-hand experience. On Sunday, Oct. 18, return for Irish-fighter Aisling Daly's viewpoint.
It was a night that shook this old city, steeped in fighting tradition, to its very foundations.
It was a night where the Irish crowd broke the decibel level. And it was a night where the name Conor McGregor was heard around the world.
In hindsight, glorious hindsight, it should have come as no surprise that July 19th, 2014 would become one of the most famous dates in UFC history.
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Six weeks earlier tickets for the event had sold out within an hour. The Irish had been campaigning vociferously for the UFC to return to the Emerald Isle since 2009. That night Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson, two future legends of the sport, headlined UFC 93 and a young man by the name of Tom Egan was the sole Irishman on duty.
UFC President Dana White had insisted that given the right opportunity, he would bring the Octagon back to the fighting land that had once hosted prizefighters such as Dan Donnelly, Bernard Dunne and Steve Collins in their pomp.
That opportunity came in the shape of Conor McGregor.
McGregor had entered the UFC featherweight ranks riding a tidal wave of popularity. Dominant on the regional scene, his fanbase had long since extolled his virtues on social media, imploring UFC brass to take note of this prodigious Irish talent.
Upon signing for the world’s premier fight league, the charismatic Dubliner had plenty to say. He spoke of winning titles, leading a green horde to Las Vegas and, most importantly, he promised that he would be the man to bring the UFC back home.
We’d heard such bravado from fighters before. After all, this is the fight game - where posturing normally equates to profit. In this business it doesn’t pay to be shy.
But there was something different about McGregor. Behind the bravado was a steely self-belief.
And there was a bond between fighter and his legion of fans that few of his contemporaries could match. When he talked, they listened. When he spoke of being Ireland’s first UFC world champion, they believed.
A record-breaking 9,500 people crammed their way into The O2, this famous bearpit of a fighting arena. They’d turned up in their droves all week. Open workouts and weigh-ins, traditionally standard fare on your average Fight Week, became must-see events. They queued round the block to get a glimpse of The Man Who Would Be King.
By the time the red light flickered and the cameras went live for the prelims on UFC Fight Pass, the house was packed to the rafters. Announcer Andy Friedlander could barely make himself heard above the din.
Unlike five years previously, this was a card with plenty of national pride on display. When hometown hero Paddy “The Hooligan” Holohan forced a tap from Josh Sampo in the night’s opening exchanges, the tone was set for an evening that built noisily toward a deafening crescendo.
There was the extraordinary comeback from Cathal Pendred. The roar of his countrymen, imploring him to stay upright for just a few seconds more, seemed to be the only obstacle between himself and a certain loss to Mike King. Pendred staggered back to his corner and coach John Kavanagh, the mastermind of Straight Blast Gym (SBG), had sixty seconds to weave the kind of spell that made the likes of Angelo Dundee and Ray Arcel magicians of the corner. Pendred rose from the depths of defeat and choked out his foe.
Cue chaos in The O2.
The momentum was growing.
Next up into the red-hot atmosphere was Gunnar Nelson, the Nordic embodiment of icy calm. The mat wizard – an honorary Irishman due to his SBG affiliation - kept his head about him when all around were losing theirs. This time Zak Cummings was the victim.
Another one down, just one more to go.
Enter the King.
A record domestic Irish TV audience was glued to their screens as Conor McGregor strode out to the haunting sounds of Sinead O’Connor. If ever there was an ode to the fate of Diego Brandao, this was it. The Brazilian had insisted the crowd would have no effect on the result of the fight, though he could not possibly have foreseen this.
When the action started, Brandao fought valiantly. Gradually he buckled under the combined force of McGregor’s punches and a nation’s pride. They were not to be denied.
The end came courtesy of a punishing left hand. McGregor had fulfilled his promise of a first-round finish. The fight had lasted barely four minutes but the legend would last a lifetime.
Outside the revelry continued long into the night as thousands of Irish fans, who’d arrived in their droves at dusk, celebrated long past dawn. They toasted the exploits of their countrymen on a night when the spectators themselves were just as integral to the success as the sportsmen they had paid to see.
On October 24th at The O2, The UFC returns to Dublin. Donegal-born Joe Duffy will take centre stage against Dustin Poirier. Duffy, who has a perfect 2-0 record on Octagon duty to date, holds the distinction of being the last man to beat Conor McGregor.
In some parts they call Duffy “the quiet man of MMA” due to his reserved nature. Unlike McGregor, he prefers to let his talent do the talking.
It matters not in this fair city. When an Irishman goes to fight, Dublin roars its approval.
Ralph Welch has had his work featured on BT Sport, The Mirror and UFC.com amongst others. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphWelchMMA