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The Fighting Irish's Dublin Takeover

 Ireland's Fab Four convene in Dublin...

Leave it to Conor McGregor to put everything into perspective in his own unique way when asked about “The Fighting Irish” billboard that was unveiled on O’Connell Street in Dublin, Ireland Thursday morning.

“We literally went to war on this street,” the fiery featherweight contender said. “We fought for our lives, fought for our independence on this street and now, right in the middle of it is my pretty, untouched face, screaming, with The Fighting Irish on it.”

410 feet wide, the billboard features McGregor, the UFC logo, and The Fighting Irish hanging above Murray’s Bar on the iconic street, but “The Notorious” one wasn’t alone for the unveiling, as he was joined by three of his teammates from the Straight Blast Ireland Gym who are also making plenty of noise in the UFC” welterweight Cathal Pendred, flyweight Paddy Holohan, and strawweight Aisling Daly.

Daly, currently appearing on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, is the First Lady of the gym in Dublin, not just figuratively, but literally, as she was training before any of her more celebrated teammates stepped through the door. So to see this acknowledgement of McGregor and her friends and training partners is particularly satisfying.

“It’s really nice to see how things have grown over the last few years,” Daly said. “It’s a lot of hard work that has gone into it, so I’m very proud of everybody and very happy to see everything that everybody’s achieving.

“This was definitely something I dreamed of but nothing I expected,” she continues. “When I started, there was no women’s division in the UFC at all and there were hardly any female fighters in the world at that stage, and a few years later, (UFC President) Dana White said he’d never put a women’s division in the UFC. And it was a few years before Dana was even asked that question when I started. It’s amazing to see how everything has turned out.”

At the moment, McGregor is 4-0 in the UFC, Pendred is 2-0, and Holohan is 1-1, with Daly expected to make her debut after TUF 20 concludes. Between them, they’ve picked up five post-fight bonuses and have captivated the MMA world, not just at home, but abroad as well. But it’s in Ireland where the quartet has gone from prospects scraping things together to stars now recognized wherever they go. That doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten the lean years though.

“Most of the things were being done in clubs,” Holohan recalls. “You probably would have had a St. John’s ambulance man as the doctor, and you were probably being paid around 80 quid.”

That’s around $129 in U.S. dollars. So it was no surprise that many doubted the Irish contingent when they had dreams of making it big in a sport that wasn’t exactly taking over on the Emerald Isle a few years back.

“There are plenty of people that said I couldn’t do it,” Pendred said. “Even my own friends and family, when I first decided that this was what I wanted to do, they thought I was crazy. No one in this country had done it before and people seemed to believe that if something hasn’t been done before, it’s impossible. I suppose it’s a fault in human nature, and there were plenty of naysayers, so it’s nice to say ‘I told you so,’ but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it for myself.”

And as fighters like McGregor and Pendred built their resumes, Ireland started to respond to the sport, with a 2009 visit to Dublin by the UFC only whetting the appetites of fans who loved boxing and didn’t mind having another combat sport to follow.

“Fighting in general has been part of Irish culture,” Pendred said. “The Irish love to fight and it’s something that’s been built in us. For many years, boxing was the best sporting outlet in the country and that’s why we have such a great tradition in boxing, and for a small country we always did very well. But MMA has come along, and it’s still a young enough sport, but the Irish have taken to it like fish to water. We love it and now we have a new outlet.”

In April of 2013, McGregor made his UFC debut with a 67-second knockout of Marcus Brimage. The fans immediately took to the brash Irishman, whose charisma and talent set the stage for him to transcend the MMA crowd and become a crossover star. McGregor’s success also made the UFC take a look at who else was coming out of the SBG Ireland gym under the tutelage of head coach John Kavanagh, with Pendred earning a slot on The Ultimate Fighter 19 and Holohan making his debut on the July 2014 Dublin card that made the whole world sit up and take notice.

“We’re not here to take part,” McGregor said after his win in the main event over Diego Brandao. “We’re here to take over.”

That night at the O2 Arena, McGregor, Pendred, and Holohan were all victorious, with fellow Irishman Neil Seery also picking up a big win for local heroes, and with 9,000 plus screaming their lungs out from start to finish, it was clear that Irish MMA had arrived.

“It’s really special because we all started out together from the bottom,” Pendred said. “We didn’t find our success and then get together afterwards. We all started out at the bottom and we all had the same dreams and the same goals and we went through the same route to get to where we are now together. It really feels like a joint effort, and we’re sharing this with each other and not doing this on our own. People think this is an individual sport, but it really is a team sport and we’re really showing that at SBG.”

“It’s been a long road of working that’s starting to pay off for everybody now,” Holohan adds. “As the tide comes in, all the ships rise together.”

Now McGregor is being talked about as the next challenger for the featherweight title, Pendred is a rising star at 170, Holohan has become a must-see at 125 pounds, and Daly is expected to follow suit at 115 pounds. Yet even before she sets foot into the Octagon officially, she has been the face of women’s MMA in Ireland, and a role model for female fighters in the process.

“It’s something that I’ve always had in mind,” she said. “Not that I was aspiring to be a role model to people, but I am aware that when you’re in the public eye, people pay attention to what you’re doing and how you carry yourself. So I’ve always made sure to carry myself well and be respectful, while being vocal on issues like mental health and stuff like that, so I definitely would consider myself comfortable with that role and I honestly think I fill the role very well.”

This fearsome foursome has come a long way since those early days, making today’s public acknowledgement of what the UFC’s Irish fighters have done not just a nod for a job well done, but a chance for the team to reconvene after a hectic few weeks.

“We always maintain that it’s good to sit down, have a meal all together and just chill out,” McGregor said. “Cathal has been away in Sweden fighting, Paddy’s been in Halifax, Ais has been on The Ultimate Fighter, and everyone’s life has changed. Sometimes you don’t get a minute to realize that, and it’s good to chill and talk about everyone’s journeys. It’s a beautiful thing.”

So how does the quartet stay grounded through what has to be a life-altering time in their young lives?

“We stick together as a team and we find that it helps keep us grounded,” Pendred said. “At the end of the day we’re still trying to follow the same path we were on five, six years ago when no one gave us any attention. So it’s great that we’re getting the attention, and that we’re able to make a living from this, which is fantastic. But we just try to stay focused, and we do that by sticking together as a team.”

So what’s next? Holohan says that the success the team has had is only beginning.

“You should see some of the kids that are in the place now,” he said. “The grassroots are really, really strong around here, so this is going to continue for a long, long time. We’re only paving the way at the moment.”

“We just keep going,” adds McGregor. “There’s no limit to what can be achieved. We keep showing up at the gym, and we keep evolving with the situation because the situation always evolves with or without you, so you must evolve with it. We carry on, keep that tunnel vision focus, and evolve as it happens.”