Two fights into his UFC career, it was clear that Conor McGregor was going to be a big deal. How big? Well, we got an answer in fight number three when he headlined the UFC Dublin card against Diego Brandao on July 19, 2014.
But the reason why this event at The O2 transcended McGregor’s rise and instead turned into an iconic moment is because it was a celebration of all of Irish MMA, a day that Hollywood wouldn’t believe if it was presented as a movie script.
That night in Dublin, four members of the SBG Ireland squad (McGregor, Cathal Pendred, Paddy Holohan and Iceland’s Gunnar Nelson) all fought and won. Bushmills, Northern Ireland’s Norman Parke and Dublin’s Neil Seery also emerged victorious, and when McGregor stopped Brandao at 4:05 of the first round, “The Notorious” one put a perfect cap on the night when he said, “We're not here to take part; we’re here to take over.”
The card sold out almost immediately, with Irish fans hungry for the UFC to land in Dublin for the first time in five years. McGregor was the obvious choice for the headlining gig after his first two UFC wins over Marcus Brimage and Max Holloway, and while Cole Miller was his original dance partner, when the injury bug bit the American, Brandao stepped in and he was more than confident of victory in enemy territory.
“I don’t know why Conor’s so big in the UFC right now because he only has two fights, but I don’t care,” said the Fortaleza native. “I watched his tapes, but I already know where he’s strongest. “All he has are 1-2s. But in jiu-jitsu, he sucks. His standup, it sucks. I have all the tools – I have jiu-jitsu, I have strength, I have power. He punches like a girl.”
McGregor, not one to pass up a verbal battle, fired right back, saying, “Diego is one of the most feared guys in the division. He’s a bad, bad man until the door shuts, until it’s time to fight. Then he crumbles, then he’s like a little boy in there. He’s a tough guy outside, but when it’s time to fight he doesn’t show up. So July 19th, we’ll see.”
After just two fights on the big stage, it was clear that McGregor was settling into the headliner’s role. In fact, when I spoke to him, he was in the middle of getting ready for a training session. I jokingly asked him if I was still going to get some good material from him since he was preoccupied.
“Always,” said McGregor. “Wait until July 19th and you’ll see good material, material that hasn’t been seen before.”
Yeah, he had that star thing already, and you just knew that being the center of attention wasn’t going to concern him. And if you didn’t know, he’d tell you.
“It’s just another day for me,” said the then 26-year-old Irishman. “I’ve been the star since Day One. It’s just another day in the life of a king, and it feels normal. Everything is the same. In my head it was always like this, no different. And I’m going to perform like that as well. People think there’s pressure; I don’t feel pressure, I never did. I’ve been in a UFC main event every fight of my career.”
Yet before McGregor took to the Octagon, three of his teammates would make the walk, starting with unbeaten flyweight Paddy Holohan, who was making his UFC debut against Josh Sampo. Win, and the energy stays high in the locker room. Lose, and that starts the night off on a downer for the team and the crowd.
Holohan needed just over three minutes to submit Sampo. SBG 1, World 0.
“Paddy Holohan goes out and stops a dangerous guy in the first round, and that kind of set the tone for the whole night,” said SBG Ireland head coach John Kavanagh. “Now everybody’s walking 12-feet tall.”
Including Kavanagh, who had been down this road before when it came to having multiple fighters on the same card.
“I did prepare myself for it,” he said. “I do a lot of regional shows here in Ireland and around Europe, and it’s not uncommon for me to have five-plus fighters on a card, so I do have kind of a system down. Each fighter has a second that stays with him the whole time, and I have to give a big shout out to those guys. They’re the ones who take care of the warm-up, getting the ice, and doing all those type of jobs. I’m the first, so I’ll just come in and grab them, but it’s actually those guys that have gotten the guy ready while I was out at the previous fight.”
And while some wondered whether SBG could go 4-0 on the night, Kavanagh had no such doubts.
“Of course I expected nothing less than four wins, but I was aware that things can happen, and if you’re walking back with an unhappy fighter, you don’t want to walk into the same changing room and change the energy,” said Kavanagh, who had Cathal Pendred up next.
Pendred, a graduate of The Ultimate Fighter 19, faced off with castmate Mike King and the two proceeded to deliver a Fight of the Night battle won by Pendred via second-round submission. Two up two down, and then Nelson added a third submission win to the team tally by finishing Zak Cummings in the second round.
The only thing left was for McGregor to close the show.
“I had to be careful that after Gunni’s fight, for example, there was very much a party atmosphere in the room, and I had to kick everybody out of it and say, ‘It’s not party time yet. There’s still a job here to do,’” said Kavanagh. “And you can imagine what Paddy Holohan is like after having the night he did, and I had to tell him to put on a t-shirt and disappear and party when this is over because we have another fight to go. But we have a system down, and the guys who helped me did an incredible job of keeping everybody on point and focused.”
Then McGregor did his thing in spectacular fashion as the crowd shook the O2 down to its foundations. The Takeover was complete. And all the coach wanted to do was relax.
“When it was all over,” laughed Kavanagh, “Then I went back and I collapsed.”
Later, Kavanagh was able to put the whole night in perspective.
“Unfortunately, I come from an engineering background, not an English Lit background where I can use nice vocabulary to try and explain the unexplainable,” he laughs. “But it’s a dream come true. It would be hard to top this with one of my guys winning a belt in Vegas. Although that’s the ultimate goal and that will be a very, very special night, I don’t think this night will ever be eclipsed. Four fighters, four wins, main event, co-main event, my mother and father in the crowd. My dad is 64 and he said it was the greatest night of his life. It was special.”
It was special. There are no other words to describe it.
Here’s how we called the UFC Dublin card that night in 2014…
McGREGOR vs. BRANDAO
Pressure, what pressure? After weeks of build-up, Irish featherweight star Conor McGregor lived up to all the hype and all his talk - and in his hometown of Dublin, no less - stopping Brazil’s Diego Brandao in the first round of their UFC Fight Night main event at the O2 Arena Saturday.
“I felt calm throughout,” said McGregor to the arena he sold out in minutes. “I said I was going to put him away in the first round and I put him away in the first round. There’s not a man alive that can come on this soil and beat me.”
It was the most important win of the 26-year-old’s career, proving not just that he could carry a promotion, but that he could defeat a talented veteran in his first bout since knee surgery left him on the shelf since August of 2013.
“It was a clean sweep for the Irish,” said McGregor, one of four products of the SBG Ireland team to win on the card. “We're not here to take part; we’re here to take over.”
That was evident from the start. The boos didn’t appear to rattle Brandao as he made his way to the Octagon, but with the crowd bathed in Irish colors, it had to be hard for the Brazilian not to be affected by the roars from the capacity crowd as the local hero waded through the crowd and into battle.
Once the introductions were made, the two surprisingly touched gloves, and once the fight commenced, it was McGregor nailing Brandao with a kick to the midsection. Brandao fired back, and after these initial exchanges, Brandao looked for a takedown but instead has to settle for a lock-up against the fence. McGregor reversed position, and he did so again in the second minute as “DB” took him to the mat. The two exchanged while on the canvas, Brandao looking for a leg lock as McGregor punched his way into the scoring column. With two minutes left, the two stood, McGregor pressing the action with punches and spinning kicks. In the final minute, McGregor stunned Brandao against the fence, and after a slight hesitation to make sure Brandao wasn’t playing possum, “Notorious” unleashed strike after strike, dropping his foe and bringing in referee Leon Roberts to stop the fight at 4:05 of the round.
With the win, McGregor improves to 15-2; Brandao falls to 22-10.
NELSON vs. CUMMINGS
Highly regarded welterweight prospect Gunnar Nelson continued to impress in the co-main event, patiently picking apart Zak Cummings before submitting him late in the second-round.
Cummings was competitive in the opening round, but he had few answers for Nelson’s unorthodox striking style, as he ate several shots while being unable to land his own or get the bout to the mat.
Nothing changed for much of the second round, but suddenly with a minute remaining, Nelson struck, getting Cummings to the mat effortlessly. He immediately took the American’s back, bloodied his nose, and then sunk in the rear naked choke that forced Cummings to tap at 4:48 of round two.
“In the second I started to find my rhythm and I started to pick it up,” said the Iceland native.
With the win, Nelson ups his record to 13-0-1; Cummings falls to 17-4.
Flyweight rivals Ian McCall and Brad Pickett didn’t deliver the explosive action many expected, but in a tactical three-rounder, it was McCall emerging with a well-deserved unanimous decision victory.
Scores were 30-27 twice and 29-28.
McCall kept Pickett guessing for much of the first round, using his movement, quick leg kicks and occasional rushes accompanied by left hands to the face as the Londoner pursued. By the end of the frame, Pickett started timing the rushes with hard uppercuts that allowed him to get closer to the elusive “Uncle Creepy.”
McCall began round two with a takedown, Pickett jumping up as soon as he hit the deck. McCall’s second takedown moments later lasted a little longer, but Pickett still made it to his feet without having to fend off any significant danger. For the rest of the round it was the same cat and mouse game continuing, with both fighters having their moments of success, but neither doing enough to pull away.
With McCall seemingly hurting his right hand in the previous round, as he kept shaking it, the Californian still stuck to the game plan, relying on his left hand and his kicks to lead the action. With 1:45 left, McCall upped the ante with a takedown of Pickett, a key move in a close fight, and it was his subsequent mat work that left no doubts on the scorecards.
With the win, McCall moves to 13-4-1; Pickett falls to 25-9.
PARKE vs. KOTANI
Northern Ireland lightweight Norman Parke spoiled the return of Japan’s Naoyuki Kotani, picking up his first UFC finish in the process as he scored a second-round TKO victory in the main card opener.
Parke, 21-2-1, an Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes winner, is now unbeaten in his last 11 bouts. Kotani, who brought a 13-fight winning streak into his first UFC fight since 2007, falls to 33-11-7.
Parke had a good first round offensively and defensively, as he kept Kotani from bringing the fight to the mat while peppering his foe with strikes throughout. In the final minute, Parke’s takedown defense allowed him to take the fight to the canvas, and he ended the frame with a blistering series of elbows.
Taking the bout to the mat in round two, Parke’s ground strikes extended his lead, and his defense remained tight as he eluded a leg lock attempt from the Japanese veteran. But after the next trip to the mat, Parke took his foe right back there, and this time he finished the bout with more unanswered ground strikes. The official time was 3:41 of the second stanza.
PENDRED vs. KING
The Ultimate Fighter 19 teammates Cathal Pendred and Mike King fought like mortal enemies in their UFC Fight Night prelim bout at the O2 Arena in Dublin, Ireland Saturday, and after nearly being finished several times in the stirring middleweight showdown, it was Pendred, the hometown hero, roaring back to score the second-round submission finish.
“Work hard and believe, and you can achieve anything,” said Pendred, who was in the crowd five years ago when the UFC first visited Dublin. What a difference five years can make.
With the crowd roaring, Pendred rushed King at the start, the American responding with a thudding takedown. Pendred got up immediately, and the two began throwing, King scoring well with punches, kicks, and the occasional knee. 90 seconds in, Pendred got a takedown, King bouncing up quickly, and moments later he put Pendred in serious trouble with a right hand that dropped the Dubliner to the mat. King went all out to get the finish, from ground strikes to submission attempts, but Pendred wouldn’t cave in. Finally, with a minute left, Pendred found daylight and got to his feet, the crowd roaring and chanting for their man, who made it out of the round.
Picking his shots patiently, Pendred clipped King with several right hands in the second, seemingly with his legs back under him. In the second minute, Pendred scored a takedown, but King scrambled his way back to his feet and nailed his foe with two kicks to the head. Pendred responded with another takedown, taking King’s back. In just seconds, Pendred sunk in a rear naked choke and King went to sleep, the end coming at the 3:33 mark.
With the win, Pendred improves to 14-3-1; King falls to 5-1.
SEERY vs. HARRIS
Dublin flyweight Neil Seery took the hard road to the UFC, and in his second Octagon bout, he picked up a victory to remember, avenging a 2010 loss to Phil Harris by decisioning the Brit via unanimous decision.
All three scores were 30-27.
Harris implemented his game plan well in the early going, staying out of Seery’s punching range while seeking the takedown or lock-up when it was available. The tenor of the fight changed two minutes in though, as Seery dropped Harris with a hard right hand. The Portsmouth native was able to clear his head quickly, but from there, it was Seery who was pushing the pace of the fight as he stayed off his back and landed even more bombs in the first five minutes.
Harris (22-12, 2 NC) was able to get the takedown in round two, but Seery’s defense was rock-solid, allowing him to get out of potential danger and back to his feet immediately. Once standing, it was Seery’s striking again leading the way, and his confidence was evident as he marched forward. Seery even put together two takedowns before the end of the round, adding to his lead.
It was more of the same in round three, Seery (14-10) in charge of the action, rocking Harris with a right hand midway through the round and in the final minute, and just putting together what he will likely look back at as the most important win of his career.
HOLOHAN vs. SAMPO
Dublin’s own Patrick Holohan got the night – and his UFC career - off to a perfect start for Irish fans with a first-round submission of Josh Sampo in the flyweight opener.
With the crowd already making their presence known, the hometown favorite wore off any nervous energy with a busy striking attack, and once he settled in, a right uppercut knocked Sampo to the mat and nearly finished the fight. Sampo recovered, nearly catching Holohan with an armbar, but the Dubliner escaped, took Sampo’s back and sunk in a rear naked choke that produced a tap out at the 3:06 mark. Not surprisingly, the crowd erupted, and rightfully so.
With the win, the 26-year-old Holohan improves to 10-0-1; Sampo falls to 11-4.
LATIFI vs. DEMPSEY
Swedish light heavyweight Ilir Latifi brought his “Sledgehammer” to Dublin, stopping UFC debutant Chris Dempsey in the first round.
Latifi’s leg kicks did damage quickly, the kind of welcome the late-notice newcomer didn’t want, and it just got worse from there. After eating another kick that sent him to the deck, Dempsey jumped up and tried to recover as Latifi rushed him, but a right hand sent Dempsey down and out, with referee Leon Roberts intervening at 2:07 of the opening stanza.
SMITH vs. TROENG
American Trevor “Hot Sauce” Smith improved to 12-5 in middleweight action, winning a three-round unanimous decision over Sweden’s Tor Troeng.
All three judges saw it 29-28.
The first five minutes were competitive and grueling, mainly fought on the inside against the fence. Both fighters had their moments at close range, and even at distance it was hard to separate the two, as Troeng’s punches were effective and Smith’s leg kicks were equally so.
Troeng (16-6-1) began the second with a takedown, but Smith was able to scramble his way into the top position, and he maintained that position until Troeng got back to his feet with 90 seconds left. The Swede looked for a takedown in the final minute, with Smith opting to pull guard and seek the guillotine choke finish. He nearly got it, but the horn intervened to rescue Troeng.
The solid groundwork from both men continued in round three, each man scrambling to take the upper hand, but as the round progressed, it was Smith taking the lead and holding it, securing the points victory.
KRYLOV vs. DONOVAN
Ukrainian prospect Nikita Krylov picked up his first win at 205 pounds, stopping Cody Donovan in a back and forth light heavyweight scrap.
In a start reminiscent of his loss to Ovince Saint Preux, Krylov was in immediate control but almost got finished, this time by a Donovan armbar. But in a reversal of that previous bout, Krylov escaped and continued to keep the pressure on. The two light heavyweights slugged it out to the delight of the fans, both before and after a brief break due to a low kick by Krylov, and with under two minutes left, Donovan began to take over, dropping Krylov and then taking the mount. Krylov turned to escape and nearly got caught in a rear naked choke, but in the process of escaping he reversed position and then began firing off ground strikes with no response from Donovan, prompting referee Marc Goddard to stop the bout at 4:57 of the first round.
With the win, Krylov moves to 17-4; Donovan falls to 8-5.
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