Part 5: A Sea of Green, White and Gold (Friday, Dec. 11)
There was some doubt as to whether the Irish could bring the same numbers witnessed in July to Vegas so close to Christmas for UFC 194, but Friday’s weigh-in put all of the uncertainty to bed.
Newly crowned bantamweight champion Holly Holm got ‘céad míle fáilte’ (100,000 welcomes) as she took to the stage, and it became obvious very quickly that some of the traveling contingent were quite smitten with the former boxing world champion.
Draped in the Irish tricolor, one brave fan took the risk of getting up to ask a question, but instead of querying Holm he serenaded her with a rendition of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes off You.” The brazen spectator’s skills on the microphone were so good that the whole gathering of 9000 people joined in to sing the infamous bridge of the tune without a trumpeter on hand to fulfill the duty.
Meanwhile, the crowd continued to file into the arena and one enterprising Dub decided to set up an impromptu stall for himself. The Irishman filled his suitcase with national flags before leaving for the fight and sold them for $20 outside of the arena. Within minutes, he had already sold his first batch of 20 and had to return to his room to restock.
There were a lot of Irish people wearing Christmas regalia at the event. A few weeks ago one of the clan created a “12 Pubs of Christmas” event on Facebook, which could potentially see over 2000 confirmed Irish guests descend on 12 bars on The Strip to take a drink in each location.
As soon as the screen projected some graphics to the masses signifying the beginning of the weigh-in, the Irish chorus immediately sprung into action. Opening their set with “Ole, Ole, Ole” they seamlessly transitioned to a song synonymous with the nation’s battle for sovereignty, “The Fields of Athenry.” When Joe Rogan hit the stage, the commentator’s introductions were inaudible over the great swell in volume.
Despite being a great verbal sparring partner of McGregor’s over the last few months, Urijah Faber was greeted as if he was St. Patrick himself, and he showed his gratitude with a big smile a wave.
As usual, Gunnar Nelson, an honorary Irishman due to his allegiance with SBG and Conor McGregor, was welcomed to the arena like a hometown hero before facing off with Demian Maia.
When Rogan introduced a small bit of footage before the featherweight unification pairing took to the stage, once again the fans raised the roof. With the room darkened, Rogan looked to Dana White and mouthed, “I have goosebumps,” as the arena roared in anticipation.
The whole room stood to attention and exploded as McGregor took to the platform. Removing his top, he revealed a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Champion.” Stripped down, McGregor contorted into his usual muscle pose and roared at the gathering. This time, he savored the moment, taking longer than ever to salute his following before getting down off the scales.
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Aldo marched to the stage with a renewed authority. While registering his weight on the scales, the Brazilians’ cheers battled the Irish hisses for the second time in as many days.
For the face off, it was Aldo this time who led the dance. Like McGregor’s pose at Thursday’s press conference, Aldo slid into a wide stance, goading the interim champion who threw out muted kicks as Dana White struggled to separate the two.
After the event a sea of green, white and gold filled the hallowed halls of the arena belling out numbers from their back catalogue. They once again provided a memorable backdrop to for what went on to be the most-viewed weigh in the history of Fight Pass, doubling the numbers of the previous record holder.
Over at The Cosmopolitan a few hours later, Artem Lobov was tasked with a tricky opponent in Ryan Hall who he needed to overcome to become the first Irish-produced Ultimate Fighter. Before the bout, the Irish fans did battle with the Americans’ chants of “USA!”, but after a completely dominant opening round from Hall, their resolve faded.
The American provided the first bump in the road for Irish Invasion as he comprehensively beat the chief sparring partner to Conor McGregor via decision.
For the Irish, let’s hope it’s not a sign of things to come.
Part 4: The Green Army Grows Stronger (Thursday, Dec. 10)
The number of Irish people around MGM Grand appears to have quadrupled overnight. With reports of a lot of flights coming in late on Wednesday, some of the travelling contingent probably took their first night a bit too far as among the spirited gathering that await the day’s open workouts, a handful of people can be seen sleeping off a hard night on The Strip.
Jose Aldo makes his way to the stage in an understated way. Boos from the Irish and cheers from the Brazilians fight for dominance in the arena, but the champion seems far from bothered.
There is a notable change over Aldo this week when you consider his demeanor during March’s UFC 189 World Tour. He was visibly rattled in some of the scenes that were beamed around the world via the Embedded series that corresponded with the international tour. Now however, there is a renewed confidence in the Nova Uniao fighter, who dances to the rhythm of the music that is boomed around the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
When Andre Pederneiras joins Aldo on the matted area ,the champion lets his hand do the talking as he undergoes a quick boxing workout. Starting off slowly with single shots, the drill crescendos into a violent flurry that thuds his coach’s pads with such speed that even the Irish fans find themselves applauding Aldo.
And Aldo isn’t the only person outside of Conor McGregor that the Irish give an ovation to, either. While Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold win applause from the fans, one of the biggest cheers of the day rings out for Weidman’s coach Ray Longo when he hits the stage.
As soon as the sound of the uilleann pipes is played through the speakers, people rush from all corners of the premises to the boundary guarding the front of the curtain that McGregor walks through. Joined by movement culture innovator Ido Portal and striking coach Owen Roddy, McGregor warms up as the fans shout up to Roddy who shares a joke with them to their delight.
McGregor also is carrying himself in a different manner from his last Las Vegas outing at UFC 189. Back in July, the Dubliner was far more aggressive during his open workout, but this time, he regularly smiles and appears a lot looser compared to the formidable posturing that was witnessed in the days leading up to his bout with Chad Mendes.
The unorthodox stretches and movement drills that Portal brings “The Notorious” through captivate the fans’ attention, but they really get going when Roddy steps onto the mat to do pads with McGregor. The Irishman looks in fantastic shape as spins effortlessly before smashing his leg into the pad that covers Roddy’s stomach. Each time he makes a connection, Roddy winces from the pain from the technique that could prove valuable on Saturday night due to Aldo pulling out of their first contest with a rib injury.
More of McGregor’s teammates arrive in Vegas on Thursday to support the SBG frontrunner. One of Ireland’s most highly touted professional prospects, James Gallagher, arrives into town with Irish Muay Thai champion Cian Cowley -- a man who no doubt played a big part in the preparation of the interim champion, given Aldo’s background in the art of eight limbs.
The McGregors have arrived in town, too. Tony, Conor's father, has become a celebrity himself back home and if his previous appearances at his son's fights are anything to go by, fans will be mobbing him for photos throughout the various events scheduled to take place.
It won’t just be McGregor they will be cheering on, either. On Wednesday night’s final episode of The Ultimate Fighter, Artem Lobov secured his place in Friday’s finale where he will meet Ryan Hall. Although only one can leave the Octagon as The Ultimate Fighter, “The Russian Hammer” has already endeared himself to the Irish faithful, having knocked out all three of his opponents since he was given a second chance in the house.
Should he take the win tomorrow night at The Cosmopolitan, the party will definitely get into full swing for the Green Army.
Part 3: A relaxed introduction (Wednesday, Dec. 9)
Two hours before the UFC 194 press conference is set to begin, you can already spy a few Irish flags and Conor McGregor Reebok kits making their way to the entrance of the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
In a studio hall that fans will walk past before entering the stands on Saturday night, a gaggle of fighters from the coming days’ action meet the gathered media for interviews. Around the massive room, giant images of UFC’s champions, along with Paige VanZant and Ronda Rousey. hang on the walls. While Jose Aldo and McGregor both sport their golden belts in their pictures, only one will have the honor of holding onto the coveted prize after their unification clash.
The arena seems even larger without the enormous crowd that will occupy the space for UFC 194. As ‘The Notorious” takes to the stage along with Aldo, Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes, he raises a clenched fist to his audience.
The Dubliner wastes no time in telling the gathering that he is in a “Zen” state ahead of the crucial bout. The press conference bears a stark contrast to the Dublin leg of the UFC 189 World Tour, where the championship pairing looked close to coming to blows in front of the frantic Irish crowd.
McGregor’s relaxed demeanor is noticed in his team, too. As the camera pans back to the media members, in the background Owen Roddy looks on. Noticing they were in the shot, Charlie Ward holds up his two fingers behind the former national featherweight champion’s head, which elicits some lofty laughs from the SBG crew.
Aldo wears a flashy purple suit for the occasion, a far more flamboyant ensemble than the black number he wore throughout the build up for his initial date with McGregor. Sporting a tight T-shirt, there is no denying that the interim champion is looking a lot lighter than he usually would four days out from a fight. The word is that nutrition expert George Lockhart has been drafted in to help the interim champion get down to the 145-pound championship weight.
Although the raised voices and aggressive posturing that have become one of the hallmarks of the promotional videos for the event are missing, McGregor still has something up his sleeve to keep Aldo guessing.
As Dana White brings the two together to face off, McGregor, with his usual wide stance, unravels into an orthodox standing. Famed for his powerful southpaw striking skills, it’s hard to tell if the Brazilian is thrown off by the exchange.
When all is said and done, McGregor and Aldo respectfully nod at each other. While there was a lot more heat anticipated between the two, it’s hard to imagine that tempers will not flare again at the event’s weigh-in, where the two will go face to face for the last time before they meet in the Octagon.
It seems impossible to avoid the UFC 194 main event. Flicking through the TV stations, a local channel plays the music video for a band known as The Black Donnellys. Their song “Notorious” is an ode to the SBG man and they even manage to squeeze in some of his best-loved quotes.
“We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over,” they sing.
Part 2: Arrivals, cowboy hats and acrobats (Tuesday, Dec. 8)
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Conor McGregor and his SBG teammates arrive at their luxurious mansion in Henderson after spending two weeks training and fulfilling their various media obligations ahead of the biggest date in the history of Irish MMA.
Fifteen miles away, the MGM Grand is at its most spectacular. Giant images of McGregor, Jose Aldo, Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold stretch from the floor to the ceiling amid the festive decorations that are dotted around the check-in area. As you walk through the casino you can barely take five steps without seeing ‘The Notorious” and his Brazilian foe emblazoning a variety of items, from fruit machines to dustbins.
The golden MGM lion takes pride of place in his usual spot inside an Octagon as you enter the vast casino, but this time he’s sporting a cowboy hat. Throughout the casino thousands of 10-gallon hats and Stetsons wander among the crowd due to the National Finals Rodeo being in town.
The Super Bowl of rodeo will be contested throughout the week in Vegas and is set to climax on Saturday around the same time as the featherweight unification bout. The cowboys and cowgirls should get on famously with the Irish as they continue to flock to the MGM, with both sets of fans bringing a unique passion to the fight week.
A few Irish brogues can be heard gathering around the setting of Tuesday’s open workouts. A Brazilian woman sports the famous yellow shirt of the nation’s infamous soccer team with Aldo’s name printed on the back of it as Rose Namajunas, Michael Chiesa, Cody Pfister, Jim Miller, Sage Northcutt, Aljamain Sterling and Paige VanZant strut their stuff for the media members and hundreds of fans gathered to the rear of the casino.
As the fighters throw their acrobatic techniques, the crowd hollers and whoops as the athletes spin through the air. On the three screens over the matted area where the fighters perform, a constant stream of promotional videos for UFC 194’s main event are played with McGregor tearing up a picture of the champion from the UFC 189 World Tour leg in Rio.
Even media members are struggling to make up their minds when considering who will emerge victorious from the featherweight championship bout. All around the platform where the workouts take place, writers, photographers and broadcasters forecast the various possibilities and outcomes of the crucial featherweight bout.
“I’m changing my mind every day,” MMAFighting.com's Shaheen Al-Shatti tells me. “Jose Aldo hasn’t been an underdog since he fought Mike Brown in WEC.”
The fact that we have to go back to 2009 to find the Brazilian in a similar circumstance when it comes to betting odds once again points to the overwhelming popularity and cross-cultural appeal of The Notorious. Interestingly, the win over Brown thrust Aldo to the top of the world’s featherweight rankings and he has remained there ever since.
Whether he will still be identified as the world’s best featherweight on Sunday morning remains to be seen.
Part 1: There’s a storm a-brewin’ (Monday, Dec. 7)
The moody Irish weather was at its most brutal and unforgiving last weekend as Storm Desmond dropped by the Emerald Isle to cause mass flooding and general disarray – including disrupted travel plans to Las Vegas.
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While fishermen worried about the choppiness of the sea and farmers grew concerned about their crops being uprooted and homeowners dreaded the impending visit from the local river that burst its banks, Irish sports fans only had one thing on their minds.
“Did you see the amount of flights that they have cancelled out of Dublin?” a concerned colleague inquired as scores of planes were left in the Irish capital as Desmond threw his thunderous tantrums. However, after a hectic weekend, order has been restored for the traveling clan of "The Notorious.”
It has been a long five months since the Pied Piper of Irish MMA, Conor McGregor, raised the interim featherweight title aloft in MGM Grand. For many, that sweltering July week in Nevada produced the sporting moment that will define a generation.
The all-night parties the Green Army enjoyed up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, the groundbreaking weigh-in that saw a crowd of over 10,000 strong pack out MGM Grand, as well as the unprecedented reception McGregor received as Sinead O’Connor sang him to the Octagon, where the canvas shined with green, white and gold … before a punch was thrown the event had already taken on a life of its own.
The fight itself had all the twists and turns of a Shakespearian play.
"The Notorious" spun like a tornado from the off, but soon the crowd’s worst fears were realized as he hit the ground from a Chad Mendes takedown. While the gathering fell silent, McGregor smiled despite suffering the first facial laceration of his professional career.
He was the calmest man in the arena, and outside of McGregor and his SBG corner men, maybe there were no other levelheaded Gaels in the arena that night. Eventually, his long, piercing front kicks took the last gusts of wind from Mendes’ sails before his piece de resistance, “a straight left hand down the pipe,” secured the belt around his waist.
But it wasn’t meant to be Mendes in the Octagon with McGregor, as much as he should be commended on stepping up that night.
You have to beat the man to be the man, and with undisputed featherweight champion Jose Aldo guaranteeing his presence on Saturday, the stakes will be higher than ever for the Irish. The well-publicized back and forth between the championship pairing has become one of the key selling points of the event and this week will see the intensity between the two reach a climactic high in the days leading up their meeting.
As Storm Desmond splutters out his last few throaty coughs, another storm will make its way to Las Vegas, which will see thousands of Irish flooding through the desert and into Sin City.
The Green Army has built up quite a reputation for itself through their passionate and vocal support and it will no doubt be in full voice as McGregor endeavors to unify the featherweight crown in the same arena that saw him claim the interim title five months ago, at UFC 189.
Peter Carroll is a longtime MMA journalist who writes for the Irish Mirror, FIGHTLAND and SevereMMA.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PetesyCarroll