Despite talk of him riding off into the sunset with a huge wad of cash in his bag, Conor McGregor owes a debt to the Irish people that must be honoured.
The year was 2013 and for most of those outside of the hardcores of the European MMA scene, the lanky, mohawk-sporting featherweight who walked out in the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden to face Marcus Brimage was a virtually unknown commodity.
The sheer noise inside that place when Conor McGregor entered for his spot on the night’s undercard did not go unnoticed, however.
It was a UFC on Fuel TV show that featured a mid-level light-heavyweight matchup between current Bellator champ Gegard Mousasi and Sweden’s own Ilir Latifi, but despite his placement nine fights below the main-event on the card’s billing, the buzz generated by the Irishman could well have fooled you into thinking otherwise.
Jump forward a year, where we once again find McGregor, this time as a 2-0 fighter in the UFC, headlining a sold-out show in his hometown of Dublin’s O2 Arena.
MMAFighting’s iconic reporter Ariel Helwani said this of UFC Dublin when reflecting on the show during an episode of The MMA Beat.
“An event that I’ll never forget is the Dublin show – Conor doing what he did.
“I’ll never forget being at the open workouts and being outside and some kids, who couldn’t have been older than 12, on their bikes, just kind of hanging around and asking me, ‘Is Conor McGregor in there?’ and I was asking them, ‘Do you know who Conor McGregor is?
“They were saying, ‘Conor McGregor is us.’ They literally said that. They said, ‘Conor McGregor is us. Conor McGregor gives us hope. Conor McGregor is someone we look up to. He came from the streets and now look at all these people here to see him.'” (via JOE.ie)
UFC Dublin, of course, stood as a pivotal night in the sport’s growth in Ireland and with a clean sweep for the homegrown talent, tremors were sent through the Irish MMA community that in some ways are still being felt to this day.
McGregor has had more than one iconic sound-byte over the course of his career but in his post-fight interview with Dan Hardy directly after his dismantling of Diego Brandao, he promised his fans something that – if realised – could well become one of the decade’s most significant cultural events for the country.
“What’s next for me is I’m going to backstage, sit down with Mr. Lorenzo Fertitta, toast some fine-ass whiskey and talk about football stadiums next.
“Football stadiums and world-titles, that’s what I want.”
During his original crusade through the featherweight ranks, we watched Mystic Mac predict the future before our very eyes with a relatively high rate of success.
He backed himself to win two championship belts in the UFC two-and-a-half years before he even found himself in a title-fight and in his study of his rival José Aldo, he correctly assumed that the Brazilian’s over-extension would be his downfall.
Several other knockouts, pullouts and revolutionary feats have been called from a mile off by the former champion but for all this talk of football stadiums, Croke Park, and the hometown show that could bring a nation to a halt, we have seen very little in the way of movement.
Whether you love him, hate him, or scroll on every time you see his name – if you are Irish and in any way linked to or interested in mixed martial arts, you want to see that huge show in Croker more than anything.
Think about it.
The Irish are regarded amongst the greatest sports fans on the planet. Their passion, pride and immense presence can be enough to make a night of sporting action legendary and when you think of all of the greats of Irish sport, competing on home-soil has often served up some of their most memorable moments.
We saw it most noticeably in recent MMA history at Bellator Dublin last month. It was an event that stood not only as a showcase for our country’s blossoming talent, but also as an affirmation of this nation’s thunderous support of their athletes.
The Irish football and rugby teams have had countless historical wins over foreign opposition in either Lansdowne Rd or the Aviva Stadium over the years and domestically, the country is well and truly brought to a standstill every year for both the hurling and football All-Ireland finals.
Both Katie Taylor and Michael Conlan have been plying their trade on foreign soil in recent years to reach their current statuses but their respective homecoming events – whenever they happen – will no doubt give them that extra push into our sporting lore.
In the past, we’ve watched as Steve Collins spilt his blood in Cork and even as the great Muhammad Ali drew our attention away from more harrowing times as he fought in Dublin.
These are memories that have been burned into our collective consciousness. Moments that will live on eternally in our sporting culture. Battles fought on Irish soil.
Simply put, these greats and future-greats of Irish sport and beyond have all showcased their talents and brought with them the cultural whirlwind that is necessary to impact those who will eventually strive to do the same in years to come.
Such things are cyclical and inspiring the youth is paramount in maintaining progress on the pitch, in the ring, or the cage.
There is quite a bit of friction to be found in many peoples’ view of Conor and his representation of this country, of course.
Dolly-throwing incidents, Miami arrests, and turbulent post-fight skirmishes have highlighted his career in recent times but if we are looking at this from the perspective of the growth of this nation’s MMA scene, to miss out on a huge Croke Park billing and a card packed to the brim with Irish talent would be an incredible shame.
He has the power to draw the eyes of the world to Dublin for a showcase of those who have risen before, after, and alongside him.
I mean, is there a more well-known Irishman on the planet right now?
A blockbuster mixed martial arts event in Dublin City has all of the ingredients necessary to serve, not only as a unifier, but as a truly special cultural moment in our modern sporting history.
We saw this on a much smaller scale with Bellator Dublin last month and on a greater one with UFC Fight Night: Dublin in 2014.
When I speak about a ‘debt’ that needs to be honoured, I’m not trying to claim that he couldn’t have done all of this without a nation behind him.
But with that being said, to underplay the role that his unparalleled level of support has had in his rise would be ridiculous.
From his UFC debut to his headlining appearance at UFC Dublin and beyond, indeed his persona, his confidence and his thunderous left-hand may have been enough to the steal the show.
But as Helwani and a plethora of others present will tell you, the electricity that is brought to whatever arena McGregor fights in is down to each and every supporter who has been so heavily invested in him that spending thousands of euros on a trip to Las Vegas, New York, or Boston is a no-brainer.
The thing is, not everybody can fork out the money necessary to make a weekend in Vegas come together. Conor should know this from his own background, no matter how infinitely rich he has become.
80,000 people can fit into Dublin’s Croke Park.
80,000 spots that would give men, women, and children who never thought they would experience a Conor McGregor-fight an opportunity to be a part of something that will be engrained in their country’s history forever.
I know there are factors in play that may make working that out difficult, but regardless of the curfews, the money and the goddamn UFC, as a sporting superstar and a proud Irishman, he needs to push for this to happen one way or another before he inevitably retires.
Not for himself, not for the promotion, not even for Uncle Dana, but for the fans, because without them the phenomenon just wouldn’t have been so phenomenal.
McGregor once said ‘there’s not a man alive who can come on this soil and beat me’ and I think after all he has achieved, he needs to bring the show home with him and prove it.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena