When the UFC first held an event in Ireland back in January 2009, CEO Dana White described it as “pound-for-pound, the best place we’ve ever played. The Irish are crazy!”
Five years later and they are finally returning.
So why has it taken so long? White summed it up best himself during a visit to Trinity College last year. Answering questions about the delay, he said,
“We’re seven or eight years behind over here.”
Although that sounds harsh, you only have to look at the UFC 93 card to see he is right. Back then, Ireland’s lone representative on the card was Tom Egan, who lost to John Hathaway in an undercard bout. Ireland may have had a rich history in combat sports, particularly boxing, but there was a clear shortage of experienced MMA practitioners at the time. Dana is constantly talking about “global expansion” and “cultivating new markets” and the truth is, at that point, the Irish market wasn’t ready. Now, however, things are beginning to change.
The UFC is not only returning to Ireland on the 19th of July, but they are returning with an Irishman headlining the UFC Fight Night 46 card. This alone speaks volumes about how things have changed and a lot of the credit must go to the headliner Conor McGregor and his own self-promotion.
After stopping Marcus Brimage in his debut last April, McGregor announced he would single handedly bring the UFC back to Ireland. He then beat Max Holloway in Boston and preceded to call out the whole Featherweight division. Unfortunately, he was sidelined with an ACL tear for almost a year but that didn’t stop him from creating controversy. He has continued to be vocal in the media, creating quite the hype train, and will now have to back it up against veteran Cole Miller. But if he does, that would take his record to 3-0 in the UFC and 14-2 overall. More importantly, it would more than likely lead to showdown with one of the contenders he has been calling out; Cub Swanson or Dustin Poirier. One thing is for sure, the sky is the limit if McGregor keeps winning and the confident Dubliner is convinced he will be the next Featherweight champion of the UFC.
McGregor may be leading the way but his SBG teammates are not far behind. Cathal Pendred and Chris Fields are current cast members of ‘The Ultimate Fighter 19’. Both have been champions in the top European promotion Cage Warriors; Pendred only vacated his title so that he could try out for the UFC. Like McGregor, Pendred has a 13-2 record and his last fight was a TKO victory over former UFC fighter Che Mills. Cathal has also already won his opening contest of TUF, and there’s a pretty good chance he, and maybe even Fields, will fight for the UFC contract or at least fight on the show’s season finale on July 6th.
There will also be an Irish representative on the all-female ‘Ultimate Fighter 20’, the winner of which becomes the first Women’s Strawweight champion of the UFC. SBG’s Aisling Daly, another former Cage Warriors Champion, attended the tryouts in April and you can expect to see her in the house.
The common denominator behind all this Irish success in MMA is SBG Ireland. McGregor, Pendred, Fields and Daly all train there under John Kavanagh, the first Irishman to become a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Most MMA commentators point out that Europeans are weak on the ground but as we saw in McGregor’s domination of Holloway, under Kavanagh’s tutelage this is not the case.
Icelandic UFC fighter Gunnar Nelson (12-0) is also affiliated with SBG. Although they have not broken into the UFC yet, it is not unfathomable that we could see other SBG fighters like Patrick Hoolahan (9-0), John Michael Shiel (8-1) or Philip Mulpeter (7-4) on the undercard.
The future is bright outside of SBG as well. Neil Seery (13-10), who had a great fight against Brad Pickett at ‘UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Manuwa’, signed a four-fight contract with the UFC and has already been confirmed on the Dublin card in July. Paul Redmond (10-4) from Team Ryano has also been making a name for himself but most exciting of all might be Joseph Duffy. Duffy (10-1), the last man to defeat Conor McGregor, has returned to MMA and signed a five-fight contract with Cage Warriors. Duffy left MMA in 2011 to concentrate on boxing and amassed an impressive 7-0 undefeated streak. Duffy has also defeated Northern Irish UFC fighter Norman Parke and one would expect him to make it to the UFC if he lives up to his true potential.
2013 was a groundbreaking year for Irish MMA. Spearheaded by characters like McGregor and Pendred, the sport really gained traction with the public. There were documentaries on RTE, appearances on ‘The Late Late Show’ and various interviews in news outlets.
On the back of this, there will no doubt be a national buzz when the UFC comes to town in July and the venue will sell out in minutes. SBG have recently built Europe’s largest MMA facility, which means younger generations will have access to the highest level of training and the sport will continue to grow. All of this combined points to an even better 2014 and a bright future beyond that.
Donal Lucey, Pundit Arena.