There was a lot of hype surrounding the arrival of Bellator 169 in Dublin.
The card featured a host of young Irish fighters including the highly touted James Gallagher, it brought a solid headliner in Muhammed ‘King Mo’ Lawal, but most importantly, it delivered, and it also further solidified Dublin’s status as a major fight city in the process.
Since hosting UFC McGregor v Brandao at the 3 Arena in the summer of 2014, Dublin has become somewhat of a hotbed for major MMA events. In the last two years alone, the 3 Arena has hosted four BAMMA events and now a major Bellator card to continue the rapid growth of MMA within Ireland.
CEO’s Scott Coker (Bellator) and David Greene (BAMMA) clearly recognise the potential that the Irish market possesses, but Dublin is not just an untapped fighting market for MMA’s subsidiary organisations, you can see that there’s a genuine tide starting to turn with the Irish public.
The Joe Duffy show and various sections of the Irish media may try and disparage it’s credentials as a sport, but as a spectacle and an event, it’s attracting young, passionate males in droves.
Three years ago the majority of people in the 3 Arena on Friday night wouldn’t have been able to pick John Kavanagh or Paddy Holohan out of a lineup, now if the two leave the confines of cageside or the backstage area, they are instantly mobbed for pictures as hordes of fans surround the duo the moment they step foot onto the main floor.
However, with that said, neither promotion could hide the fact that the event wasn’t a sell out, despite the 3 Arena’s best attempts to drop brick styled drapes to try and give the impression that there wasn’t a single ticket to be spared. There was. About half an arena’s worth.
But from where MMA once was in this country to where it is now is extraordinary. The success of Conor McGregor has started a groundswell of support within Irish MMA that has rapidly picked up momentum and has taken a host of young Irish fighters along with it.
Gallagher may have been the one leading the charge on Friday but his teammate Kiefer Crosbie was equally as impressive and thoroughly outmatched his opponent Conor Riordan who he submitted inside two rounds.
As for fellow teammates Dylan Tuke and Brian Moore, the pair had less enjoyable evenings with Moore failing to make it out of the first round against Daniel Weichel, while Tuke was stopped within the first 20 seconds by Chris Else. The 20-year-old entered the arena to a raucous reception from a typically partisan Irish crowd but was put to sleep by Else only moments after the first rounds of Olé, Olé, Olé had echoed through the building.
Else’s first minute knockout silenced the crowd and Tuke simultaneously with one thunderous left hand that left many in attendance stunned, but sent an onlooking Wanderlei Silva into raptures.
Silva was supposed to fight fellow MMA legend Mirko Cro Cop at a Rizin Fighting Federation event earlier this month but withdrew after citing knee and shoulder injuries.
There was nothing wrong with the Brazilian’s step when he jumped into life after Else’s knockout, nor when he enthusiastically applauded Rhys McKee’s first-round finish of Jai Herbert.
Sinead ‘KO’ Kavanagh then delighted fans with a dominating performance over brave Greek Elina Kallionidou, who put on a clinic in how not to get knocked out, but the biggest bout of the night was undoubtedly James Gallagher v Anthony Taylor.
The main event of King Mo v Satoshi Ishii was a rather one sided affair in which Lawal won comfortably, but the co-main event was really the people’s main event.
Taylor is possibly the greatest 1-2 hypeman in the history of MMA, as he was the first fighter to enter the arena to a very strong chorus of boos. A couple of English fighters had previously received boos when they were facing Irish opponents, but the scorn for Taylor was noticeably of a greater intensity.
The American’s painfully ignorant knowledge of Irish-Northern Irish relations certainly seemed to irk Gallagher and his father Andy, but it also didn’t do wonders for him in front of a passionate Irish crowd.
But if Taylor played the villain, Gallagher predictably played the hero, raising the arena to its feet draped in a tri-colour as he marched towards the cage. The 20-year-old was treated to a tremendous reception upon entering the octagon and he turned to the crowd with his hands raised, seemingly taking the opportunity to take it all in.
“This is my country,” Gallagher told reporters after the fight.
“When you’ve got a whole country that’s on your feet for you before you go in, and you’re fighting someone that has just disrespected your country, I just looked around, took a big deep breath and took all that energy in.
“There was a whole nation looking to kill a man for disrespecting our country and I just took that in and went and done it.”
When Gallagher entered the cage he made a throat slitting gesture towards Taylor that seemingly signaled that the American’s time in the cage would soon be over, but if Gallagher had a public execution in mind, it wasn’t exactly a clean beheading, as the Strabane native struggled to establish his rhythm in the opening two rounds.
Taylor’s wild style of punching never really seemed to trouble Gallagher, but yet, the SBG fighter didn’t really have a ton of answers for the Californian’s erratic style either, spending a lot of his time trying to control the centre of the cage while pulling off a series of leg kicks and spinning back kicks.
However, in the third round Gallagher came out focused. He never took his eyes off Taylor from the moment he stepped off the stool, and when Taylor showed him his back for half a second, Gallagher pounced, and didn’t let go until he locked in a rear-naked choke over 90 seconds later.
It wasn’t Gallagher’s most clinical performance in the cage, but he certainly did enough to impress Bellator CEO Scott Coker who said the 20-year-old would be in line for a title fight in Dublin sometime next year.
Coker said that he will be looking to work more closely with BAMMA’s David Greene in an attempt to streamline more Irish fighters towards Bellator in the future, but for the moment, he’s got his diamond in Gallagher, who doesn’t mind battling it out in the centre when it starts to get rough.