After a standout year in the story of Irish MMA with Conor McGregor becoming the first man to hold two UFC titles simultaneously, Mark O’Toole reflects on the journey the sport in this country has been on over the past few years as it faces into the last major event of 2016.
A month ago I sat in the rafters of the world’s most famous arena - Madison Square Garden - as Conor McGregor achieved a first for his sport, becoming the UFC’s first simultaneous double-weight champion.
It was a far cry from sitting cageside just over three years ago, covering his UFC debut for Balls.ie, in the domed Ericson Globe Arena in Stockholm with thousands of empty seats. The interest and atmosphere was created by less than a few hundred boisterous Irish fans cheering the SBG man on.
— Mark O'Toole (@M_OToole) April 6, 2015
There was no more than six or seven people from Ireland covering the fight and I sat alongside the now MMA-Scribe-In-Chief of Ireland Petesy Carroll of SevereMMA with a sense of pride and trepidation.
The UFC played its trademark soundtrack over a slick video montage on the big screen and as Baba O’Riley echoed in the cavernous arena, we asked asked each other if McGregor would deliver on his promise on the big stage.
Not that we thought he “couldn’t” do it, but he was being fed to Marcus Brimage, a former Ultimate Fighter contestant whose lightening hands were rated as among the fastest in the UFC.
They weren’t faster than Conor’s though and just over sixty seconds later the fight was over and the rest is history. He has kept delivering on his promises since.
Afterwards I found myself on a periphery of a group featuring UFC matchmaking impresario Sean Shelby, John Kavanagh and a few others and was asked to take a picture of Kavanagh with a Strawberry Daiquiri bought for him by Shelby who lost a bet with the SBG coach that Conor would knockout his hot prospect in Brimage in one round. Shelby now believed it was possible that one day McGregor “could” challenge Jose Aldo.
— Coach Kavanagh (@John_Kavanagh) April 7, 2013
With last month’s victory, McGregor exceeded even those expectations and he has taken over the sport, as promised, and brought it to greater popularity. He was a chief source of revenue and Pay-per-view buys as the UFC was bought for over $4billion this past summer.
MMA has dramatically increased its popularity in the 21st Century with the advent of the Internet and ever more sophisticated broadcast technology that can capture the nuances of the sport for an audience watching at home rather than in a live crowd. The UFC found in McGregor a charismatic champion that could penetrate mainstream public consciousness and bring the sport to heights it has never seen before, except possibly when the lines of combat sports like boxing, Vale Tudo, wrestling and, indeed, professional wrestling were more blurred in the 1930s as highlighted in David Shoemaker’s excellent book “The Squared Circle.”
Few would have thought one of the most famous Irish sportsmen on the planet would have been a product of Irish MMA, a niche sport which has risen to public prominence nearly as quickly as McGregor. Fewer still would have thought that sportsman would have been a product of “The Garage” the initial premises in which John Kavanagh taught himself and others about combat sports.
Due to the recent success of McGregor and Irish MMA, “The Garage” has been mythologized by fans of Irish MMA. That original venue and its successors on the Longmile Road witnessed a sporting perfect storm of athletes coalescing around a place in time that happens every so often in sport and that drive each other on.
To understand irish mma you have to know the garage! pic.twitter.com/YG1Y7tpxrJ
— Coach Kavanagh (@John_Kavanagh) December 18, 2013
In SBG the litany of professional fighters in the SBG lockeroom that sharpened McGregor’s iron and their own include:
The original superstar in the story of Irish MMA, she has been an ambassador for the sport driving along organisations like Safe MMA. As well as creating UFC moments like this, she teaches kids and women in SBG Swords.
He went an impressive 4-2 in the UFC before calling it a day and focusing on his business pursuits and acting career with roles in the upcoming Baywatch movie and the Ray Donavon TV series. Converts to MMA post McGregor, missed some of the most memorable fights in European MMA history that Pendred was involved in, particularly the wins over UFC vets Che Mills and David Bielkheden.
A man who cornered McGregor in that first UFC fight in Stockholm, The Russian Hammer was nearly a victim of his own love to fight, taking fights wherever and whenever as others pick and choose on the way to the big stage. He was recently seen picking up a win at UFC Belfast and showcasing a crowd-pleasing if unorthodox standing hammerfist.
Now headcoach at the Charlestown branch of SBG and better known as McGregor’s striking coach, Roddy boasted some of the loudest fans in Irish MMA, some of the most exciting fights in Irish MMA history and the most dangerous knees in the game. Any of his teammates would talk about his skill in reverential tones.
“The Honeybadger” will open SBG Portarlington soon. Mulpeter had as much fight, flair and devil-may-care attitude as his nickname would suggest. His Battlezone fight in 2012 with John Donnelly remains one of the best two fights I’ve witnessed live.(The other one was Robbie Lawler versus Rory MacDonald!)
The Waterford man is one of McGregor’s training partners and a tenacious competitor who has fought as far afield as South Africa.
Recently retired due to a medical condition following topping the bill at the most recent UFC Dublin cards. “The Hooligan” remains one of Irish MMA’s most beloved characters and one of the country's biggest tea aficionados. He too is teaching the next generation of fighters at SBG Tallaght.
A product of Mjölnir and SBG, after focusing on honing his grappling skills, ‘Gunni’ returned to MMA in February 2012 and everyone who saw his dominant win over Alexander Butenko in the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght knew they were witnessing a star. A man poised to make a run at the very open UFC welterweight title at some point.
You can add to that list the Team Ryano duo of Seery and Paul Redmond, Northern Ireland’s Norman Parke and many others from SBG and other clubs, but there’s no mistaking that there was a nucleus of fighters in SBG that drove a culture of success throughout the rest of Irish MMA.
— Coach Kavanagh (@John_Kavanagh) February 27, 2015
For fans of Irish MMA, and for the original pioneers of the sport that honed their skills alongside McGregor in "The Garage" when there was little reward or prospect of it, there’s one more date in 2016 that marks a watershed for Irish MMA; the joint BAMMA/Bellator card that will take place in a packed 3 Arena tomorrow, Friday 16th December.
Both organisations are respected as the best MMA promotions outside of the UFC, with BAMMA already putting on 3 near capacity shows at the "3" over the past 15 months. The card is stacked with top Irish fighters each time and this show will feature hot prospects James Gallagher and Dylan Tuke in high billing, with stalwart of the Irish MMA scene and regular Newstalk MMA pundit Chris Fields looking to become the first man to have held both Cage Warrior and BAMMA belts as he challenges for the Light Heavyweight title.
More than McGregor’s phenomenal global and personal success, the success of these cards being regularly held in the 3 Arena shows how far Irish MMA has come since McGregor fought on Cage Contender and Cage Warrior cards in the likes of the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght and the Helix in DCU. While the organisation of the sport in Ireland has yet to catch up with its burgeoning popularity in terms of regulation, BAMMA, supported by Safe MMA, remains one of the most professionally run events in the world. The tickets tend to be cheaper than the UFC, but there is always high quality production and fighters on the show.
Which brings me to another member of that SBG old school nucleus; Chris Fields who has been a centrepiece of these BAMMA events since he joined the promotion.
Many of the fans who will show up at the card will do so to see the former Cage Warriors champion who has always been one of the biggest draws in the Irish MMA scene, with only one of his fights ever going the distance due to his crowd-pleasing hurricane style of striking and Jiu Jitsu.
UFC fans, as opposed to Irish MMA fans, may remember him from an injury-ravaged stint on The Ultimate Fighter or from his regular media appearances where he is one of the most articulate pundits on the sport, making the vast technicalities in the sport accessible and interesting to an audience that can sometimes be more interested in hyperbole than knowledge.
For the longest time too he was the coach to the highly successful amateur MMA team in SBG Concorde until opening his own SBG Swords gym with John Kavanagh’s first black belt Tom King. As such, the 33 year old has been an older brother-style mentor figure to many of the younger generation of MMA fighters that are beginning to come through.
It was a side I got to see personally. As a full-time journalist, Chris was always someone who would make time to provide interesting, cliché-free interviews. As I steered my career path away from journalism to an enjoyable but heavily stress ridden job in 2014, I took a few days off to soak up the atmosphere at the UFC’s first event in Dublin in five years where Fields was cornering his friend Cathal Pendred. As I was leaving the Gibson Hotel, Chris walked in and convinced me to stay for a pint.
An hour or two later he had convinced me that for my own health and as an outlet for stress to train one hour a week with him in a sport I had developed a huge interest in when working in radio.
The training has increased since he has opened his own gym, and when I came back from UFC New York earlier this month I noted that I was 22 pounds lighter than I was when returning from seeing McGregor capturing his first title in the UFC against Chad Mendes a year previously.
The health benefits and the benefits of meeting amazing people like Fields make some of the critiques of MMA as "not a legitimate sport" hard to stomach at times. Especially when you see 250 kids competing in tournaments like the Dublin International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Open earlier this month. Most of these children, who are gaining remarkable self esteem and self worth from competing in these tournament, are being taught by people from MMA clubs such as Owen Roddy, Paddy Holohan, Fields, Aisling Daly.
Tomorrow night will be an opportunity to see Irish MMA put its best foot forward and close out a great 2016, with one of its stalwarts in Fields becoming the first Irishman to have held BAMMA and Cage Warrior title.
It’s apt that in Dylan Tuke and James Gallagher the card will also feature some of the leaders of the next generation who are now being passed the baton from those who started in “The Garage” and produced the sport’s biggest ever star.
Tickets for Bellator 169 / Bamma 27 are available from Ticketmaster.ie.