On this day two years ago the Irish MMA community were getting ready for what was the most eagerly anticipated debut in the scene’s history.
A close friend of Conor McGregor’s, Tom Egan, became the first man from the Republic of Ireland at UFC 93 in 2009. It would be another of John Kavanagh’s SBG clan who would appear brandishing a tricolor for the second time, as McGregor himself was penciled in to meet Marcus Brimage on April 6 2013 in Stockholm.
It felt different this time, though. Irish MMA was being recognized as one of the most promising European nations on the continental scene. ‘The Notorious’ had won two world titles under the Cage Warriors’ banner and had looked fantastic in doing so. It’s fair to say there was quite a buzz around the featherweight.
Hardcore Irish UFC fans became aware of McGregor on the back of his title run, but his appeal had yet to pour out into the nation’s mainstream. The sport had yet to find it’s footing in Irish sports coverage, but that was all to change.
Interestingly, McGregor was thinking about packing the sport in before UFC came knocking. In one of his first interviews on the announcement of his signing with the promotion for Gazette Dublin Newspapers, the Dubliner didn’t point directly to what had him in two minds. Later it would emerge that a serious injury to a training partner forced him to weigh up his options.
“I found out about it last Tuesday,” the 24-year-old double world champion told the regional publication. “I just had some rough news and I drove right past the gym and I was supposed to be coaching that night.
“It’s not something that I want to get into but I was thinking about packing it in and all of a sudden I get a phone call from John Kavanagh on an Icelandic number and I really didn’t want to answer it because I thought he would be annoyed that I didn’t show for training.
“As soon as I answered he said, ‘how would you feel about making your UFC debut in 9 weeks’ and I’m still in shock now.”
An appearance on Ariel Helwani’s The MMA Hour confirmed McGregor as a confident customer as he swore he would drag the UFC back to the Emerald Isle with his show-stealing annihilation of Brimage. ‘The Bama Beast’ was not too impressed with the Irishman when he got his chance to reply on Helwani’s broadcast.
“He ain’t been touched, he ain’t been cut,” blasted Brimage in retaliation. “He’s been over there beating up them English chaps, but I’m American made—he ain’t touching me.
“I’m gonna whip his ass in the first and make him want to leave in the second and third. I’m gonna knock his ass out, it’ll be a birthday bonus for me because the fight is taking place on the same day.”
By the time McGregor arrived in Sweden he was already on the warpath. A tooth infection had the Irishman pretty uncomfortable and adding that to the fact he had to cut down on his beloved food to make the 146 lbs limit, the news of ‘The Notorious’ rubbing people up the wrong way didn’t come as a surprise.
Before going live for an interview with Frank Trigg on the Thursday before the fight, McGregor took exception to the American suggesting that he had yet to be tested by UFC caliber opponents. The Irishman was supposedly on the verge of starting a physical confrontation with the UFC veteran, but when he got on camera he resolved to again describing how he make believers out of all the naysayers.
Cub Swanson was a guest fighter at the event in the Swedish capital and while fulfilling the same obligation 15 months later as McGregor headlined his first UFC card in Dublin, he explained how UFC were initially concerned about the debutant.
“Sweden, that was the first time I became aware of who he was,” said Swanson to the Irish Daily Mirror. “It caught my attention because the UFC were very nervous about him. They thought he was going to get into a fight at the weigh-in.”
Scores of Irish fans, including McGregor’s family and friends, cheered the Dubliner on as he made his way to the scales. Brimage made weight too and made his way to an intense faceoff with the Irishman, the first of what would become commonplace at McGregor weigh ins.
Although the mind games had started as soon as McGregor made his first appearance on Helwani’s show, when he came face to face with Brimage who was wearing a Dragon Ball-Z inspired mask, he knew exactly what buttons to press.
“You’re 28-years-old, you shouldn’t be wearing a superhero mask,” said McGregor, nearly guaranteeing that Brimage would want to put some hands on him at their meeting the next day, instead of aiming for the Dubliner’s perceived weakness in the wrestling department.
The next day only one national newspaper in Ireland carried a preview piece for McGregor’s debut, the Irish Daily Mirror. Without a sponsor, McGregor walked to the Octagon with no t-shirt—instead he had the tricolor draped over his shoulders. His entrance music was ‘Tomorrow’ by Salif Keita, an ambient song in which Keita stresses ‘I will remember the emotion, I will remember the moment.’
The 67-second demolition of Brimage was enough to get everyone in the Ericsson Globe Arena on their feet as the whip of McGregor’s left uppercut eliminated ‘The Bama Beast’ from the preliminary contest. The now infamous ’60 Gs Baby’ endeared him to the whole MMA world, and quickly fans assaulted their search engines to try and learn as much as they could about the Irishman.
The media surrounded McGregor backstage for his post-fight interview. His cornermen Owen Roddy, Artem Lobov and John Kavanagh stood off to the side. Kavanagh, the SBG head coach, and Lobov sported two massive grins from ear to ear as Roddy shook his head, remarking that it was ‘just unbelievable’ what his teammate had done.
Of course the real star was born at the post-fight press conference. McGregor told his rags to riches tale by informing the gathered press that he would have to ring the social welfare and tell them he had found a job. He was immediately captivating, personable and the fact that he had scored a first round KO in his debut helped quite a bit too.
Celebrating his win in a near by hotel, his father Tony McGregor was informed of his son’s performance in the press conference. Although there was no Wi-Fi in the establishment, the McGregors managed to get the footage through a dial up connection via a desktop computer in the hotel that took coins, as his father recalled in an interview with SevereMMA.com:
“After that fight in Sweden we got back to the hotel and we were having a little celebration with some of the fans,” said McGregor. “Some people came up to us and they told us that Conor had been very funny in the post fight press conference.
“None of us could get Wi-Fi or anything like, but there was this big, old, free standing computer in the bar. We had to start feeding it Krona to get it going and we downloaded the full thing.
“When I saw what he had done in that press conference, I knew that a media star had been born. It was all from that press conference in Sweden. It’s been everyday since then that we’ve seen him in the paper or on the Internet.”
12 weeks from now McGregor will fight for his division’s top prize. Despite being sidelined for just under a year with a knee injury during his UFC tenure, just two years after his debut he has become the most talked about athlete in the sport. He has gone from relying on social welfare to being ‘the money fight’ in UFC’s lighter weight divisions.
He successfully dragged the UFC back to Ireland on July 19 of last year, and such was the triumph of the event that the promotion are still considering an event in Ireland’s national stadium, Croke Park, which can comfortably fit 80,000 fans.
Walking out shirtless in his debut in Stockholm, it is amazing to think that when Reebok came on board with UFC the Irishman was one of the first athletes they signed to represent the brand. Only one national newspaper previewed McGregor’s UFC bow against Brimage, and now he can barely fart in public without one of the online media platforms reporting on it.
Imagine what we could be talking about on April 6, 2017?
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