Some of the Dublin crowd had screamed themselves hoarse before Paddy “The Hooligan” Holohan had entered the Octagon to make his UFC debut in the opening bout of the night.
Probably the toughest test for the Irish on paper, his rear naked choke victory over Josh Sampo marked the beginning of the Irish assault on their international rivals that would see their representatives go 6-0 in front of their hometown crowd.
John Kavanagh, “The Godfather of Irish MMA”, was doing the same thing he did most weekends. As soon as one of his fighters got their job done he was scurrying backstage to get ready to do it all again. Famously, at Cage Contender VIII in March 2011, the Straight Blast Gym tribe went 8-1 in one night. Jiu jitsu ace Richie Crossdale, the sole defeated member of the crew on the night, still catches wisecracks about the event to this day.
Even as McGregor embraced his fans who were at fever pitch in the Dublin arena after his win, cries of “SBG” were launched in his direction to which he smiled and nodded his head. Kavanagh, as he made his way to and from the Octagon, was embraced as much as the fighters themselves.
A common theme that ran throughout his four strong team’s performances on the night, and none more so than Cathal Pendred, was mental strength. Holohan had not competed in two years before the event, he had severely injured his back, but the Jobstown resident had visualised himself on the card for the UFC’s Dublin return for at least a year, right down to his placement on the card.
“The jaws of defeat” is an understatement when considering Pendred’s comeback win. We’ve seen him in similar situations, but the punishment he took in the first round was so brutal that no one expected the former Cage Warriors welterweight champion to claim the second round victory via rear naked choke.
In June 2013 it looked like the Dubliner had done enough to earn his place on the UFC roster by seeing off another veteran of the Dana White promotion, Che Mills. Since then the Boston born Irishman has had to compete in a season of The Ultimate Fighter, fighting twice, before making his debut in Dublin. “The most uncomfortable environment you can be in as a fighter”, he called it.
With a newborn baby in the Nelson household, ‘Gunni’ had to play daddy while preparing for his fourth UFC outing. The stone cold Scandinavian also avoided some early trouble when Zak Cummings tried to take his back. However, in the second round the SBG man showed the American how he should have done it when he submitted him with a rear naked choke.
The expectation of a whole nation rested on Conor McGregor’s shoulders. A champion of the people, a victory in front of his hometown crowd wasn’t only expected, they were demanding it from the newest bastion of the fighting Irish. He didn’t only rise to the occasion, he brought it to the next level as his subjects ran toward the cage to try to share in the celebration. A working class hero, in his triumph he represented Ireland how it’s people wanted it to be seen to the watching world—young, successful and full of promise.
It wasn’t only Kavanagh’s men who shined that night, as Andy Ryan’s flyweight charge Neil Seery proved himself as a fixture in the 125lbs division. Dedicating his victory to his nephew who passed shortly after his birth the week before the event, Seery was a true showman in front of his adoring crowd.
Such was the volume in the stadium that Seery’s performance almost resembled a pantomime. Phil Harris, not wanting any of the Finglas man’s striking game, threw himself to his back as often as he could to initiate his submission game. The gathering voiced their anticipation and then roared as Seery connected with kicks to the limbs of the grounded Englishman.
“The Fields of Athenry” boomed around the stadium in the third round granting Seery a career defining moment as he played the crowd like an instrument with his pugilistic assault that led him to a unanimous decision win. Having now put in two boxing clinics in as many outings under the UFC banner, the mouth waters considering what could happen if the Dubliner faced off against another gifted boxer like dangerous Brazilian John Linekar.
Norman Parke began fight week looking forward to performing in front of the Dublin masses, but as more and more international interviewers forced him to ponder if the relations between North and South would affect his reception, the Rodney Moore student must have been at least slightly concerned. However, the ovation was a reflection of how the Irish MMA fans had always seen that border—it was invisible to them. After pounding his way to a second round TKO win over Kotani, Parke hopped the cage and was embraced as a national treasure.
Tom Egan’s promotional debut at 2009’s UFC 93 in Dublin, the first time Dana White and Co. ported in the Irish capital, provided Kavanagh with a modus operandi leading up to his second date in The 02.
“It was impossible not to accept it, UFC asking you to compete in your hometown, I would’ve loved to fight on it myself,” said Kavanagh in the lead up to the July 19th card. “In hindsight, although we were as ready as we could be, we were probably under prepared."
“It was the turning point that made me say ‘let’s do this, that was just a taste and when we come back here we’re going to wipe everybody out’,” said Kavanagh of Straight Blast Gym Ireland’s first visit to the Octagon.
In the lead up to the UFC’s Dublin return, Team Ryano boss Andy Ryan shed some light on how it was when the Irish MMA teams would meet each other on cards across the water in the formative years:
“I found that we moved onto the next level when we started travelling over to shows in the UK, the likes of Strike and Submit,” he explained. “Rodney Moore would be there with his lads and John and the SBG guys would be there. We’d get together and we’d find a dressing room and put a sticker on the door. That would be ours for the night.”
It must have been a throwback to them early days as McGregor, Nelson, Parke, Seery, Pendred and Holohan sat in the wings waiting to represent “Team Ireland”, as they were that night.
The flags, the ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ and ‘You’ll Never Beat the Irish’, hadn’t been heard to the extent they were on Saturday night since Ireland’s last genuine sporting heroes, the World Cup Italia’ 90 soccer team. Their names have now been joined by those that filled the fight card for UFC Fight Night: McGregor vs Brandao.
For Kavanagh, who dreamed of being an MMA coach long before people had heard of the sport in Ireland, Saturday night must be a professional highlight. Kavanagh opened the door that Ryan and Moore have walked through and they in their own right are founding fathers of the sport in Ireland too.
It was the SBG boss’s mental strength that allowed him to dream bigger than the shed that he originally trained his first students in, and now the legendary night of Cage Contender VIII can be overpowered by what came to be on July 19th—the homecoming of Irish MMA, indeed, the greatest night in its short history.
Let’s hope, for Richie Crossdale’s sake anyway.
Follow the author on twitter.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.