On July 19th the O2 in Dublin will host a UFC event for the first time since 2009, with Dublin’s Conor McGregor touted to headline a card featuring other Irish fighters who have plied their trade on the European circuit’s Cage Warriors over the last few years, desperate to break into the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion.
In the organisations first visit to Ireland in January 2009 the total gate at the o2 was a reported 9,369, with Dublin’s Tom Egan the only Irish representative on the card. Five years later and it’s anticipated that roughly double that amount will attend this July with McGregor, Paul Redmond, Neil Seery, Paddy Holohan and Aisling Daly all expected to compete in front of their home fans. Cathal Pendred and Chris Fields would almost certainly feature too, were they not currently starring in the UFC’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter which will begin airing on BT Sport this week.
The arrival of McGregor on the scene has played a major role in MMA gaining traction in Ireland; the Crumlin native was still collecting social welfare at the time of his first UFC fight last April; a year on, judging by his twitter feed, he must be one of Louis Copelands biggest customers, such is the frequency with which he turns up to events in new suits complete with matching dickie bows.
His meteoric rise hit an unexpected and unfortunate twist in his second UFC fight last August when he tore his ACL in the second round against Max Holloway. Despite suffering the injury, he still went on to win on points over 3 rounds, a very impressive feat given the severity of the tear. Additional pressure came in the form of an RTE crew trailing him for the build-up and aftermath of the fight for a documentary. While many athletes would view this as an unnecessary distraction, McGregor and his coach John Kavanagh welcomed the additional attention, identifying it as an ideal opportunity to capitalize on the 25 year olds growing popularity.
While McGregor leads the way, other Irish fighters have featured prominently on the Irish MMA scene for a number of years, for little financial reward. The sight of 34 year old Neil Seery battling gamely in his first UFC fight against the highly rated Englishman Brad Pickett in London last month was wonderful given Seery’s story. A part-time warehouse cleaner, he has toiled on the Cage Warriors circuit since 2005, picking himself up from a shaky start (4 losses in his first 5 fights) to become the promotions first flyweight champion in the Helix, Dublin last June. Given his performance on his UFC debut last month and the appreciative reaction of the crowd for his efforts, it’s expected that Seery will accompany McGregor on the Dublin card and hopefully receive the financial and sporting recognition his efforts deserve.
The tale of Cathal Pendred’s rise to the summit of the European MMA ranks is interesting given his sporting and academic background. Part of the Belvedere team which won the Leinster rugby schools senior cup in 2005 with now professional teammates Cian Healy, Ian Keatley, Paul O’Donoghue and Eoin O’Malley (now retired), Pendred was drawn towards mixed martial arts in his late teens. Balancing his studies for a forensics degree in DCU with training, he fought his way up the Cage Warriors ladder, with his greatest career achievement to date coming on March 9th 2013 when he defeated Gael Grimaud for the promotions welterweight championship.
His decision to quit rugby and embark upon a career in fighting has paid dividends; after defeating England’s ex-UFC fighter Che Mills last June, he vacated the Cage Warriors welterweight title on February 19 to pursue a place on the UFC roster through The Ultimate Fighter. Given his success on the Cage Warriors circuit, Pendred is rated as one of the favourites to win TUF outright and compete against the sport’s most elite combatants in the coming years.
The growth of MMA in Ireland can be attributed largely to coach John Kavanagh who has overseen the development of Ireland’s greatest talents over the last decade; his dedication to his athletes has fostered a loyalty evident in each interview his fighters give, with McGregor always quick to downplay the thought of relocating to America for training due to his belief that he already has the best coach and training partners available.
Straight Blast Gym’s recent opening of Europe’s largest MMA facility on the Naas Road is proof of the sports entry into the sporting consciousness of the country. This investment, coupled with charismatic stars such as McGregor and Pendred to appeal to younger generations, signals to a bright future for MMA in Ireland.
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