The UFC announced its arrival in Dublin last night in the venerable surrounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham — a fitting venue, all told, given the fare that will be on offer at a packed 02 arena tomorrow evening.
Twenty-two fighters will take to the octagon this weekend and it was apparent from yesterday’s press conference and subsequent open night for a select number of fans that this is not just about the headline act.
Fighters including the Americans Ian McCall and Zak Cummings, London’s Brad Pickett and Northern Ireland’s Norman Parke generated considerable interest among journalists and assorted others for whom this niche sport is their main religion.
For most people, however, one man stands apart.
Conor McGregor took to the stage here in shades and a Louis Copeland three-piece, his hair slicked back at the top and shaved around the sides, as is the fashion. The gum he chewed nonchalantly completed the too-cool-for-school effect.
This guy knows how to sell himself and the UFC has taken note.
The man dubbed ‘The Notorious’ is headlining the first UFC event in the city since 2009 and the Dubliner rewarded last night’s audience with a handful of the trademark soundbites that make him such an asset outside the octagon as well as inside it.
“A dream come true to be back and to put my nation on the map,” he said. “The country will shut down for this fight. I don’t think there’s a fighter in UFC that has done what I have done in the time I have and when I go out there I will prove my worth.”
A fighter of undoubted potential, the featherweight has been lauded on both sides of the Atlantic but still has some dues to pay before the shot at a belt comes his way, even if he is best buds with the UFC’s Mr Big, Dana White.
McGregor is ranked 13th after just two UFC fights and a year or so out injured. He returns now to take on the Brazilian Diego Brandao. Just another step on the way to worldwide domination, according to the Irishman.
His opponent begs to differ.
A “clown” Brandao has labelled McGregor who clearly prefers the role of ringleader. This is a big deal for him: headlining a major UFC event in his home city and in the knowledge that anything less than a clear-cut victory would be deemed an upset.
“For me there is no pressure,” he said. “Pressure is an illusion but I want that. Put more on. When I put this guy away and make it look easy guys will say let’s let this guy skip the queue. You are going to see a true number one contender.”
McGregor was an unknown wannabe the last time the UFC circus came to town, in 2009, but he was there that night and told his coach John Kavanagh at the time that he would be the biggest name on the bill when it returned.
So it has proved.
UFC is bigger now than it was then. Gary Cook, former CEO at Manchester City and now the UFC bigwig in this part of the world, was quick to point that out yesterday when making the claim that 355m people would watch this event in 178 countries.
Such facts and figures must always be consumed with care when they emanate from the mouths of sports administrators or politicians, but the interest in this event is undeniable given tickets sold out 35 minutes after going on sale.
“I honestly believe right now we could have sold out a football stadium,” said McGregor. “We could have sold out the Aviva Stadium, we could have sold out Croke Park. The venue is too small, no doubt about it.”
He may well get that chance yet. Indeed, the plan is to relieve champion Jose Aldo of the belt ASAP and return to his hometown and make his first title defence at one of the spiritual homes of Irish sport. Preferably within a year.
Either way, he is already paving a new path.
“That’s something I can take with me forever, the man who kicked down the door and paved the way for the next generation. There was nobody before me who I could say that was the guy who did it. You think I’m good wait till you see the next generation.”
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