It is 19 months now since Conor McGregor last fought in Dublin, and it is an evening worth revisiting as he returns to the Octagon tonight as the headline act in the UFC’s latest Fight Night at the O2.
The Dubliner was appearing for the last time in the Cage Warrior Fighting Championship. The venue was The Helix on his native city’s northside, a state-of-the-art construction, but one that held a 10th of the crowd that will worship his moves this weekend.
Ivan Buchinger was the opponent, an experienced and capable Slovakian with a 21-3 record who had been knocked out just once in those 24 fights, and only then by what was generally agreed to be a freak occurrence.
McGregor hadn’t quite amped up the grand predictions he has become known for now at the time. A first round knockout wasn’t likely, he predicted, but he could see his man going down in the second. He was wrong.
Buchinger’s legs started to wobble midway through the first five-minute round. The end came with a minute and 40 seconds still to go, a quartet of punishing left hooks sending the eastern European tumbling to the floor.
“Faultless,” said the commentators at the time.
Tonight. McGregor returns to the stage on home soil having won his first two UFC bouts, damaging his knee in the process in the second of those, and with his eyes on Jose Aldo’s featherweight title.
His growing, adoring fan base here will expect his opponent, Diego Brandao of Brazil, to suffer a fate similar to Buchinger, not just because of McGregor’s undoubted talent but because he has already told them as much.
This is merely another staging post on his route to the top, one that took him to places like Portlaoise and Letterkenny as well as Derry and Cork before the world started to notice this lippy lad from Ireland.
His sport isn’t for everyone. His attitude, too.
McGregor speaks proudly about representing his nation, he wraps himself in the Tricolour after fights and leans heavily on the green card, but he is in one way at least a most un-Irish of sporting ambassadors.
He speaks of grand visions and predicts knockouts in much the same way Muhammad Ali did. He has called out the entire top 10 in his division, basically calling them chumps, and he has predicted a title defence next year at Croke Park.
This from a man still only ranked 13th. Cub Swanson, the American ranked 10 places above and flown in by the UFC for promotional duties, was told by McGregor that he was being seated in the front row to “see what a real contender looks like”.
This isn’t how we know our sports stars. Humble he ain’t, but McGregor walks the walk, too. “You better be pretty talented before you become a personality in this sport,” said UFC’s regional head honcho Gary Cook in Dublin this week.
McGregor is that.
He doesn’t comprehend the love of the underdog role that has attached itself to so many Irish sporting scripts. As for his own, outspoken attitude, he is at a loss to explain where it originates.
“I don’t know. It just comes from training good and working hard and having success in the gym and then from looking around at my competitors and realising that ‘you know what? These guys don’t move like I move’.
“These guys don’t have what I have, they don’t have the mindset I have. That is that. It just comes from that. Confidence comes from your work ethic, from your belief and that is where it came from for me.”
He tops an 11-card bill here in just his third UFC fight, an almost unprecedented rise in the two-decade history of the organisation. His opponent is unpredictable, wild even, but McGregor all but guarantees your money’s worth.
“I believe there is a lot of people who have never experienced a live MMA event and that is what really wraps you in. You think ‘wow’, there is really something special going on here. And, of course, I am extremely confident that I will put Diego away.
“I’m representing my nation with pride.”
And a little bit differently, too.
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