It was near 11 o’clock on Saturday night. The O2 had long since flushed its 9,500 patrons out into the dark and the smell of stale beer cloaked its corridors, but the evening’s business was far from over.
Fighters know this.
Conor McGregor had said as much when he stood in the ring and told his adoring public he was off to share a whiskey with the UFC’s chief executive Lorenzo Fertitta and talk about appearing in the Aviva or Croke Park.
“Football stadiums and world titles, that’s what we want,” said the Dubliner.
In the 45 minutes or so that followed McGregor and his fellow combatants prowled through the backstage area shaking hands, slapping backs, having their pictures taken and, most importantly, looking to corner a Fertitta or a Dana White, the powerbrokers of the sport.
Cases are stated and egos are stroked in that window, but it is money that talks. White, the president and public face of the biggest mixed martial arts organisation on the planet, knows that. He speaks its language. Fluently.
“We did a $1.4m (€1,035,000) here tonight,” he said at one point.
Inevitably, after a night when Irish fighters went 5-0 and Irish fans raised the roof – there were entreaties over when and where the locals could expect to see their heroes in action again.
White stirred the patriotic pot with all his might. This is a guy who reportedly bought a drink for everyone on O’Connell Street on Friday night, but his shtick was layered with the type of hard-nosed business savvy that has made the UFC such a cash cow.
So, though there were platitudes aplenty and promises of a return to Ireland, there were no guarantees, no dates pencilled in to the calendar, though White did seem open to a multi-fight yearly deal for Dublin as is the case in Brazil.
“Yeah, definitely. The problem is the arena is so small and, like (McGregor) says, we could do a bigger arena, but I’m not too confident in your weather and an outdoor stadium. This isn’t Abu Dhabi. I love it here and the fans love it here.”
The feeling was clearly mutual.
Almost 10,000 people soaked up everything the UFC had to offer on Saturday. MMA may be all about confrontation, but this was a love-in between organisers, fighters and fans.
There was no-one asking questions about steroids, no-one criticising the opaque levels of violence or the sexualisation of the women who paraded about the octagon in between rounds.
That all five Irish fighters, as well as Iceland’s Gunnar Nelson who lives and trains in Dublin and has been adopted as an honorary Irishman, chalked up wins only added to the bacchanalian atmosphere.
It started with Patrick ‘The Hooligan’ Holohan submitting Josh Sampo with a choke hold in the opener and kicked into fifth gear as early as the fourth bout when Cathal Pendred engineered a startling turnaround to do something similar to Mike King at middleweight.
With Neil Seery (flyweight), Norman Parke (lightweight) and Nelson (welterweight) all following suit, the scene was set for McGregor to crown the moment and himself with his top-of-the-bill meeting with Brazil’s Diego Brandao.
McGregor walked slowly and calmly into the arena at 9.41pm. It was all over ten minutes later, the South American brought to a halt by a left hand that caught the side of the head and a flurry of rights when his opponent was on the canvas.
There were questions about the ‘ease’ with which Brandao was put away and the fact that McGregor had disguised his opening kick whilst touching gloves with his opponent, but no-one in the building seemed to be asking them at the time.
McGregor had done what he said he would do, which was finish the fight in the first round and, whatever about the opponent, the manner of his return 11 months after a serious cruciate injury was impressive.
He ended the night by calling out those still ranked above him in the featherweight ranks. Dustin Poirier and Cub Swanson, the latter seated octagon-side on the night, would have felt their ears burning most.
Whoever it is next, Las Vegas is the likely venue. McGregor knows it well having already been wined, dined and driven around Sin City by White in the latter’s Ferrari.
White was an early convert to the Dubliner’s charms but Dublin, with its boisterous fans and it’s bumper box office, has confirmed what he suspected: McGregor = money.
Prime time beckons.
Pendred finds the spark to electrify Dublin
Last March, the MMA world went a little gaga over a picture of Neil Seery taken whilst at work as an electrician. The reason? It was the day after making his UFC debut against London’s Brad Pickett. For nine years, father of three Seery juggled his day job with life as a mixed martial arts fighter.
His story encapsulated the harsh realities for fighters looking to make it in this game.
Cathal Pendred knows the feeling. “As Conor (McGregor) said before, we don’t have a pot to piss in,” said Pendred, who debuted with a middleweight win two nights ago. “Until you’re in UFC, you don’t make money.”
Pendred got by until recently because he was staying rent-free at the apartment of his coach, John Kavanagh, and the Dubliner paid tribute to the Straight Blast Gym guru who also masterminded wins for McGregor, Neil Seery and Gunnar Nelson.
Pendred, 26, described his own victory over Mike King, thanks to a second-round choke hold TKO, as a life-changing moment. Not surprising, considering his bout was named as fight of the night. That’s a moniker that brings with it $50,000 (€37,000) for both men, and Pendred was understandably thankful to referee Mark Goddard, who would have been within his rights to stop the bout in favour of King after a first-round pummelling. The majority of MMA journalists present had that first five minutes judged at 10-8 in the American’s favour which meant Boston-born Pendred needed a dramatic turnaround and a stoppage to save the fight — and perhaps even his career. It was that critical given Dana White, the president of the UFC, was openly critical of some of Pendred’s displays last year. Instead, the organisation’s Mr Big was left blown away by the turnaround.
“It was awesome. I tell guys all the time ‘you can turn an entire season around in just one night’, and he did,” gushed White. “It’s one of the greatest comebacks. I scored that first round 10-8 too and I also thought that fight could have been stopped.”
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