This week the UFC is in Boston for their inaugural UFC Fight Night event on the new FOX Sports 1 network. With one of the most stacked cards of the year, including former champions and number one contenders, it’s unique to see that one of the star attractions of the week isn’t even on the main card. At only 1-0 in the UFC, “The Notorious” Conor McGregor has been the talk of the MMA world over the last few weeks or so, which is saying a lot considering he shares the card with one Chael P. Sonnen.
McGregor carries the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders going into this fight against Max Holloway, and he not only acknowledges this but embraces it. This is why those of us in Ireland love him. This is why a before now ignorant of MMA Irish media are clamoring for any little soundbite from one of most exciting young athletes our small island has produced.
In Ireland, the national sport is an amateur one, so the country is largely divided, county by county, each Summer/Autumn as the GAA All-Ireland Hurling and Football Championships take place. Our national soccer team has a massive following, though this is largely out of loyalty rather than any hope of success on an international front. Our national rugby team is in a period of transition as aging legends are approaching retirement and a new manager brings with him a new regime.
This is where Conor McGregor comes in. He gives Ireland a real chance of having a hero and a proud representative of the nation at the very peak on an internationally recognized professional sport. Last Summer we got a wonderful taste of something similar when 26 year old Katie Taylor won an Olympic Gold Medal in amateur boxing. It was our only gold of the Games, but it united the country for weeks and her homecoming in her hometown of Bray was one of the most amazing scenes this country has ever seen. Being there was something you will just never forget. It’s impossible to imagine it could ever be replicated.
But can Conor McGregor achieve this? The detractors will say probably not, as mixed martial arts is still a baby of a sport, but I argue to the contrary. As Conor himself says, “We’re a small nation, and we support our own who go out and have success, anybody who makes our nation proud. You could be playing ping-pong, but if you’re doing well, we get behind you.” You see with Katie Taylor the majority of those supporting her were doing just that, supporting HER. It is the same with Conor. His appearance on The Late Late Show with Cathal Pendred was monumental as an audience who had never even heard of MMA were now asking about these two guys that were representing Ireland against the best in the world in one of the toughest professional sports there is.
It also helps his cause massively that he displays arguably the most exciting aspect of the sport: knocking people out. His record of first round stoppages is incredible, and he just about guarantees and exciting fight and knockout every time he steps inside the cage. The elevation in competition in the UFC against Marcus Brimage proved to offer no change, as he dispatched with him in 67 seconds. It’s not like the way our soccer team plays an uninspiring style of play that is designed to get a win or draw no matter what. McGregor wants to and does win in the most exciting fashion you could think of.
Obviously Ireland’s history with boxers helps his cause here. As touched on with Katie Taylor earlier, over the years we’ve been represented on the international stage by top class boxers, many of which became world champions. Barry McGuigan, Steve Collins, Jimmy McLarnin, Wayne McCullough and Bernard Dunne are but a select few that come to mind. Conor McGregor’s boxing background is at the forefront of his success in the cage and in MMA. He wants to be mentioned alongside those names above, and he’s going the right way about it.
Conor McGregor isn’t just doing this for himself, and for the throngs of Irish fans that wait on his every word, he’s doing this for his team at SBG Ireland, the ones that got him here, and every Irish fighter behind him. He’s paving the way for all the Irish mixed martial artists that dared to dream that one day the Ultimate Fighting Championship can be a realistic target. Conor McGregor is now, Cathal Pendred is next, and hopefully a successful time in the TUF house will see Paddy Holohan follow. Ireland is proud of Conor McGregor. He’s leading the charge for the new generation of Irish combatants and we’re going to cheer him on all the way.