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24th Dec 2014

My favourite sporting event of 2014: UFC Dublin

It took five years to return, but it was certainly worth the wait.

Ben Kiely

On that fabled summer night in Dublin, the landscape of Irish MMA changed forever

“You’ll never beat the Irish” echoed around the O2 Arena, belted out by 9,500 impassioned fans. It usually serves as an empty mantra; a cathartic release of pent-up national pride, but on July 19 it had a little more weight behind it. It transcended the hackneyed fan chant and became something much more powerful, a promise.

When Paddy Holohan walked out and was almost washed away by the tsunami of eardrum-shattering roars from the hometown faithful, it became obvious that everyone inside the stadium was in for an unforgettable experience. Everyone had taken their seats for the first bout. This was unheard of in the UFC.

Never before has the first fighter on the prelims at a UFC event been met with such overwhelming noise. These fight fans had been starving for half a decade. They were ravenous and they made sure the world would knew it. Josh Sampo didn’t stand a chance.

The arena erupted when the American tapped 3:06 minutes into the first round. It was at that point that it became apparent that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary event.

Patrick Holohan 19/7/2014

Two more contests followed, neither of which had any Irish interest. Then came the fight of the night. Former Cage Warriors champion Cathal Pendred had a tough task of taking on his fellow TUF 18 contestant Mike King. It was a horrendous match-up for the Dubliner for a few reasons. Firstly, it was a middleweight bout and Pendred is a natural welterweight. To make matters worse, King is a gargantuan middleweight and he dwarfed the Irishman inside the cage. Also, the vast majority weren’t aware at the time, but the Unseen Armada had the added advantage of having performance enhancing drugs in his system.

The odds were stacked heavily against the Punisher, but there was one thing that cancelled out everything that King had in his favour. There was one little detail he forgot to factor in. The energy of the crowd.

The crowd’s rapturous applause in the wake of Holohan’s stunning debut was nearly silenced when King came storming out from the opening bell on the hunt for a finish. Pendred withstood a barrage of strikes, amassing so much damage that the referee was literally seconds from intervening and calling the fight to a halt. If it had been a different referee, or a non-Irish crowd in the stands it would have almost certainly have been stopped.

Credit to Pendred, he survived the early scare and recovered  superbly in the second. He came back strong landing hard rights before taking the fight down to the mat. He worked his ground and pound on his exhausted foe and, when the opportunity presented itself, he sank in a rear naked choke, putting King to sleep.

Cathal Pendred after choking out Mike King 19/7/2014

Pendred’s sublime submission was a testament to the raw power of that fervent Dublin crowd.The atmosphere inside the arena resurrected Pendred from the dead. He was on the brink of defeat before the strength of the overwhelming support dragged him back to his feet and inspired him to overcome the adversity and bring home the victory.

This feeling of solidarity  resonated throughout the rest of the night. When Phil Harris was lying prone on the canvas, the force of 9,500 fans screaming “Hey!” must have quadrupled the impact every one of Neil Seery’s stinging leg-kicks. The O2 being transformed into some sort of scaldy teenage disco courtesy of Norman Parke’s entrance theme must have put the fear of God into Naoyuki Kotani. When the chorus of “There’s only one Gunnar Nelson” boomed from the terraces into the Octagon, Zak Cummings must have been wondering when the lions inside this terrifying den transmogrified into a horde of malevolent, blood-thirsty demons.

Then McGregor walked out, and sound ceased to exist.

Gunnar Nelson celebrates winning 19/7/2014

If there were any lingering doubts about whether McGregor would give this event the perfect finish the fans so desperately craved, they were soon put to rest as the Notorious stepped into view as Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of the Foggy Dew faded into Hypnotize by Biggie Smalls. Of course, the hip-hop classic soon became distorted beyond recognition as it was washed out by the eardrum-shattering roars. A noise that was topped only by the tumultuous response after Leon Roberts awarded the Notorious the TKO.

McGregor’s win completed the clean sweep for Irish fighters on the card. It provided the perfect denouement to a flawless night. The MMA community’s gaze was firmly focused on Ireland on July 19, and as a country we proved that we not only belonged but we were one of the powerhouse nations of the combat sport world.

What fans and scribes had seen that night was not a romantic vision or fantasy. They had witnessed a groundbreaking event in the landscape of Irish MMA. Everyone shared in the collective realisation that nothing would ever be the same again because of that magical night in Dublin.