Caption (above): McGregor the Irishman delivers something no other fighter can: a new audience in the nation of Ireland.
By Brendan Clay
I’m sitting at the bar at Tír na nÓg in center city sipping on a water and waiting to watch Irish mixed martial arts sensation Conor McGregor go up against the most significant challenge in his career to date, All-American wrestler Chad Mendes.
Tonight’s Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight was originally supposed to be against UFC featherweight champ José Aldo, who has jiu-jitsu skills but still tends to rely on his kickboxing, however Aldo dropped out due to injury and was replaced by Chad Mendes.
Mendes is a wrestler from California and someone many believe can give McGregor his first real challenge and possibly his first serious defeat. The common wisdom is that McGregor is an expert kickboxer with a weak ground game.
“Most British and Irish fighters that come over to the US and the UFC are outstanding Muay Thai fighters and boxers,” says an Irish-American patron to my right, “When you wrestle two or three times a week for nine years or ten years before you even get to age twenty, you have a lot of competition experience which a lot of these Muay Thai and boxing guys don’t.”
“He’s a mouthy guy from Dublin,” he adds, “Most mouthy people get it in the end.”
The Irishman behind the bar argues with him that Conor’s trash talking reflects the mental toughness and confidence he needs to be a fighter, but it’s telling that even when people are defending him, no one is saying he is anything other than pure arrogance. The real argument is whether he can back that arrogance up in the Octagon.
McGregor is the current media protagonist of the mixed martial arts (MMA) story, because of his abrasive personality, his success in the ring, and in no small part, because he’s Irish. The 27-year-old fighter spent his childhood in Crumlin, Ireland, a suburb just outside of Dublin.
According to a Bleacher Report article entitled “Outrageous Conor McGregor: His Irish Roots and an Improbably American Dream,” he grew up obsessed with football like his friends, but a move to the more sparsely populated town of Lucan at the age of 15 had a profound effect on both his social life and his mental health.
He dealt with his newfound loneliness by studying boxing and eventually Brazilian jiu-jitsu at the Irish division of the famous Straight Blast Gym. These days Conor bears a chest tattoo of a gorilla’s head wearing a crown and surrounded by a halo of fire. It’s a reference to SBG’s gorilla mascot. It looks like a drawing of a demon from the Book of Kells.
McGregor won his first professional MMA match in 2008, and goes into tonight’s fight with a professional record of 18 wins and 2 losses, both of those by submission. In 2014, Fightland’s Jack Slack described McGregor’s early style as “thoughtful boxing with a bit of karate/taekwondo,” but presented McGregor as a fighter who is always innovating.
Slack observed that he has a tendency to use flashy jumping and spinning kicks without much power or chance of connecting to bait his opponent into opening up for his “meat and potatoes” boxing and his southpaw’s mean left straight. In addition to boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate, and taekwondo, he also trains in the acrobatic, dance-like capoeira; synthesizing all these system into his creative and ever-evolving personal style.
McGregor the Fighter only represents one third of his importance to the UFC. At press conferences, interviews, and at the conclusion of matches, McGregor the Performer steps onto the stage. He is in turns self-aggrandizing, intentionally annoying, and often hilarious, talking at a mile a minute in his thick Dublin accent and throwing down gauntlets every other sentence. This behavior has caused people to label him a “troll” and brought comparisons to the theatrical shenanigans of bad-guy professional wrestlers, but it makes for good TV.
Most importantly for the sport, McGregor the Irishman delivers something no other fighter can: a new audience in the nation of Ireland.
“I think McGregor is their door to making it a world sport,” says Terry Sweeney, a middle-aged Irish guy at Tír na nÓg. “Introduce him to Europe. It’s as simple as that. There’s a lot of hype, and his personality fits into it. It’s a saleable commodity.”
Sweeney is one of those who thinks McGregor has a fall coming in his future, if not tonight then some night, and he is eagerly anticipating seeing him taken down a peg. There are plenty of people in the bar who are excited about what McGregor means for Ireland, though. These fans tend to skew a little younger, with many in their 20s and 30s, and more than one of them weren’t even MMA fans before McGregor entered the sport.
“UFC was never big in Ireland until McGregor came on the scene,” says Bram DeJong, who identifies himself as a U.S. citizen originally from Galway. He’s an intense young man with bright blond hair and an Irish flag draped around his neck. “A lot of people don’t like his cocky attitude, but I see it more as confidence.”
DeJong agrees that McGregor is the UFC’s window to Europe, and he has faith that he’ll come through tonight against the challenge of Mendes. The only thing he’s a little disappointed in is that he thought there would be more people at Tír na nÓg to support McGregor.
By the start of the fight, DeJong will have nothing to be disappointed in.
It’s some time after midnight, and the bar is packed tight with Irish, Irish-Americans, and general fight fans who are just there to see two top athletes go at each other with everything they’ve got. A crowd of men and women with a serious sports fan vibe are packed tightly around one of the TVs chanting “Olé Olé Olé.”
An Irish wedding reception has rented out the projector in the lobby to watch the fight, and members of the wedding party are mingling in the bar, making the crowd an odd mix of casual and formal dress. Every face looks either giddy or intense.
Then over the speakers comes Sinéad O’Connor singing “Foggy Dew.” There are deafening cheers. McGregor with his wild, ginger-tinted light-brown beard and mad gorilla chest tattoo steps into the Octagon, all swagger and lean muscle. The cheers grow louder.
When Mendes’ pre-fight song begins, some of the crowd starts to boo before realizing they’re actually booing a patriotic American song. They quiet down, but their feelings about Mendes have been made clear.
McGregor launches himself into the fight with a spinning back kick and then a flying knee strike that Mendes transitions into a takedown. McGregor is back on his feet fast, and the fighters spend the next minute and a half or so mixing it up with their fists. McGregor throws the odd half-hearted kick, but he’s not following them up at all.
Then things get real. Mendes takes McGregor to the ground. By the time McGregor gets to his feet he seems off balance. Mendes is in control and after some kickboxing, he takes McGregor down again and keeps him there until the end of round one.
Sometime in the second round, a fight breaks out among the packed mess of humanity that had been chanting “Olé” before. The crowded group shakes chaotically, and it’s tough to see who the brawlers actually are or to get anything much more than a general sense of commotion. There are at least two young men screaming at each other in drunken anger.
Tír na nÓg’s bouncers step into the conflict and shuffle some people out a back entrance quickly and efficiently, and things calm down a bit. All eyes are back on the professionals, and all the yelling is now cheers.
During the bar fight, Mendes had Conor on the ground but remained trapped in his guard. Now Conor’s back on his feet, and he unleashes a volley of kicks and punches. Mendes looks exhausted and tucks his head behind his hands for protection. He drops them for a moment and Conor goes in for a jab, reverse combo that catches Mendes on the chin.
He falls hard and Conor moves in with his fists to keep the pressure on, but the referee pushes him off and calls it: TKO in the second round. Conor is victorious, Tír na nÓg erupts into cacophony, and Bram DeJong leaps to his feet and lets fly the Irish tricolour.