Monday 20 May 2019

Eamon Carr: UFC could soon be on a par with the NBA and Conor McGregor its biggest star

In a week where one politician called for it to be banned, we look at the increasing popularity of mixed martial arts as our own Conor McGregor continues his meteoric rise through its ranks

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor

Eamon Carr

It seems Cage Rage is set to achieve something that eluded Garth Brooks.

If Dubliner Conor McGregor wins his UFC fight in Boston on Sunday night, the man they call Notorious will have earned a shot at a world title. And his fans, both here and abroad, are anticipating a big night out in Croke Park.

While some voices of protest are already being raised, McGregor's talent, not to mention the force of his personality, is guaranteed to fill a stadium.

Be it on Jones' Road or Lansdowne.

As Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone colourfully illustrated on Wednesday, not everyone is with the programme. Not everyone understands.

Fans of McGregor were quick to point out that far from being a "vile so-called sport", mixed martial arts is an exciting sporting discipline that is not, as suggested, outlawed in American states.

When people say mixed martial arts is the "fastest-growing sport in the world", they're not bluffing. It isn't just promotional hype. In America, cage fighting has become one of the most popular sports on television.

Crucially for advertisers, it doesn't just attract men anxious to witness "ulta-violence". In terms of gender demographics, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the franchise that administers the sport, is fast approaching being on a par with basketball.

So what is it about the sport that attracts? And how come a Dubliner is poised to become the sport's biggest star?

It's worth remembering that this isn't the overnight phenomenon many people believe. Six years ago, in 2009, the UFC staged an event at the old Point Depot in Dublin.

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor

The Irish connection for the tournament was an eager young coach called John Kavanagh. Back then, the sport was struggling to make itself understood. It had been branded as nothing better than "human cock-fighting". Kavanagh was passionate about the sport and was convincing in his explanation.

"It was the original Olympic sport," he insisted. "Boxing and grappling. All the current Olympic sports were bred out of that."

If anyone asks what mixed martial arts fighting is, tell them it grew out of a similar initiative to the one that sees Australian League footballers competing with Gaelic players.

What happened was an exponent of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, anxious to prove he was the best fighter in the world, challenged champions from other codes such as boxing, wrestling, kick-boxing, karate and sumo.

The result was a series of mega-compromise rules engagements that were so explosive a cage had to be erected around the ring to keep the contestants from falling out on top of the spectators.

Over time, the rules were hammered out. Because it's an amalgam of the attributes of all the martial arts, boxing, kicking, kneeing, throwing and wresting on the ground are all legal. That's the test. That's why the contestants have to be super-fit, skilful, strong and courageous.

In 2009, Kavanagh, an engineering graduate from UCD and Irish karate champion who'd embraced mixed marital arts, was already coaching enthusiastic Irish athletes.

He was aware of the sport's history. He knew that it had become an organised professional sport in the US in the early 1990s. Instinctively, he understood its appeal.

"Combat sports excite people," he told me. "The presentation is spectacular. It's fast-paced action but fighter safety is paramount."

Even then, Kavanagh was organising small, well-attended shows around the country. He explained how the Irish guys were improving. Most participants had a background in one or other of the existing codes.

He admitted that Irish participants were about six years behind their American counterparts in terms of ability.

But at that stage young guys were starting to come straight to MMA and learn how to perfect a range of skills.

Among those novices were Conor McGregor and Cathal Pendred. Patrick Holohan came in soon afterwards. These are the fighters who confirmed Kavanagh's belief that we had potential world champions in Ireland.

It wouldn't be widely known that many famous sportsmen visited his gym in search of something extra to bring to their own game.

Gaelic football coach Kieran McGeeney is one who has publicly endorsed Kavanagh's mentoring skills.

One thing Kavanagh got right was timing. His involvement in the sport coincided with some savvy entrepreneurial initiatives by those who were promoting UFC. Television was the key. Deals were done with the networks.

The sport's global reach was extended. It got to a point where MMA star Chuck Liddell appeared on The Simpsons.

UFC spotted a gap in the market.

It was suggested that, for example, boxing fans were being denied the really big fights, the tough contests, they wanted to see. UFC set out to give the customer what they wanted.

Other MMA franchises were brought in to the UFC fold. "We wanted to have all the best fighters under our umbrella," says UFC executive Dana White. "People are fascinated by seeing who the toughest guy in the world is."

One of them may well be an Irishman. And in this sports-mad country, where everything from the Poc Fada to road bowling is viewed with interest, McGregor, Penred and Holohan have developed an enthusiastic and loyal following.

These are global Irish superstars in waiting. They'll do us proud.

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