Saturday's UFC show in Dublin, Ireland left one with interesting thoughts looking at it through the rear-view mirror.
It was as close to a perfect show as UFC could hope to put on. Yet, as far as real big news, such as matches that affect the championship picture or set up major events, there was very little to speak of, and really only the Ian McCall win over Brad Pickett is something that directly impacts the current top ten list.
The story of the show was all about the crowd, and the Irish fighters, who went 4-0 (or 6-0, if you include Norman Parke from Northern Ireland and Gunnar Nelson, who is from Iceland but trains in Ireland and fans consider him a native). They not only walked the walk in the cage, but they talked the talk.
When it came to promoting current and fights, speaking to fans after the fights, the Irish put on a clinic on how to make the most use of your interview time.
When Patrick Holohan, the first Dublin fighter of the night, came out in the opening match, the place was packed and the reaction was deafening. Josh Sampo, a mid-level flyweight, was transformed into being someone like Brock Lesnar or Michael Bisping at their peak of fan hatred. Holohan was like a hometown fighter coming out to battle for the championship.
And it grew from there. The fight told the story of the night. Holohan reversed out of a tight armbar, got Sampo's back and immediately choked him out. The crowd went crazy. Holohan had the crowd laughing during his interview. He became an instant local star. And you could see it was going to be a crazy night.
Dublin was the epitome of a UFC-starved market. The company hadn't been to Ireland since 2009, not because the first event wasn't a success, but simply because the largest arena in the city held 9,500 fans and there were bigger markets they could go to.
On that first night, several fighters, notably Conor McGregor and Cathal Pendred, were in the stands as fans and vowed that this was where they were going to be, fighting for the UFC in this arena.
And when the show was over, Dana White joked that he'd heard from fighters all over the world that day who asked if they could be put on the show the next time the company came to Ireland. And this was hardly limited to those of Irish heritage. Fighters, no matter where they were from, just wanted to fight before the Irish crowd.
The second Dublin fighter on the show, Pendred, was one of the fighters coming off the heavily criticized season 19 of The Ultimate Fighter. He was nearly finished by a training partner on the show, American Mike King, but came back to win via second-round choke.
After telling his story about being a fan in the stands at the first show, and how it changed his life and led him to this destination, he told the fans to make the loudest noise they possibly could to tell Dana White to bring UFC to Dublin as an annual event. After the fans rocked the decibel level to 103, Pendred led fans in singing "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole," a chant frequently heard during Georges St-Pierre fights, but a soccer chant that has permeated UFC events around the world. In Dublin, it has special significance, as the chant for the Irish national soccer team. The crowd, in unison, sang with Pendred, and the chant was heard frequently the rest of the night.
Next came Neil Seery, a Dublin fighter who gave Brad Pickett a tough scrap in his UFC debut. Seery had just buried his nephew days earlier, but noted he never gave a thought to pulling out of the fight. Even battling a personal tragedy and winning all three rounds, he was hard on his performance. He made himself the Irish working class star, noting that unlike most on the card who can now relax, on Monday, he's back to work in his regular job.
The impetus for the return was Conor McGregor, who, if he can win the fights that get him near championship level, will be the company's biggest lighter weight star. One could make a case that he already is, given the sellout in minutes, and reports that this show, built around him with virtually no marquee value, was the most successful event ever on Fight Pass.
The whole night felt like a build to crowning a new superstar, with a number of video packages on McGregor throughout the show, and promises of how the roof was coming off the building when he came out.
It could have been a bust. McGregor, five days after his 26th birthday, was vowing to win a world championship before the end of the year, and begging to have the chance to sell out the country's largest soccer stadium, both of which Dana White indicated was not going to happen. He had done major media and had become a crossover star in his country, the way few UFC fighters are. But he was still a fighter not even in the top ten, coming back from an 11-month layoff after reconstructive knee surgery. Diego Brandao, was no joke, a former Ultimate Fighter winner who had a number of personal issues over the last year, but appeared to be in his best condition.
McGregor passed his ring test with flying colors, finishing Brandao via ground and pound in 4:05, and proclaiming, "There's not a man on this soil who can beat me."
He vowed to drink some whiskey with UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, and talk about title shots and football (soccer) stadiums, and how tonight was a clean sweep for the Irish.
White was gushing about the show, and McGregor's performance. But he was negative about a title shot this early, feeling McGregor still has to prove himself against top ten competition. It was as much not wanting to rush a young fighter being thrown to the wolves without proper buildup.
White also seemed scared of the idea of an outdoor show, not because of a lack of confidence in McGregor's being able to sell tickets, but not wanting to risk the weather. He made it clear he loved the market, but was frustrated they didn't have a larger arena.
McGregor, who had already proven his appeal wasn't limited to his home market a year ago when the company brought him to Boston, wasn't taking "No," for an answer even after what White said. He asked White to bring a No. 1 contender to Ireland and saying he would fill Croke Park (82,000 seats) or Aviva Stadium (52,000 seats), and claimed he had a vision he would be champion before the year is out.
"I had the vision at UFC 93 (the first Dublin show on January 17, 2009)," he said. "I have the same vision now. Injuries happen in this game, and I stay ready. I'm looking to get as quick a turnaround as possible and I will eliminate the whole division. When I'm finished, there will be nobody left."
Fortunes didn't change so much for fighters to great degrees, but may for the Irish MMA scene. Even with the limitations of venues, it's hard to believe the fans and fighters didn't make a strong enough statement to get an annual event.
A look at the future for the stars of the show:
CONOR MCGREGOR - UFC has never had a true major drawing card under 155 pounds in its history. McGregor (15-2) brings the personality and wit to be that guy, but the jury is still out on what happens when he faces top-ten opponents.
For as tough as it's been to do big buy numbers for featherweight fights, there's no question that there is real depth at the top of the division. Jose Aldo, Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson and Chad Mendes are all among the best fighters, regardless of weight, in the sport.
McGregor's appeal may be strong enough that he can be a needle-mover without being champion, like a Chael Sonnen or a Nick Diaz. But even they had to beat top guys to get in a position where their personalities became difference makers even if they couldn't take a UFC title.
The most logical next step for McGregor would either be Dustin Poirier (16-3), or the winner of this coming Saturday's Clay Guida (31-14) vs. Dennis Bermudez (13-3) fight in San Jose, Calif. A win there would put McGregor into the mix with the real contenders.
McGregor already had words for Poirier, who got the ball rolling by challenging McGregor after the win.
"He doesn't want that fight," McGregor said. "He can pretend and send out his little tweets."
McGregor noted that both Nik Lentz and Poirier were teammates of Cole Miller, who McGregor was originally scheduled to face. He noted they would have both known ahead of anyone that Miller was injured and out, and neither had a fight scheduled at that time, and neither asked to be the replacement, even though it meant walking into a main event on a sold out show.
GUNNAR NELSON - Unlike his Irish teammates, Nelson is the opposite of excitable and loquacious. Nelson made his name on the Jiu Jitsu circuit prior to UFC, and his 2009 gold medal in the Pan Ams in Jiu Jitsu led to talk of him being a future MMA star.
At 13-0-1, he's passed his tests but he's never faced anyone close to top ten. The name Rory MacDonald was mentioned after, since MacDonald has no next fight. But that feels premature, since MacDonald looks to be in line for a welterweight title shot after Johny Hendricks faces the Matt Brown vs. Robbie Lawler winner.
A better next test would be the winner of the Demian Maia vs. Mike Pyle fight on Aug. 23 in Tulsa, Okla. Maia would be favored, and you'd have the potential of one of the highest-level Jiu Jitsu battles in recent memory inside the Octagon.
IAN MCCALL - In clearly winning the decision over Brad Pickett, McCall (13-4-1) eliminated the one guy in the division who has a prior win over flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. McCall was the lone fighter on Saturday's show who came out as a legitimate contender now for a title shot.
He and Johnson have faced twice, both in the original tournament to crown a champion. Their first fight was a draw, but McCall probably deserved the win, and was on top giving Johnson a beating at the end like Johnson has never taken in a flyweight fight. However, Johnson clearly won their rematch.
The fact they've faced twice probably gives John Lineker an edge for next opponent provided Johnson beats Chris Cariaso in his Aug. 30 title defense.
This leaves McCall with a couple of logical directions. The first is to face the winner of the Jussier Formiga (16-3) vs. Zack Makovsky (18-4) fight on Aug. 16 in Bangor, Maine. The other would be to do a quick turnaround, and take on Kyoji Horiguchi (13-1) on Sept. 21 in Japan.
DIEGO BRANDAO - The stock of Brandao (18-10) took a hard hit, as much because he lost to McGregor in that he was finished in the first round. This makes the TUF season 14 winner 4-3 in his nearly three-year UFC run.
What he has going for him is his TUF win, wins over fighters like Bermudez and Pablo Garza which shows he's real, and a usually aggressive style. But the McGregor loss comes on the heels of a first round Poirier loss where he missed weight badly. With UFC carrying such a large roster, and his talents, he's probably not in danger right now. But he desperately needs a win next time out.
BRAD PICKETT - Pickett (24-9) had been in the running a couple of years back for a shot at the bantamweight title, but losses to Eddie Wineland and Michael McDonald led to his dropping to flyweight. He struggled to win over Neil Seery, but with a win over McCall, given the lack of depth in the division and his 2010 win over Johnson, he could have gotten a title shot.
But he didn't have the quickness to combat McCall, and at nearly 36, this loss could have been his point of no return as far as being a title contender.