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When it comes to fandom, it’s hard to beat the Irish

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t the homecoming that the Irish had in mind, but it was kind of fun to see Patrick Holohan — pale, red-bearded Paddy, who bears a striking resemblance to van Gogh on the easel — in a UFC main event.

With Conor McGregor a mere spectator and Joseph Duffy no longer on the card, somehow it fell to Holohan to seize the old craic. He put on a hell of a show against Louis Smolka, even if he did come up short. He collected a tidy sum of $50,000 for leaving it all out there in front of his countrymen. Never mind that it was at flyweight, a weight class that (most) Americans are allergic to. In Ireland, it was the Fight of the Night. And Holohan had the night of his life.

Afterwards, with his face swelling up and turning deep purple, he said he only wanted a cup of tea. Even in a cage Paddy showed forth with his civilities. The crowd liked that.

And what’s remarkable in the aftermath of UFC Fight Night 76 is just how devoted the Irish fans truly are. When the UFC visited Dublin in July 2014, it was all about the burgeoning star of Conor McGregor. He galvanized the country, and broke lofty Fight Pass records. It was a celebration, too, with all the Irish fighters (including Holohan) basking in the love. McGregor’s rapid rise had made for a frenzy.

This time McGregor was never a part of the plan, yet…you know, it was all about McGregor. Duffy was the last man to beat him, and therefore has achieved a kind of cult status in the MMA world. McGregor’s biographical details are enough to sell out an arena.

Still, Duffy versus Dustin Poirier was an odd configuration for an actual main event, and it would have never flown in America. As it stood, Poirier — the higher ranked fighter in the match-up — was incidental. It was all about Duffy, Ireland and the heart of the matter (McGregor). And it showed just how passionate the Irish fans are that the event sold out in a few minutes when tickets went on sale. If people were upset about Duffy falling off the card due to a concussion, you couldn’t tell by the rabid response to Paddy and the other Irish fighters that took the cage.

It still felt like a massive celebration. Holohan, feeding off the energy, fought like a man possessed. Smolka tapped him out, the hush that fell over the 3Arena was profound. That moment of collective disappointment was palpable. It was impressive. They were living and dying with ol’ Paddy Holohan, who until this weekend was a fairly pedestrian fighter in the middle ranks. Suddenly he had a million passionate voices in his corner. He mattered.

Which gets you to thinking about just how intertwined Ireland is with its athletes, and how big a McGregor title fight would be on Irish soil. Should McGregor defeat Jose Aldo at UFC 194 in December, and land at Croke Park in his first big (real) title defense, that scene would be like no other the sport has known. Brazil loves its fighters, but you don’t get the sense that they are personally affected by the outcomes. Not like in Ireland. The Irish love their fighters.

And if they can get that worked up for Holohan on a stray event, imagine what happens next time McGregor fights there.

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