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A long night's journey to redemption for Conor McGregor's Dublin fans

Esther Lin photo

DUBLIN -- The hour was well after most sane folks had long since fallen asleep. But toward the end of the second round of the UFC 202 rematch between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, those gathered at The Living Room must have felt like they were having nightmares.

It was around 5 a.m. local time at the sports bar near Dublin's City Centre, and the three-level complex was jammed to capacity as the city's own McGregor attempted to avenge his loss to Diaz some 5,000 miles away in Las Vegas.

Despite the pre-dawn timing, the Guiness still flowed and the fans carried on with an energy which defied the hour, as if they were trying to live up to their partying reputations for an American visitor who had booked a vacation here back around the time McGregor was training to fight Rafael dos Anjos.

Chants of "Ole, ole, ole" started on bar's the first level, picked up on the second floor, and reached a deafening crescendo up top as McGregor, the UFC featherweight champion, got off to a fast start against his opponent, much like the first time they met.

But in the second, McGregor noticeably slowed, and an air of nervous dread filled the joint in a matter of seconds. Much like in their first matchup, back in March, a bloodied Diaz had somehow weathered everything their idol could dish out, and wrested control of the fight as McGregor seemed to fade.

Were we about to see a repeat of UFC 196, in which McGregor gassed and then was submitted by Diaz late in the second round? Fans who had moments earlier been singing at the top of their lungs were now squirming in their seats.

Angst filled the room, but the scene was not yet hopeless. If you're a mixed martial arts supporter in Europe, you already know a level of dedication a North American fan can't fully appreciate unless you've come out here and experienced it for yourself. Except for those rare European-based UFC cards which run on local time, if you simply must see a fight, and you don't want to wait until the morning and watch a replay, you have to stay up all hours of the night to tune in.

Only the hardcore fans will do that for every fight card, but a McGregor matchup is must-see TV across the Emerald Isle. McGregor-Diaz aired live on BT Sport 2, which has limited distribution. In a recent policy change, pay-per-view main cards are not available on UFC Fight Pass in Ireland until 48 hours after the event due to BT's exclusivity window.

So those without BT Sports 2 who wanted to see the fight were funneled into a relatively small number of venues. Dublin seems to have as many pubs as street lights, but given the bars usually close at 3 a.m. (even my mother country has its limits), establishments interested in showing the fight needed to get a special permit to stay open late. A flood of people from other neighborhood pubs arrived around the start of the pay-per-view, turning what had already been a busy enough scene into an overflow.

"They don't make it easy to watch the fights, but if you've got this in your blood, you've got to find a may to make it happen," one fan, who identified himself only as Aidan, tells me. "It doesn't matter what hour of the day it is, if Conor is fighting, I'm going to be there."

When you're this invested in a fighter, you're not about to mentally quit when things get tough, and there's an palpable sense of relief when the horn sounds to end the second round without Diaz once again finishing the job.

About Diaz: While his ring introduction was greeted with boos by the Dublin faithful, they seemed more obligatory than born of hate. Maybe it's because these guys (the crowd was about 90 percent male) were true fight fans and recognized an elite competitor when they saw one, someone whose style they'd admire if he wasn't fighting their own local icon. After all, prior to the main event, the most popular fighter on the card, by a landslide, was the all-action Donald Cerrone, whose win over Rick Story brought the house down.

And Diaz, that fighter who might be more like McGregor than they care to admit, was a little too efficient for their liking in the third, as he put a hurt on McGregor over the course of a round which prompted one judge to give Diaz a 10-8 score. This time, though, when McGregor got through to the end, there was a noticeable lift in the spirits of the Dublin assembled. Maybe Diaz had emptied his tank. Maybe this encore has a different conclusion than the original.

The fourth round started. McGregor, who had paced himself better in this fight than the first, started to land. It was Diaz's turn to slow down, as his cuts impaired his vision. Every McGregor strike which found a home on Diaz's face elicited a raucous roar from The Living Room crowd. Every time McGregor sprawled a takedown, a new chant of "Let's go Conor" ripped through the bar. The outcome was still well in doubt, but the fans seemed aware they were now watching a brawl for the ages.

There was one final wave of despair in the crowd when Diaz landed a takedown in the fight's closing seconds, as several onlookers noticeably buried their heads in their hands, convinced the takedown would make the difference in a close fight. They were the same blokes pointing at the screens moments later, when a graphic showed 65 percent of fans voting McGregor the winner of the bout.

And then, pure bedlam. The announcement of McGregor as the winner went down about as you'd expect in a crowded Dublin bar. Strangers hugged. Songs were sung. People danced on top of tables. McGregor had not only avenged his loss, but insisted on doing so at 170 pounds when everyone thought he was nuts for trying it again.

It would make for a rhetorical flourish to finish this piece with scenes of the celebration spilling out into the streets of Dublin, but by this point, reality had set in. It was nearly six in the morning, a rainy night was giving way to a grey morning, and the crowd was finally out of steam.

But the whole point of staying up all night was vindicated. Mystic Mac, the man who called his own shots, who made bold proclamations and then somehow made them come true, was back on top of the world. And for the fans in Dublin, redemption was well worth the wait.

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