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Ballad of an Irish Son

Photos by Esther Lin, Tommy Lakes, Lauris Karpovs

Here it comes, a swift jab to the ribs, then the cry that starts it all, more demand than request. “You ‘ave to talk to Roddy!” The boy is breathless, cheeks red, hair matted with sweat. He’s been in a haze for the past half-hour, shouting and swaying and scream-singing Irish hymns amid a sea of his countrymen. You can’t help but marvel. This is lunacy. The kid pokes you again, then points to the small group of Irishmen vanishing behind the stage curtain at the UFC weigh-ins, in tow with the man they all came to see. He repeats, half-hoarse. “You ‘ave to talk to Roddy!! Right there with Conor! The man’s a fookin’ legend!!!”

It’s loud and it’s hectic and the kid’s had a few too many, so you just smile and nod. Satisfied, he melts back into the throng, rejoining the tricolor sea as the room sways to and fro, hundreds sounding like thousands, their merriment reaching a fever pitch later when they annex the escalators of the MGM Grand, riding up and down, up and down, dancing and singing, the ballads of Ireland drawing baffled looks from casino security unsure whether to intervene or whip out their phones and hit record. The cause of the chaos, UFC featherweight Conor McGregor, justifies his hype the next night when he knocks out Dustin Poirier in less than two minutes time. On your way out of the arena, as if by fate, you run into a familiar face. “He fookin’ did it! First round! Just like he swore he’d do!” Breathless again. Then, “You ‘ave to talk to Roddy!! I’m tellin’ ya! The man’s a fookin’ legend!! We’re takin' over this game!!!”

The cheers. Do you hear them? They’re still ringing in Tallaght, raging across the South Dublin winds from the night Rowdy Owen Roddy conquered the world.

It’s all a bit mad, isn’t it? That it’s come this far. He never expected it. No, when the lad started all those years ago, he was just out for a good knock. Win a few fights, make $100,000 and buy a house, then he’d be set. Simple goals. That was enough to live a decent life. He never had the type of foresight Conor did. Always a bit more traditional with his thoughts. Give things a go, happy to take part; maybe he makes it, maybe he doesn’t, at least he gave it a good try. That old Irish way. Because it’s not like that anymore. No, the last four years have changed that. The kids today grew up watching the revolution. They expect to conquer the world.

Oh, but they still rush him on the streets. Five years later, they still remember the lad who made the little arena in Tymon Park quake like thunder, the folk hero from the flats who helped them all believe. You’re doing Ballymun proud, they say when they swarm him on the corner, high-fiving each other, giddy like they were when they were kids. You’re making us all proud. Even if he feels like he let them all down, even if he never truly finished what he started, and never quite explained why; they all still love him. And it’s still surreal. All of this is surreal.

Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather face off.
Esther Lin, Showtime

No, never in his wildest dreams did he picture this.

Because those Irish boys made it, yes they did, bigger than anyone has before. There they are onstage now in Brooklyn. Look at the lad leaning behind the superstar, over there to the right, back there in the shadows, steel blue eyes caught in lockstep with the boxer on the mic, waiting, watching. He was never fond of attention but it’s inescapable here, this is the world’s stage. And he’s still got it, don’t ever doubt that. Watch it finally happen, Floyd sic his orange goons on Conor — who’s the first to hurl himself into the fray? The skinniest of the bunch but first to defend his boys. He was ready this time. You can take the man out of Ballymun but the streets forever run hot through his blood.

Owen Roddy shakes his head. This feels like a dream, he says, like none of this is real. He may be the superstar’s striking coach now — or rather, his boxing coach; these are strange times — but that was never the plan. Because when he started, none of this was possible in Ireland. The dream didn’t exist. Mixed martial arts in the country was fiction and the notion of an Irishman vying for the world’s respect was ludicrous. The Irish hadn’t won a single fight in the UFC, much less achieved any measure of genuine success.

But Roddy was the one. He was always the one. He was the one who was going to break through.

How many of them started because he showed what was possible?

“When I first went into the gym, it was almost like I was training with MMA royalty,” says Cathal Pendred, a Dubliner who fought six times in the UFC. Cathal was just an amateur when he met Roddy. “I just felt privileged to be in the same gym with him, sharing the same mat with him. He was the main guy, he was the top guy in Ireland. He was the guy everyone looked up to. Conor had only had a couple of fights, and it was Roddy with the big name at the time. He was going over and fighting in these arenas, these big massive arenas in massive shows. I’d seen his fights on YouTube and he’d been in these wars, and just, he was pretty much widely regarded as the best fighter in the country.

“I couldn’t believe it was this guy they all talked about on the internet, these videos I saw of this absolute killer. There’s where I wanted to be, there’s where Conor wanted to be. It just goes to show — how many of us came up through the ranks, got into the UFC and were successful? Owen Roddy was a massive part of that. We may not have gotten there if it wasn’t for him. You look at how many people were coming up behind him and ended up in the UFC. There were just so many of us, and we were all behind him. But he always dragged us along with him.”

Cathal laughs because he knows Roddy won’t ever really understand. It’s funny, in that way the lad never changed. He still just averts his eyes at the first sign of praise, funnels the words into a compliment about someone else. Just imagine him throwing on one of Conor’s flashy suits, Cathal says, laughing again. How uncomfortable he would be then. Then they’d all be howling.

Aisling Daly was just 15 years old when she met Roddy, a young girl who loved karate and wanted to do what the boys were doing. She rose to be a pioneer of women’s MMA in Ireland, the first woman from the Emerald Isles to fight in the Octagon, and she says Roddy was already revered when he entered her world, a skin-and-bones Ballymunner who set the bar. “Owen was the best out of all of us,” she says. “Technically, in terms of well-rounded, I mean that, bar none. I mean that. Even Conor and whoever, Roddy was the most well-rounded out of all of us. He had the skills in every range.” Aisling says Roddy was the reason she stayed in the sport, that his support at a time when women’s fighting was taboo saved her from quitting and traveling down a different path. She’s told him that before, she says, but you know Roddy — he just lowers his eyes and says something nice in return.

Owen Roddy (far left) and Aisling Daly (far right).
Photo by Tommy Lakes, @LakesCreates

“They don’t know, the [younger generation]. That’s the thing,” Aisling says. “He’s developed this newer kind of fame, I guess, as Conor’s coach and the video blogs that he does — and they think it’s great because he does these blogs, and they think, well, Conor uses him as a coach therefore he must be great. But they don’t give him the credit for what he’s done himself, or what he helped to create. Owen is so humble and Owen would never even accept this — I’ve said this to him personally a number of times, just how big of a part he played in careers and our journeys and the history of Irish MMA pretty much at this point, and he just won’t accept it. He won’t think that he played that much of a part. He’s too humble to accept that he’s the reason a lot of us stuck around.”

Two years ago, Paddy Holohan lived out a fantasy when he headlined a UFC show in Dublin. His Tallaght brogue thicker than oatmeal, Paddy says that out of the original group, all of whom made it to the biggest stage, Roddy was always the guarantee. His fights were like music festivals. The same manic crowds that engulfed Las Vegas and Toronto and New York on every leg of Conor’s UFC journey, they first belonged to Roddy. He was Frank Shamrock draped in tricolor, the country’s first complete mixed martial artist at a time when the very notion didn’t exist, so the entire early scene grew up fighting on his undercards, watching him, following him, in awe of him. To see a kid from the streets, a kid just like themselves, doing things no one in the country had done, it blew them all away.

“They seen Roddy as a light,” Paddy says. “He got up and he showed them all it’s possible. That’s a huge thing over here. People get behind that.”

Paddy Holohan (left) and Owen Roddy.
Photo by Lauris Karpovs

The stories add up, one after another from Ireland’s first wave. When Conor first sauntered into the gym in Harold’s Cross, confidence dripping out of his eyeballs, Ballymun’s finest was already king of the mats. The honorary team captain, the homegrown champ tinkering away on this puzzle or that, leading by quiet example. The same fateful night Conor took the plunge into his amateur debut, Roddy main-evented the whole damn show. Individual details may differ by person, but the bones are the same. Before UFC dreams, SBG fighters simply aspired to be Roddy.

“It’s tough for him, I think,” says Irish journalist Peter Carroll. “It’s like he doesn’t realize how important he is. I’ll be like, ‘Roddy, all of this around us — I know you’re not fighting anymore, but if you didn’t show these boys how to do it, I wonder if they could’ve gotten here so quickly and understood this?’ He just goes, ‘No, no, no. What did I do? What did I do?’ And we’re all sitting there trying to say, ‘Man, we wouldn’t even be fucking doing this if we hadn’t gone to your fights.’ He’s just, he’s a leader in a different way than most people are. He commands so much respect in Ireland. Conor still idolizes him. It’s absolutely amazing.

“One soft-spoken guy from Ballymun, the impression he made on that audience, they were just manic. Every time, absolutely. People would be there all day, cheering for Roddy even when he wasn’t in the cage sometimes. Then when he came out, to see the way they were, to see all of those people affected, you knew… if more people saw this, if more people just could come and witness this… they’d have to be moved in some kind of way. It’s because of Roddy. Because of him you knew MMA could catch on in Ireland.”

It’s all a bit cruel then, isn’t it? That all of this happened without him?

Sure, he’s had a first-class ticket for the ride, the striking coach to the stars. But traveling sidecar was never part of the plan. Cathal and Paddy got their big-time shot. So did Aisling and Artem Lobov, Chris Fields, Conor, the whole team. Twenty-six UFC fights and three TUF appearances between them, all within the past four years. But what about the original? The guarantee? No, Roddy never got his shot. And he should’ve. He deserved it. That’s the thing that hurts the most.

His dreams were stolen from him. His moment was cut short.

But he still showed what Ireland was capable of before anyone else. He still was living proof that a little country of 4 million deserved a chance.

“It’s just a shame everybody has to tell you about it, rather than witnessing it yourself,” Ryan Curtis says, sighing. A young flyweight prospect, Ryan was 16 years old when he traveled up to Kings Hall and watched Roddy nearly rip a hole through the chest of an Englishman. Now he has aspirations of one day being UFC champion.

“It’s just a shame,” he repeats. “It really is. If only [all of this] had been two or three years earlier, we would’ve had a superstar on our hands.”

Owen Roddy poses with a young fan.
Photo by Tommy Lakes, @LakesCreates

Surprising, right? The lad isn’t what you expected, not in the slightest. All of those tall tales fooled you it seems, tales of the fire-breathing Irishman. Though maybe that’s just the effect of the years. Age has a way of mellowing a man. He still wears the scars anyway. His nose tells stories. Nary a tap on the thing and a crimson stream used to descend from the floodgates, guaranteed. He always hated it, but at least it’d wake him up, and the room was never the same once he woke up. It’s why his nickname was so fitting. It wouldn’t be a Rowdy fight if someone wasn’t bleeding.

Owen laughs. It’s all so bizarre. His fighting days ended just five years ago but it already feels like ages, how young and penniless they all were, just kids stacking the decks on local cards, running out six, eight, sometimes 10 fighters from the team at a time, one after another racking up wins as the frenzy inside the cramped school hall grew, building and building into a glorious crescendo when the Rowdy one bit down on his gumshield and unleashed the crazed Ballymunners in full effect. Drink raining from the heavens. Chairs flying. They’re lucky none of the places ever burned to the ground.

Conor McGregor before the UFC.
Photo by Tommy Lakes, @LakesCreates

Owen always believed he could shatter the glass ceiling separating Ireland and the UFC, but even still, he kept modest goals. Break down the front door, collect some sort of Fight Night bonus, then that’d be a down payment on a house. Then he’d have no more worries. He never imagined he’d be taking part in something so grand that the world would be watching, but credit to the superstar, things were never normal with Conor. His confidence always bordered on superhuman. Owen remembers one telling night, the night of Conor’s amateur debut, no one could track him down for hours. “Then he just strolls in,” Owen says, “like five or 10 minutes before he’s supposed to fight.

“The man’s first-ever fight — five or 10 minutes before he’s supposed to go. We’re like ‘where were you at?’ He’s like, ‘ah, I was just at home, just didn’t know what time it was.’ Went in and knocked a man out and then that was that.” The pimply plumber’s apprentice ran on McGregor time even from day one. “It’s mad,” Owen says, laughing again. “He’s a fucking maniac. That’s what people don’t realize, he’s never changed.”

When Owen first started training in the early aughts, just a boy of 17, mixed martial arts was both reviled and nonexistent in Ireland, a sport dismissed by small-minded old media as barbarism, a sign of a new generation led astray. While MMA flourished out west, newspapermen at home refused to even call the sport by its given name. Instead they deemed it cagefighting, a term always greasy with spittle and disgust, affixed to yet another paint-by-numbers moralist diatribe preaching about where the day’s children went wrong.

At least now when they run those columns, they run them alongside the fight results of the day. Conor forced their hand on that one.

But they were a rag-tag bunch in those early years.

Andy Ryan, the judoka running a self-defense demonstration in Trinity Secondary School library the afternoon Owen stumbled into the game; John Kavanagh, a lifelong mentor and the godfather of Irish MMA; and the two Daves, Dave Jones and Dave Roche, the former an innovative jiu-jitsu mind and the latter a fabled bareknuckle brawler from Owen’s own lower-class neighborhood of Ballymun.

Together, the group pooled together illustrations in old magazines and dusty tapes trying to unravel what worked and what didn’t, an unlikely band of future pioneers, all inspired by Royce Gracie’s supernatural heroics at UFC 1. “Pretty much every MMA gym in the country, or every jiu-jitsu gym in the country, on some level, springs from that group of guys,” Aisling says.

Ground zero for an eventual movement. Owen was just giddy to be involved.

John didn’t know what to think the first day Owen showed up to the gym at Andy’s behest. That was back when the SBG Dublin wasn’t a gym at all, but a dingy shed hidden in the back-garden of a small house in Phibsborough. Always freezing cold inside, no warmth but an old gas heater. A little toilet in the corner. Walls peeling. Air thick and damp. Kind of mildewy. They dubbed it The Shed, go figure, but there was something mystical about the place. Still, the new kid from Ballymun was as good as broke, no money to help cover the £400 it took to keep the lights on. He was passionate though, hungry and just stubborn enough to not let the issue slide, and that was good enough. Roche convinced John to let Owen train for free, all day, every day, as long as he cleaned the mats every week, “and that was my ticket,” Owen says. He became a fixture at every Shed session he was allowed to attend.

Conor McGregor (far left), Aisling Daly, and Owen Roddy focused before a fight.
Photo by Tommy Lakes, @LakesCreates

Owen’s friends assumed he was learning pro wrestling, like what Stone Cold Steve Austin and the like were doing in the States, but this was real — John and Roche accepted every challenge from a nonbeliever as a matter of public service. Their own Gracie Challenge for an Irish populace convinced of MMA’s impotence.

“We were kind of at the forefront in Ireland,” Owen says. “At that stage John and Dave were fighting people that didn’t believe that MMA would work, every morning. Like, just fights. People’d say, ‘oh, this stuff you’re doing is shit,’ and John would say, ‘come down a bit, we’ll see what it’s like.’ That was the training, and I was just like, this is insane. He wouldn’t let me go to them sessions, but every other session, I was there, and I found myself getting very good very quick. I’d be going home every day with black eyes and busted noses thinking this was the greatest thing ever. Nobody really knew what they were doing, but it was great fun.”

“It was just basic stuff when this was starting out, there wasn’t a governing body or there wasn’t a lot of medicals being done around here,” says Paddy. “Kinda just gentleman agreements to be able to fight. There’s no repercussions after it. No one goes to jail. You get to actually compete martial arts at a full-contact level. Ireland is a fighting nation, we all fell in love with that.”

Owen kept the secret from his parents as well. He made a point of that. Years before, back when he was young, he tried joining a boxing club and his Ma shut that down within seconds. You can’t be punching people and getting punched all day, Owen, it’s too dangerous. MMA had an even fouler reputation, so no, the second time around he just told his folks he was doing regular old martial arts. The kind with air punches and pajama pants like his older brother did. He wasn’t lying, just stretching the truth. And whenever he walked through the front door with another unsightly bruise or a bit of blood smeared onto his shirt, it was always the same. Oh you know, Ma, I just got hit by accident. He was the youngest of seven kids, the eternal baby of the family, so he always got the benefit of the doubt. And he got hit by accident a lot.

There was no such thing as a boring Rowdy Roddy fight. From the moment Owen debuted in 2005, that much was clear. His iron will and just scrap mentality endeared him to an emerging fight scene like no other. Kellie Roddy’s blue eyes sparkle when she remembers her first realization of what she was signing up for, her first glimpse into the hurricane. A few weeks after meeting Owen on a blind date, she went out for drinks with friends when one asked how she’d been. Well, Kellie said, I’m actually seeing a fellah from Ballymun. I don’t know if you’d know him. His name is Owen Roddy. Kellie laughs an incredulous laugh. She’s been with him for nine years now, and she’ll recall the scene until the day she’s gone, word-for-word, the gushing and the fawning as if she was dating Muhammad Ali himself.

“ROWDY RODDY?! YOU’RE GOING OUT WITH ROWDY FUCKING RODDY?!?”

Owen Roddy with his Cage Contender belt.
Photo by Tommy Lakes, @LakesCreates

A precursor of the storm that would one day overtake the UFC.

Owen’s Ballymun followers were manic, unswervingly fervent, an unspoken bond between fan and fighter. For young Irish to see this street lad marching forward bloodied and battered through forever gritted teeth, it galvanized them to his cause. The first fight Kellie ever caught of Owen’s live, he fought Shane Thomas — a countryman who served as head coach of SBG’s rival team — at a local show called Cage Contender. Headed by a promoter named John Ferguson, Cage Contender was the first Irish league to capitalize on the coming wave, staging major events at the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght with high-end production values and a TV deal locked in across the U.K. And Owen was its star.

“It was before all of this was big,” says Artem Lobov, a veteran of five UFC fights who competed as an amateur that night. “Obviously UFC was one of those kind of dreams that we weren’t sure if we were ever going to reach, so for us, the biggest belt was the Cage Contender belt.”

Irish message boards lit afire for months, whispers and anticipation spreading for the clash between the country’s two biggest teams. “We were just trying to prove ourselves as the best gym on the scene, this rivalry and their head coach is fighting our main guy. It was huge,” Artem says. Then Owen ripped his knee through Shane Thomas’ chest and laid him to rest in the second round, a clean knockout. “And the place just blew up,” Artem remembers. “Everyone went crazy and it was just an unbelievable night. That was the first major belt for the gym. There were other little belts, but this was the first important one, and Roddy brought it back. Amazing. That was a big moment.”

Owen Roddy punches Ben Davis.
Photo by Tommy Lakes, @LakesCreates

Artem says it wasn’t the first time one of Roddy’s knees flew through the air and caved in the chest of a luckless soul. No, not in the least. They sang songs about those knees. The left in particular. It was his signature, a cracking little step-in from southpaw. A cruel fate for Europe’s featherweights. They all caught it once or twice. Owen had setup after setup for that knee, one for every angle, one for every entry. Paddy remembers one morning they were in camp for a big Cage Contender card, he ate a heaping bowl of porridge then headed off to the gym. Later in sparring, he downed a second breakfast courtesy of Owen. “Literally, I could taste blood and porridge in me mouth,” Paddy says, grinning. “It keeled me over and I couldn’t get up. That was a vicious shot. He has highlight reels of those shots.”

Chris Fields first met Owen during the Shed days, but he knew of the star of SBG well before then. A middleweight who fought as high as light heavyweight, Chris was always bigger than the lot of ‘em, but even he felt the wrath. He says Owen the scrawny bastard was just so bony and pointy that he had blades for limbs, and somehow he had the perfect timing to catch you every time, always in the sweet spot. Soul suckers those knees were. “It’s like he’s born to throw it,” Chris says. “I run my own fight team now and I show it to every single one of them. And I still, when I teach it, I call it the Roddy Knee. When my guys start their own clubs and they teach it to their students, they’re going to be calling it the Roddy Knee.

“That’s going to be his forever.”

Those were wild nights. By 2011, Owen established himself as the country’s breakout fighter and the scenes grew more and more outlandish as word spread, crowds of several thousand strong roaring as SBG piled up the local titles and Rowdy Roddy lit canvas after canvas aflame. Kellie says you could feel the momentum of the moment building, it was unlike anything they had felt before. Eyes out west were starting to pay attention — those dreams of Owen becoming the first Irishman to attain victory in the UFC no longer felt so far-fetched. So John Ferguson vowed to find Roddy a test, one that could push the Irish wave to the next level and hand-deliver the Emerald Isles its first true UFC contender.

And halfway across the world, he found just the man.

He doesn’t know, does he? No, he has no idea.

Shannon Gugerty never meant to play the part of Irish invader. He didn’t even realize, up until 10 seconds ago, that people still cared, much less considered him a pivotal character at a crossroads of Irish MMA history. It is fitting though. His family has deep roots in Dublin, an Irish last name. In another life he would’ve been right there alongside the SBG crew, tapping outsiders and swimming for recognition against an apathetic tide. But no, his role in the country’s biggest fight since UFC 93 just sort of happened. He just happened to land in the middle of a revolution when he stepped foot on his ancestral home for the first time since he was young.

A year earlier, Gugerty had a chance encounter with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby in Las Vegas. He had been just cut from the UFC, and Shelby told the Californian he could reclaim his spot if he won three fights in a row. So Gugerty did exactly that, racking up back-to-back-to-back first-round stoppages across the west coast. But the call from Shelby never came. There was still something lacking, one final scalp to nail to the UFC’s front door and complete the résumé. So after cornering his coach at a Cage Contenders show in the spring, Gugerty told John Ferguson that sure, why not, he would fight their local champ for the title. Before Gugerty could even reach the airport, “everybody already knew,” he says. “I had reporters coming up to me like, ‘what’s it going to be like to fight the best fighter in Ireland?!’”

Owen couldn’t believe his luck.

A UFC veteran coming over from America? That didn’t happen. Nobody fought UFC veterans. Gugerty was a man who had been there before. He was a fighter who knew what it meant to compete at the highest levels in the world. A legit BJJ black belt from superb lineage with multiple UFC wins and battles against the kind of names they all grew up watching. Cub Swanson. Spencer Fisher. Clay Guida. It was perfect. For so long, Owen told the world that he was good enough, that they were all good enough, that this whole little community in Ireland had outgrown its humble roots. Now was his chance to prove those words.

Shannon Gugerty (left) and Owen Roddy.
Photo by Severe MMA

The show was booked for July 21, 2012 at the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght. Cage Contender 14: Roddy vs. Gugerty. Owen’s featherweight title on the line.

Everyone said this was the one. This was the one that would finally catapult Ireland back into the UFC, back onto the world’s stage. All of the teams in the country were talking. The dream felt within reach. Owen had crushed everyone in Europe, six straight stoppages across three unbeaten years, but apprehension still weighed heavy in the air. The American was a big featherweight, undefeated in his post-Octagon life since dropping from lightweight to 145 pounds, and he was good. Before the fight, Gugerty toured across Ireland holding seminars with his jiu-jitsu professor Dean Lister, and Carroll says the preliminary reports painted a bleak picture. “I can remember some of the really good grapplers in Ireland coming up to me and going, ‘aw Jesus, this Shannon Gugerty guy, he’s fucking amazing. He wasn’t even training properly or anything, and he just bent the shit out of all of us.’

And at this stage, you’ve got to remember, I think there’s probably two guys that are the only black belts in Ireland, maybe three. So they hadn’t seen this level of jiu-jitsu before and they were all telling me, ‘oh my God, this guy… I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ And I remember when I talked to Shannon, he just seemed so underwhelmed by it all. He was just like, ‘oh you know, it’s terrible that I’m going to have to come in here and beat your guy. It’s awful. I think you’re all great people, but you know… I’m going to have to do this.’ It was like, fuck man, this guy’s a serial killer. What the fuck is going on?”

The weigh-in was manic. Nearly half of Ballymun mobbed into Connolly Station to cheer on their own, overtaking the city center in a raucous sight, much to the confusion of passersby on their daily commutes. Gugerty was the far bigger man, so Roddy downed a liter of water, a banana and a sandwich right before he tipped the scales just to make the final tally look a little closer. But the tricolor faithful believed nonetheless. Connolly Station was never louder than it was on that day.

Kellie can’t describe what it felt like the next night in Dublin. Dreamlike, all of it. Four thousand people packed inside the National Basketball Arena living and dying together as one, hoping and praying for their man to pull through. Eighty percent of Ballymun was there, most of them roaring drunk but all of them ready to go. “You could feel it. You could actually feel the hype of it when you walked into that place,” Kellie says. “Everybody was so excited, everybody was so revved up. I’ll never forget it. Even now I’m getting goosebumps thinking of it.”

Paddy started the night off, triangling a tough Lithuanian in the first round to a detonation of adulation.

Then came Rowdy Roddy.

Roddy and John walking out in their all-black, confidence in their eyes. Carroll used to joke that they looked like the Empire from Star Wars.

The crowd has their phones out and O Fortuna is blaring and all of Ireland is erupting with the sound of Ballymun fury.

Shannon Gugerty hunts for a choke on Owen Roddy.
Photo by Lauris Karpovs

Owen still doesn’t know how it happened.

He was doing well, finding his range, then one blink and the black belt was ascending up his back, locking in a body triangle, the python setting his trap. There he is, Gugerty the UFC Dragon snaking an arm under Roddy’s chin. Less than two minutes time and already the underdog is fending off the worst-case scenario, another Irish disappointment in the cards. This should’ve been expected. It always happens when things get too big why would this be anything different? Years later, those in the room would describe the sound of Gugerty’s early assault as unlike any they’d ever heard before. The deafening silence of four thousand hearts breaking.

“I just remember looking up to the ceiling like, Jesus, Owen, you can’t go out like this. Honestly, like, you haven’t even started yet. And look at all the people,” Owen says.

“The choke was fully on, it was under the chin. I remember getting to the point to where everything was black except for a little spot, and just turning in to get a little bit more blood to the brain, and [thinking] ‘just stick in there, Owen, you’re doing alright, you’re doing alright’ — then he really went fucking nasty with the choke, he put the hips in as much as he could and I went tunnel vision again… and I thought I was going. I thought I was going out.”

The people are screaming. They don’t want you to give up. You can’t give up.

Kellie says she’s never heard a louder explosion than the legendary moment Rowdy Owen Roddy gutted his way out of that choke and rose to his feet.

”Then,” she says, “it was just a war.”

Owen Roddy stands over Shannon Gugerty.
Photo by Lauris Karpovs

There he is, the might of Ballymun roaring forward, knees and punches, kicks and submissions. No one hears the bell, it’s so loud, even the commentators are cheering him on. The outsider is tiring but the lad is surging. This is for pride. This is for Ireland. His nose is gushing and the pace is frantic and the crowd is swelling and there’s Rowdy Owen Roddy raining down blows. It goes all three rounds — at the end, he collapses in his corner, exhausted. He gave it everything he had. No one knows who won.

Gugerty surely took the first round and Roddy surely took the third. The second is up in the air. Up to the judges.

Standing up there alone in the center of the cage, awaiting his fate, Owen admits — he doubted whether he’d done it, he doubted whether this wouldn’t just be another Irish letdown. “But then just something came over me,” he says. “And it was like, no, this is yours. This is your fight. This is your moment. I always say everybody has a moment in their career. It’s that moment that you’ll always remember. Everybody deserves one of those moments, one of those moments where it’s like, ‘now this, this is it this is for you.’ Just before the result came out, I felt that. I was like: this is my moment.”

He smiles.

“And then everyone went fucking bananas.”

The National Basketball Arena shook like thunder the night in Tallaght that Rowdy Owen Roddy conquered the world.

“I was thrown. Literally,” remembers Carroll. “The people exploded, there was so much emotion in the room. Roddy’s teammates, they literally threw me back two rows of seats. You can see everybody storming the cage. It’s insane when you think about it. Conor McGregor, Cathal Pendred, all these guys in the cage with him afterward. It meant so much to them as well. These guys were on the undercard looking up to him and they would see that support. He was absolutely worshipped and there’s no way that didn’t have an impact on them.”

“It was just madness,” says Ryan. “Everybody was up and people were throwing drinks in the air, screaming. Man, it was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Even me — I was tackling the security guards when he won, trying to get cageside. I remember seeing one of Owen’s mates, and he got really drunk — I remember turning around and looking and he had the whole barrier up in his hands and he was shaking it in the air. Jesus, this is like a fucking 10-foot long barrier and he’s just fucking swinging it around like it’s a little chair or something. It was just crazy.”

There he is, Owen Roddy the dragon killer. Owen Roddy the champion. Raising his title belt high above his head. Kellie greets him with a kiss. The man who did the impossible — this is his moment, forever. He says through labored breaths that he’d have to be put to sleep to lose. He says that John is the best coach of the best damn team in the world. He says he’s disappointed, this was his first decision and he’s not too keen on that. Then he recognizes what just happened — how for so long they all looked up to the supermen fighting in the UFC, but finally the skill gap had closed.

“It’s time to take notice!” he roars.

The Irish are at the door.

Victory.
Photo by Lauris Karpovs

So that’s it, yeah? That’s how these things work? Owen passed the test, he beat Gugerty, the UFC was next. No one knew but that’s what everyone guessed. Maybe some of that naivety was part of the magic. “It’s just the strangest nights,” says Carroll. “We were all in this little bubble and just deciding what was going to happen to these guys. We didn’t understand.

“People in the community back then didn’t understand the levels to it, so it was kind of like everybody felt it was done. Irish MMA was going now. It was going to the big stage and we can win there. We’ve beaten Gugerty, we can win in the UFC. That was all the verification the fans needed, the media needed at the time in the country. We didn’t think about the UFC’s part. We just assumed there was some kind of a magic net that just kind of captures these fighters when they hit a certain level of skill. Literally that was a grey area for us, because who did we have? Who did we have that was signed to UFC before?”

They waited, all of them, morning dragging into night, night dragging into morning, but the storybook ending never came. Time continued its slow march. The days grew longer and the winds grew colder. The phone never rang. Seven straight wins but Ireland wasn’t there yet.

So Owen booked a quick turnaround fight with Cage Warriors for December, a bantamweight tilt against a jiu-jitsu black belt named Wilson Reis. Reis was a decorated grappler who had fought well in several Bellator tournaments, another respected veteran. The gales of Christmas blew in and Owen flew away to prove himself all over again… but this one felt different. No one can really explain it but they all say the same. The event was in Glasgow, Scotland, across the North Channel, far north from home. Few Ballymunners were able to make the trip. Kellie had to stay back to watch the kids, as did most of SBG.

Rowdy Owen Roddy did not disappoint though. With John and Conor screaming from his corner, that tough bastard ran a clinic on a future UFC title challenger for 11 minutes before stumbling headfirst into a hard right hand and giving up his back in a scramble. Reis choked him unconscious and the fight was done. Kellie and the team watched from back home as Roddy laid unmoving on the canvas, his history-making window slammed shut, delayed if only for a moment, on a cold, distant TV screen.

“To see him go out against Reis, literally go asleep — I think that’s the only way they could’ve stopped that Owen Roddy at that stage in his career,” says Carroll. “It’s almost quite fitting that he went to sleep. You had to make sure that motherfucker couldn’t move to guarantee he wasn’t going to keep fighting.”

The lad never tapped to Wilson Reis’ rear-naked choke. True to the promise he made four months earlier, Rowdy Roddy had to be put to sleep to lose.

Wilson Reis defeats Owen Roddy.
Photo by Dolly Clew, Cage Warriors

Reis’ next fight came in the UFC. He got the call-up, then won six of his first eight inside the Octagon to earn a title shot against the best flyweight who ever lived.

As for Owen, no one knew it then, but that would be the end.

The next month, January 2013, on the precipice of turning 30, Owen Roddy visited a local physician at the recommendation of a friend. His friend suggested he undergo a few tests, just a few routine body scans, x-rays and MRIs, things Owen had never gotten done, more as a curiosity than anything else. The fight scene in Ireland didn’t require much in the way of medicals at the time so there was never a need before, but Owen was getting older and it was never too early to take interest in his health.

The tests found something troubling. The type of troubling that doesn’t go away, and certainly doesn’t get better with participation in a combat sport.

So Owen ordered more tests, and one by one doctors all told him the same thing: he could continue to fight if he wanted, but he would be endangering his health for years to come. Faced with a life-changing crossroads, agonizingly close to realizing the dream he’d held since he was a teenager of 17, Owen was forced to make a decision. His career or his future? Kellie and their two daughters; an entire gym of students; a team that loved him… there were so many people counting on him. It was the hardest decision of his life, but he had to be selfless, even at a selfish time. He had to do what was best for them.

So Rowdy Owen Roddy decided to walk away.

Ireland’s original star retired from the fight game at age 29.

“Nobody thought about my career more than myself, and the decision I made is the right decision,” he says. “And it does, it stings. It definitely stings. I set a goal. When I was 17, I set a goal to go make a career and fight in the UFC and make money. And I dedicated my life to it. And it got taken away from me, so that’s fucked up. I always believe that if you do things right, if you dedicate your life to something, you put your heart and soul into it and you don’t let anything else distract you, that you will get what you deserve from it. And I was very, very close. But I didn’t get it.”

Owen kept his decision private at first, delaying almost a full year before he took it public. When the inevitable questions came — Why are you walking away in the prime of a career the whole country has followed? — he said that it was just time. He was getting too busy between raising two daughters and being a coach and running his own gym. Something had to give. He couldn’t give his all being spread so thin. Owen didn’t mention the real reason. He never mentioned the real reason. The sport in Ireland was in a constant, uphill battle against a pervasive media, he says. The posterboy for the country retiring because of something like this? The papers would’ve eaten it up.

So no, he kept it to himself. After everything they had been through, after how far they all had come, all of the support they received over so many hard years, he bottled it up inside and never even got a chance to explain why.

“I didn’t want the sport to get any more bad publicity that it didn’t need at the time,” Owen says now, sighing. “I feel I was a big figure in Ireland before Conor and everybody, and I didn’t want people to think, ‘Jesus, he was our big guy, and look what it’s done to him. Why are we allowing this sport to go ahead?’ And then obviously the death (of Joao Carvalho at a local Dublin show) a couple of years later wasn’t good for the sport. So, I just swallowed it up and blamed it on my job and my club.

“But I’d like people to know that I wasn’t a quitter. I didn’t give up because it was a little bit tough on me because of my job and because of my family, because I would never have done that. Jesus, I would’ve fucking… I would’ve blasted through anything to fight again. Something like that wouldn’t have stopped me. I’d work a fucking 60-hour week and still fucking train and still come out and be a good dad and a good fucking husband and still make it, because I had that type of work rate. But I was forced out.”

The truth chewed Owen up inside. For him to blame the untimely end to his career on the ones he loved most… he felt like a coward… he felt like he let down every single soul who had fought so hard and committed so much to support the road he was paving. But things in Ireland today are getting better, he says, the country is in the process of forming an official governing body for MMA and getting the sport recognized by the government. Those old media crones may still be unforgiving at times, and they may still eat up a story like this — which is why Owen still keeps certain cards close to his vest about the nature of his tests — but the sport has turned a corner in his cherished home, a turn of the corner that will never be undone.

And that turn started three weeks after Glasgow, when Conor tore through Ivan Buchinger with a gorgeous left hand shot to become the first two-division Cage Warriors champion. His victory garnered global attention, and a few months later, Conor made history when he knocked out Marcus Brimage with a dizzying 67-second display to become the first true Irishman to record a win in the UFC. And there was Owen in his corner, waving the tricolor, urging him on the whole way.

“Nowadays you say ‘ah yeah, the UFC’ and it’s no big deal anymore. But back then — it was a crazy thing back then,” Ryan says. “Everybody was super excited for Owen to be going to the UFC, or that’s what we believed because he was on something like a seven- or eight-fight win streak and the guys he was fighting were absolute killers, he was just dispatching all of them. If that Shannon Gugerty fight had been now, Owen would’ve been way in. But I just don’t think they had us on the radar back then.”

“I was pissed off,” Owen remembers. “I was disappointed, blah blah blah, it’s unfair, acting the way you would act. Then I said okay, stop being a bitch now and let’s find a new path. Where do you go from here? You sit back and you focus on coaching. Instead of being the fighter and trying to be in the UFC, you help somebody get to the UFC, because that’s all you can do. And that’s what I did.”

Once he resolved to hang up his gloves, Owen asked Kellie if she wanted to fly to Las Vegas to take in a live UFC event for his 30th birthday. He had never been before and thought it might be therapeutic to see the life they always wanted. They ended up not going, but two months later Owen made the trip anyway — out to corner Conor for the Dustin Poirier fight at UFC 178.

Irish fans invade the UFC 178 weigh-ins.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The reception the boys found in America was manic, a celebration of Irish pride just like those distant nights in Tallaght. And then the takeover began.

“He was almost ahead of his time,” says Cathal. “He would’ve been up there with the rest of us. He just came up before the curve of when MMA exploded in Ireland. And it was more unfortunate that when the UFC came (in 2009) they didn’t have his weight class. At the time they didn’t have a featherweight division or bantamweight division, so he was kind of ruled out by default. I know at the time the UFC wanted to have someone local on the card — it definitely would’ve hands down been Owen Roddy. That was the guy, but they just didn’t have his weight class.

“But that’s why it’s great to see where he is now,” Cathal adds, “He’s been brought along for the ride, and Conor has him there for the biggest fight in history. Roddy’s there for the whole journey and the whole ride. It’s great to see.”

By the end of 2014, a year after his retirement was official, Owen Roddy was a full-time SBG coach and nearly all of the original squad were either in the UFC or on their way. Cathal and Paddy debuted with raucous wins at the famed Irish Fight Night in Dublin; Chris and Aisling scored back-to-back appearances on The Ultimate Fighter, a series that would soon feature Artem as well; and Conor… Conor was on his way to becoming the first two-division champion the UFC had ever seen, as well as the biggest star in the history of mixed martial arts, a journey he made with his dear friend and striking coach by his side.

They still realized the dream together, all of them, even if not the way they expected.

Champions.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The lad is laughing now. He has been for awhile, deep hearty guffaws that heave the stomach and drown the phone line in scratchy static. He can’t help it. All of this is madder than hell. It really is. It’s the first Sunday of August and in three weeks the biggest fight of their lives will be over. The spectacle of a generation will be done. Ireland versus The Mayweathers — it still feels surreal whenever he says it, a fever dream, a hallucination he worries tomorrow he’ll wake up from, he’ll still be in his old Ballymun flat and he’ll realize that no, it was all too good to be true, and no, none of this truly came to pass.

“My life has so many memories now,” Owen says, breathing deep, “of things that I wanted to do, but managed to do even more as a coach. It’s just unbelievable.”

The team is preparing in Las Vegas, a houseful of pale invaders acclimatizing to the desert heat. Owen flew out later than the rest so he could stay back in Dublin and corner Ryan for a local title fight. Another factor kept him home as well — Owen just had his third daughter, a little thing, just 10 weeks old. The family grows larger. Owen says it’s hard being away, but he’s never really too far from home. No matter the date, or the time, or where in the world he is, one look at his Instagram page and he’ll still see it, the flooding of messages… you’re doing us all proud, Owen… we believe in you, Owen… all of Ballymun is behind you, Owen. He says all of the boys are the same, whether it’s Conor from Crumlin or Ryan from Sheriff Street or Chris from Swords.

The support never stopped, all throughout the past five years. The scene they built so painstakingly slow will live forever.

And that old Irish mindset will never again be the same.

“It’s almost like the Big Neighbor Syndrome,” Chris muses. “We call it put your hat in your hand, like a paddy cap — put your hat in your hand and kind of bow your head and be like, aw, we’re the underdog and we’ll give it our best shot. We grew up like that. And they’re part of this new ‘fuck you’ generation that’s coming out. This generation of Irish that’s like, ‘no, we’re the best, we’re going to do what we fucking want.’ It’s kind of cool in Ireland at the moment as we shift towards that, because we’ve been kind of putting ourselves in the shadow for a long time and kind of bowing our heads. We’d go to sporting events like the World Cup and all those things and we’re just almost happy to take part, happy to be there. Now that’s starting to change.”

Owen admits he still misses it sometimes, the rush of the cage, the taste of blood streaming down his mouth and the sound of a hall full of screaming Dubliners.

He had a chat with John a few years back. At the time, he was briefly considering a comeback, one of about 15 comebacks he’s briefly considered. He asked John when this feeling would leave, this endless tugging from the reptilian side of his brain. John was frank. It doesn’t, he said, Owen, that feeling never goes. It’s just something you learn to live with. “And it’s still very hard,” Owen says. “I know Kellie gets pissed off with me, because I’ll go corner Conor at some crazy shit, and I’ll come back like, ‘well, Jesus, can I come back for one?’ And I’ll get that for a week, she’ll be pulling her hair out.

“I’ll never do it, but I’ll never lose that wanting to fight.”

It’s funny how quickly present fades into myth. Owen was the trailblazer until the day he wasn’t, but Carroll says he’s now almost become a cult figure instead. At some point, once the bandwagoners assaulted Dublin’s city center with their internet memes and Xeroxed McGregor haircuts, he became your O.G. pass. “There might have been a few thousand people there for Roddy’s fights,” Carroll says, “but I’ve probably met at least 10,000 people that say they were for Shannon Gugerty. It’s one of them things. It really is. And I think it’s nearly a test. It’s a way to ask people, do they really know about Irish MMA? ‘Do you remember Roddy and Gugerty?’

“If they don’t, you can say, alright… well, fuck it.”

Owen Roddy raises his arms in triumph.
Photo by Tommy Lakes, @LakesCreates

Street cred incarnate… can you imagine what he’d say if he heard that? No, he would just nervously chuckle and avert his eyes… What did I do? I didn’t do anything… the same old thing. But it’s true. There are young Irish soaring every day through that shattered glass ceiling, in part because of what he not only accomplished, but what he sacrificed to make it happen. Owen Roddy let go of his own dreams, but he still rewrote the rules for everyone else, then guided them along the way. His steadfast belief laid the scaffolding for a revolution. The bones of the new Irish world are forever linked with his name.

Even if he’ll never admit it.

“I always say to Conor — and to everybody — he’s given a nation somebody to root for and get behind,” Owen says. “It’s been tough times over the past six or eight years in Ireland. The recession. It hasn’t been great jobs-wise. Unemployment. All of this negative shit. We love our sports, but we’ve fallen short all of the time. In soccer, boxing. But we love our sports. So for Conor to come along, to do what he’s doing… all the Irish people, all they wanted is somebody to root for. They wanted somebody to say, this is our guy.

“And look at us. Our little small country, four or five million people in it, and we’ve got the guy. He’s their guy. So it just gives us all so much pride and makes everybody… just… it’s a great time. That’s what I mean. I don’t think I’ll be able to appreciate it now as much as I will when I’m a lot older, because this will never happen again in my lifetime, for somebody to do what Conor has done for us. In 20 years, we might not have that. So it’s great, we’re all very lucky. And for me to be right beside that, front row, to be part of it, to have played a small part in it… I couldn’t happier. That’s going to be my story.”

Who could’ve guessed?

All of this time, he was right.

Three years since the crazed scene in the MGM Grand, when escalators were conquered and the ballads of Ireland echoed across casino halls, carrying out to the Nevada desert and across sapphire seas, taking those old Irish hymns back to Tallaght on South Dublin winds — all of this time, the drunk kid was right.

Rowdy Owen Roddy is a legend.

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