Shining in Stockholm: The Story of Conor McGregor’s UFC Debut.


Shining in Stockholm: The Story of Conor McGregor’s UFC Debut

“How do you feel about making your UFC debut in nine weeks in Sweden?”

On Thursday 7th February 2013 Swedish mixed martial arts website broke the exclusive news that Dublin mixed martial artist Conor McGregor had signed a contract with Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s leading MMA organisation, and would be making his debut against American southpaw Marcus Brimage at an event in Stockholm two months later.

It was a life-changing development for McGregor, nicknamed ‘Notorious’ by his coach John Kavanagh of Straight Blast Gym Ireland (SBGi) on the Naas Road, Dublin 12. Less than forty-eight hours earlier, while sitting in a friend’s car, the Crumlin-born fighter had answered his mobile phone to hear Kavanagh’s voice enquire, “How do you feel about making your UFC debut in nine weeks in Sweden?”

While obviously a rhetorical question, the opportunity could not have been better timed. For although he was only twenty-four years old, possessed a professional record of 12-2, and was the reigning featherweight (145 lbs/65.8 kg) and lightweight (155 lbs/70.3 kg) champion for Cage Warriors, a London-based MMA promotion with strong Irish connections then at the forefront of the sport in Europe, McGregor was beginning to drift and actually contemplating quitting life as a professional fighter.

Surviving rather than thriving financially, increasingly disillusioned at the UFC’s failure to offer him a contract, and reacting badly to the news that a long-time friend and promising SBGi teammate would have to retire from MMA due to fight-related injuries, McGregor had been avoiding his gym and coach’s phone calls.

When he finally relented and answered Kavanagh’s call from Reykjavik, where the Dublin coach was helping train SBGi’s regular visiting Icelandic welterweight Gunnar Nelson ahead of the submission specialist’s second UFC fight later that month, McGregor had been expecting an argument over his vanishing act and skipping the weekly boxing class he coached every Tuesday. Instead, his dream of finally proving himself in the UFC was back on track.


The deal had come about after Nelson’s father Halli, the managing director of Mjölnir MMA in Reykjavik, spoke on McGregor’s behalf to UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby. Upon his notifying Kavanagh of the promotion’s offer by phone, the SBGi head coach hastily rushed outside the restaurant where he had been eating dinner to call McGregor with the news. Standing in the snow, when he finally got connected the response of ‘Notorious’ was succinct: “Are you serious? Fucking hell, let’s do it!”

It is worth noting that at the time of this conversation neither man had any idea about the identity of McGregor’s opponent in Stockholm. And even more worth noting that neither man cared.

“A true modern-day warrior and a terrifying prospect for anyone in the UFC”

With MMA still somewhat of a minority sport in Ireland, McGregor’s signing with the UFC went largely under the radar of Irish media outlets. Exceptions included an interview carried out with his local Dublin Gazette newspaper, and the Irish Mirror’s Brad Wharton welcoming the news in a piece which described McGregor as “a true modern-day warrior and a terrifying prospect for anyone in the UFC”.

Yet, among the growing passionate Irish MMA community, excitement at McGregor’s impending UFC debut was palpable, leading to a breakout Skype appearance on the American MMA Hour podcast show on 25th February due to its host – renowned Canadian MMA reporter Ariel Helwani – getting “hounded” online by fans of the Dublin fighter.


Sitting in his Lucan family home, the relaxed and uninhibited McGregor charmed Helwani for over 21 minutes. Laughing infectiously, munching on blueberries, and dropping one-liners throughout – such as how he was going to vanquish his UFC opponents while fighting in a style reminiscent of Chuck Norris – ‘Notorious’ had his host concluding by the 12 minute mark that he was probably talking to “the greatest guest in the [over three year] history of our show”.

Further media exposure came in the form of a short television news feature for TV3 and seventeen minute MTV documentary. In both television appearances McGregor came across as obsessive about the art of unarmed combat, and supremely confident about his prospects in the UFC. It was noticeable that at no point did his Stockholm opponent get a mention, although Helwani had succeeded in getting McGregor to briefly admit that while he did not like to study his opponents in detail prior to fights, Marcus Brimage seemed like “an ok little boxer” who was athletic and tough yet “limited with his movements”.

McGregor’s prediction? A show-stealing finish that would earn him the necessary money to buy a nice car and custom-made clothes, as well as convincing the UFC to “get their fucking act together” and stage a second show in Ireland with him as the star attraction.

The company’s debut in Ireland, a ‘UFC 93’ pay-per-view event at the O2 Arena [now 3Arena] in Dublin on 17th January 2009, had seen McGregor’s friend and SBGi teammate Tom Egan lose a welterweight (170 lbs/77.1 kg) contest to English grappler John Hathaway by late first round TKO. One of the 9,369 fans in attendance to cheer on ‘The Tank’ that night, McGregor visualised things ending much differently the next time the UFC came to his hometown.


First, he would have to make a name for himself with the company though, beginning with his debut at the ‘UFC on Fuel TV 9’ event in Stockholm on Saturday 6th April 2013, where he faced off against Brimage in the fourth of the card’s seven preliminary bouts that would be streamed live on Facebook as an appetiser for the televised main card. A native of Alabama (although technically born in Colorado) with an impressive 6-1 professional record – 3-0 in the UFC – the ‘Bama Beast’ was a short but muscular striker possessing great athleticism and a surprisingly long reach. McGregor was the favourite in their fight, yet not an overwhelming one.


“The People’s Main Event”

Although fighting on the undercard of a fairly ordinary event on paper (which some fans had actually called for to be cancelled following the late withdrawal of local headliner Alexander Gustafsson), McGregor’s UFC bout – dubbed “The People’s Main Event” by Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour – provided him with the opportunity he craved to finally make a name for himself on the international stage and earn a lucrative living from fighting. Held at the Ericsson Globe Arena, the world’s largest spherical building, ‘UFC on Fuel TV 9’ drew a reported attendance of 14,506 (generating a total gate of $2,710,530) and at the time was the fastest selling European event in UFC history.


Considering Gustafsson’s withdrawal and an unpromising afternoon television slot in America, the event garnered a respectable average rating of 236,000 stateside viewers. And although McGregor’s fight might not have made the televised main card, it was the only preliminary bout to be shown during both Fuel TV (now Fox Sports 2) replays later that day, which drew a combined 190,000 viewers. ‘Notorious’ would also be the only preliminary fighter invited to the official post-event press conference. In other words, the Dubliner seized his UFC opportunity with both hands.

His behaviour during the build-up to the event foreshadowed such an outcome. During the days leading up to his fight McGregor was the epitome of calm, repeatedly telling MMA reporters that he felt under no pressure and, as a true martial artist, approached fighting with the mentality that “there is no opponent” and he was ultimately fighting himself.

Brimage would construe this talk as arrogance. Then training full-time at the acclaimed American Top Team MMA gym in Florida, the ‘Bama Beast’ had been understandably frustrated at finding himself matched up against yet another dangerous newcomer expected to use him as a stepping-stone to greater things. The frustration increased upon hearing McGregor’s talk of winning in style and earning a coveted financial bonus from the UFC during his debut appearance on The MMA Hour.

Speaking to Ariel Helwani on the same show the following week, Brimage insisted that McGregor – whose most diehard fans would taunt the American mercilessly on his social media accounts – had yet to be tested against quality opponents and only secured his UFC contract on the back of defeating “nobodies” too scared to fight back. Confident of being the one to actually earn what would be a “birthday bonus”, for Brimage turned twenty-eight on 6th April 2013, the ‘Bama Beast’ told Helwani of his plan to inflict such a beating on McGregor during the first round of their fight that the Dubliner would “wanna leave in the second or third”.

Later, on the eve of their contest, while recognising McGregor as “a very good adversary” in that he possessed “pretty nice footwork… pretty good striking, [and] jujitsu”, Brimage reiterated his confidence when speaking to friend Frank Trigg for an American betting website. Trigg, formerly a leading welterweight who was preparing to fly to Stockholm that night to corner Ryan Couture in the ‘UFC on Fuel TV 9’ semi-main event, was a receptive voice and automatically assumed that McGregor would suffer from nerves during his UFC debut and find it tough getting “thrown into the big fish pond, into the ocean”.

His words did not go unnoticed by the two-weight Cage Warriors champion. On 3rd April McGregor came face to face with Trigg during a panel session previewing the event for the same Swedish MMA website that had originally broken the news of his signing with the UFC. Irish MMA reporter Peter Carroll later wrote that McGregor “was supposedly on the verge of starting a physical confrontation with the UFC veteran” prior to the cameras rolling over his recent comments. Certainly, tension was in the air as the SBGi fighter set out to leave Trigg and other doubters under no illusions about him entering the UFC with an inferiority complex, and pointedly declared himself “looking forward to proving people who support me right”.


When Trigg, who noticeably looked similar in size to McGregor despite being a retired welterweight and ‘Notorious’ cutting weight, wondered aloud if the Dublin debutant was “a big fish in [a] small pond or [a] medium sized fish…”, McGregor immediately cut him off by declaring “I’m the Champ!”

“Ya think @UFC is ready?”

After collecting a much-needed final social welfare payment of €188 from his local post office in Lucan, McGregor had arrived in Stockholm the previous day with John Kavanagh, driven to Dublin Airport in his girlfriend’s “piece of shit” old Peugeot car to fly economy class with Scandinavian Airlines carrying a minimum of luggage.

Prior to departure, his coach had surprised McGregor with a personal visit from Dublin actor Peter Coonan, star of his favourite Love/Hate RTE 1 crime drama series. Coonan wished McGregor well, with the meeting providing the Dublin fighter with a timely boost ahead of the most important bout of his life.


“Ya think @UFC is ready?” Kavanagh had tweeted moments before collecting his fighter and heading for Sweden’s capital, where the temperature would regularly drop below freezing throughout the week. Befitting his ‘Notorious’ nickname, McGregor duly went about generating some heat of his own at the Ericsson Globe the day before his fight.

Californian fighter Cub Swanson, the number five ranked UFC featherweight at the time, attended ‘UFC on Fuel TV 9’ as a company guest and took part in a question and answer session with fans at the venue prior to the event’s official weigh-in ceremony on 5th April. The son of a Swedish-American father who passed away when he was only a few months old, Swanson – later to be riled by McGregor’s repeated taunts that he resembled the aged, luckless and diminutive Hans Moleman cartoon character from The Simpsons television show – first became aware of the Irishman in Stockholm that day since, in his own words, “the UFC were very nervous about him… [and] thought he was going to get into a fight at the weigh-in”.

One can certainly understand the reasoning. Aside from the refusal to let Trigg’s dismissive words go unchecked, ‘Notorious’ took to his new environment of televised weigh-ins like an aggressive duck to water. Determined to get inside his opponent’s head while creating further interest in their fight, McGregor – who towered over Brimage as they faced off for the obligatory staredown having successfully hit the requisite 145 lbs mark – went into what his coach calls ‘animal mode’.


Urged on by the small yet vocal Irish contingent in attendance singing his name, as the fighters stood face to face for the first time McGregor sneered at Brimage’s wearing of a trademark plastic headgear accessory from the Dragon Ball-Z anime cartoon. Although the ‘Bama Beast’ did his best to remain cool, when McGregor ended his verbal tirade by menacingly pushing his forehead down into his, the Alabama fighter could not help but react with indignation as the pair were separated and his American Top Team coach implored him to ignore the provocation.

In his 2016 memoir Win or Learn Kavanagh revealed how backstage Brimage and his cornerman Chris Connolly, whom Kavanagh had fought at a gym in Oregon a decade earlier as part of his attaining an SBG instructor’s certificate, good-naturedly commended McGregor for hyping the fight up so well in front of the cameras, only for ‘Notorious’ to lock eyes on his opponent and declare, ‘Get the fuck away from me. I’m going to destroy you’.

“The fighting pride of Dublin”

Prior to his fight entrance the following day, a short video package introduced McGregor to the UFC audience. Hyped by the company’s lead play-by-play commentator Mike Goldberg as “the fighting pride of Dublin” and a likely “top candidate for world championship honours in the coming years”, McGregor – unlike Brimage – could not yet have any highlight reel career moments shown due to copyright reasons. Instead, before garish flashing graphics, ‘Notorious’ was simply shown shadowboxing and staring into the camera with a relaxed expression during Goldberg’s brief monologue.


This footage had been shot in front of a green screen background at the Clarion Hotel in Stockholm four days earlier by the UFC’s Director of Production Paul Cambria. Sitting in the Ericsson Globe’s stands with John Kavanagh the day before his fight, McGregor watched the 45 second clip on a big screen during production rehearsals. Although happy to witness what was his official introduction to the world as a UFC fighter, ‘Notorious’ took it all in his stride and remained focused on navigating his weigh-in and the task at hand.

At the post-event press conference UFC President Dana White would be effusive in his praise of McGregor’s debut performance inside the Octagon, stating that he had fought “like it was his hundredth fight in the UFC”. Although known for his stereotypical fight promoter hyperbole, White certainly had a point. Frank Trigg had not been the only onlooker to automatically assume that the Irish fighter would not be comfortable in his new high-profile surroundings, yet McGregor, who repeatedly insisted to MMA media members in the days prior to his fight that it was “just another contest”, stayed true to his words and remained emotion-free through it all.

After arriving at the Ericsson Globe before doors opened to the general public at 3.45 pm, McGregor stepped foot inside the Octagon with some of his fellow fighters on the card to get a feel for the imposing metal structure. At one point, spotting his SBGi cornermen Owen Roddy and Artem Lobov outside, McGregor jumped on top of the cage fence to mock celebrate for a photograph. He could not have been more relaxed, and his confidence was clearly shared by his team.

While later warming up backstage ‘Notorious’ would be praised by striking coach Roddy for the “too slick” quality of his mitts’ work. Then, shortly before 6 pm, with the Irish tricolour flag proudly draped around his shoulders, McGregor calmly strode towards the Octagon to the sound of Salif Keita’s classic anthem ‘Tomorrow’. Backstage, he had also listened to some Sinéad O’Connor songs, whose voice never failed to mentally prepare him for battle. As the MMA world would later find out, her rendition of The Chieftains’ classic ‘The Foggy Dew’ was his particular favourite.


With the main card still over two hours away the venue was far from full at the time, making it easier for McGregor to spot the surprisingly large number of Irish supporters that included family members and friends dotted around the Ericsson Globe. Despite the grand occasion he remained unnervingly relaxed, even when officially introduced for the first time by the UFC’s ‘Veteran Voice of the Octagon’ announcer Bruce Buffer. There was no getting himself worked up with excitement or going into a trance to cope with nerves: McGregor was completely aware of his surroundings and completely at home.



And, although he stood in front of an Irish flag held by John Kavanagh during Buffer’s official introduction rather than a banner of sponsors like Brimage, the contrast with ‘UFC 93’ was stark: in 2009, the inexperienced Egan had been selected due to being a promising local fighter and was discarded after fulfilling just one fight of a basic entry-level four fight contract; in 2013, the two-weight Cage Warriors world champion McGregor had been headhunted to appear on a non-Irish show as part of a superior five-fight contract. Not here just to take part, as he liked to later remind people, the UFC’s newest Irish fighter was here to take over.

“Dana, Sixty G’s Baby!”

Prior to Stockholm, Brimage’s sole loss had come via submission over five years earlier. McGregor wasted little time in ensuring that his second professional defeat came by way of TKO: not for the first or last time in his career, the Dublin southpaw quickly worked out a way to knockout an opponent unaccustomed to losing in such fashion. In a remarkable striking display, McGregor transformed his finances and the direction of his life by despatching of the ‘Bama Beast’ in a mere 67 seconds.



As with the previous day’s weigh-in, the fighters were a study in contrast on the night. Clearly filled with pent-up emotion, Brimage opted to abandon the controlled aggression and discipline that had served him so well when recently defeating highly-touted prospects Maximo Blanco and Jimy Hettes by decision, and instead employed a rampaging style of fighting from the bell against the ice-cool McGregor.

This approach quickly ensured his downfall. Repeatedly charging forward to initiate exchanges, Brimage found himself picked apart by an array of accurate counter strikes from the UFC debutant. Even when he managed to punish McGregor for dropping his hands low at the 29 second mark and landed a lunging right hand to the jaw, his unfazed opponent promptly responded with a left uppercut and effortless rising front snap kick to the chin in a preview of the bout’s imminent finish.




Continuing to take advantage of his opponent’s forward momentum and crouched Muay Thai stance, McGregor – after struggling to connect cleanly with his trademark straight left counter – adjusted to deliver a series of bolo punch uppercuts amidst a blistering barrage of blows to the face, which saw Brimage drop to the canvas at the 1:02 mark. Five seconds later, as ‘Notorious’ reigned in punches on his downed and dazed opponent, referee Robert Sundel had seen enough: the UFC’s newest star had emphatically arrived.


“This is why everyone has been talking about Conor McGregor … This kid’s the real deal!” exclaimed the UFC’s Fuel TV colour analyst Kenny Florian, an unsuccessful challenger for José Aldo’s featherweight crown in 2011 before his retirement from the sport.

McGregor’s performance was all the more remarkable considering that he had spent the week on antibiotics to treat a debilitating wisdom tooth infection which flared up the previous Sunday morning, adding to the disruption already caused by a strained nerve in his neck suffered during jujitsu practice six days prior to that. Less than twenty-four hours after arriving in Stockholm McGregor had been forced to visit a local dentist and have the troublesome tooth cleaned in order to reduce the infection.

His reward for overcoming such adversity was a $60,000 bonus for ‘Knockout of the Night’ from UFC President Dana White, cheekily called for in memorable fashion during his brief post-fight interview with Florian inside the Octagon (“Dana, Sixty G’s Baby!”), after despatching of Brimage with ease and marking his new territory by martial arts squat striding across the cage and screaming to momentarily release his adrenalin.



It was the eye-catching uppercuts that were key to victory. Unless used for showboating purposes, few fighters throw such looping variations of the strike on the basis that it is difficult to generate power compared to a standard uppercut, while also being hard not to telegraph. Yet, as he would famously reveal to the world on 12th December 2015 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, McGregor focuses more on achieving precision and timing with his strikes than generating power and speed.

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Utilising a centred and upright stance while throwing technically sound strikes, ‘Notorious’ – as noted at the time of his UFC debut by English MMA analyst Jack Slack – was “far from the stereotypical scrappy Irish brawler”. Demonstrating his fluidity of movement, controlling of distance, accurate crisp striking, and killer instinct, the SBGi fighter’s maiden Octagon performance offered up an appetiser to savour.

“There’s been a lot of hype. I guess the hype is real!”

As planned, after proving victorious McGregor was handed the Irish flag by his corner, only for a nearby UFC official to try and intercept under the mistaken belief that it was company policy for national flags to be included in the veto on all banners inside the Octagon following fights. Angrily yanking the tricolour out of his grasp, the SBGi fighter proudly paraded across the Octagon with the flag above his shoulders. Moments later, when another attempt to seize his flag was made, McGregor reacted in almost slapstick fashion by shaking his head and trotting away in defiance as the middle-aged official vainly followed in pursuit before accepting defeat and granting him his second Octagon victory in a matter of minutes. The only person ‘Notorious’ was handing his country’s flag over to was John Kavanagh, calling for it with a smile at the cage entrance.



As he had his hand raised in victory while the official decision was announced by Bruce Buffer, McGregor admired himself on the arena’s big screen. The Dubliner was clearly in his element, and again so as he was interviewed backstage by British combat sports journalist Gareth A. Davies for Fuel TV, having been immediately surrounded by a hub of MMA reporters and photographers after emerging through the curtain.



Still proudly wearing the tricolour over his shoulders, McGregor expressed delight at his victory but was keen to stress that this was “only the beginning” for him. Almost giddy with excitement, he gave the impression of wanting to talk all night before getting pulled away for his Fuel TV interview after a few minutes of answering questions.

Confident that he had already stolen the show in Sweden despite nine further fights still to take place, before been whisked off McGregor quipped that it was his intention to “steal all the money from the UFC and hightail it back to Ireland, [with a] big bag of money… Fuck the recession!” Prescient words, yet somewhat spoken in jest: at the time ‘Notorious’ did not even have a bank account.




Backstage in his changing room McGregor received a congratulatory hug from Burt Watson, the UFC’s gregarious Athlete Relations Coordinator, who warmly exclaimed – as was his habit to successful UFC debutants – “Guess what? Now you get to see me again! Good job son”. Watson, viewed by fighters and insiders as the glue who held UFC events together and ensured that the company ran like a well-oiled machine behind the scenes, had met McGregor for the first time upon his arrival in Stockholm four days earlier and commended the Dubliner for having already cut his weight down to just under 160 lbs.

Legendary Californian cutman Jacob ‘Stitch’ Duran also made a point of stopping by. Comparing the Irish to Mexicans in terms of their fighting spirit, ‘Stitch’ praised McGregor’s clinical performance and christened him ‘Loaded Weapon’.

Most significantly, McGregor was to receive a quick visit from Dana White, who excitedly declared – with dollar bills in his eyes – “There’s been a lot of hype. I guess the hype is real!” Apologising to McGregor over the Octagon tricolour incident, White revealed that the company was keen to have him fight at a higher profile event in the Irish-American city of Boston five months later, as well as at a yet to be announced O2 Arena show in Dublin.


Whilst almost in a daze and overcome with excitement at this scenario, McGregor nonetheless made sure to focus on the present and once more remind the UFC President that he was deserving of the “Sixty G’s” bonus up for grabs that night. Still on cloud nine, he then joined his team and long-term girlfriend Dee Devlin in the stands of the Ericsson Globe to enjoy the main card, just in time to see the near-capacity crowd pumped up by the UFC’s pre-event blaring of Bill Conti’s ‘Gonna Fly Now’ theme song from the motion picture Rocky.

Although inevitably glued to his mobile phone, McGregor spent the next several hours lapping up the occasion while anxiously hoping for no spectacular KO’s to occur that might threaten his cherished ‘Knockout of the Night’ bonus. As it turned out, there would be two more scored that night, although McGregor’s “Sixty G’s” was safe: neither finish by English lightweight Ross Pearson nor American heavyweight Matt Mitrione could rival his Brimage blitzing.

“When I saw what he had done in that press conference, I knew that a media star had been born”

And so, at around 11.30 pm, McGregor was one of six fighters chosen to attend the UFC’s routine post-event press conference and be publicly notified of his $76,000 windfall before the world’s media. There was to be no more weekly queuing up at his local post office to receive social welfare payments: the Dubliner now only had eyes on luxury items and his next UFC paycheck.

Lavished with praise by Dana White, the wide-eyed McGregor openly admitted to laughter in the room that he had no idea “what the fuck’s going on!” Contemplating what he was going to tell the Irish Department of Social Welfare upon returning home, ‘Notorious’ paused before blurting out with a smile, “I’m just gonna have to tell them to fuck off!”

Yet, while the press conference was a surreal and almost overwhelming experience for McGregor, his appearance on the panel was by no means unexpected in his own eyes. Confident that he would defeat Brimage in style and receive such an invite, he had packed a grey tweed dinner jacket, pressed shirt and ten euro “little touch” dicky bow in his luggage to ensure that he would stand out from his peers. His plan worked a treat, although in reality McGregor would have stood out from the pack regardless: whereas the other fighters on the panel all wore the scars of battle on their faces and were going through the motions, McGregor was completely unmarked and eager to talk about his arrival in the bigtime.

That evening, while celebrating in their Stockholm hotel with some Irish fans, McGregor’s family would be informed about his entertaining performance in front of the microphone. His father Tony, a Dublin taxi driver, later reminisced with Peter Carroll about how they had frantically started inserting Swedish krona into “this big, old free standing computer in the bar” in order to watch the footage online using a dial-up connection. “When I saw what he had done in that press conference”, he remarked with pride, “I knew that a media star had been born”.

“A choice of pots to piss in”

On Monday 8th April McGregor made his second Skype appearance on The MMA Hour, with host Ariel Helwani revealing at the outset of their thirty-one minute chat that he had once more been “flooded” with requests that the Dubliner be invited on the show. ‘Notorious’ did not let the opportunity go to waste. Laughing as he revealed that he now had “a choice of pots to piss in”, McGregor was again unaffected in his demeanour and keen to stress that he saw himself soon replicating his Cage Warriors feat of becoming a two-weight world champion in the UFC.

Regarding Brimage, who later admitted to fighting an “emotional” fight and abandoning his game plan due to being “mad, aggravated and frustrated” with the UFC and fight fans for continually viewing him as a stepping stone, McGregor was respectful and wished him well with the rest of his career (as he did with all of his opponents), reiterating his words made to Florian inside the Octagon that the ‘Bama Beast’ had overthrown his shots by fighting with emotion and clouded judgement.

His Dublin delivery of the line “fair play to the little motherfucker”, in reference to Brimage’s eagerness to engage in their fight rather than look to play it safe, was one of the many times McGregor had Helwani unable to suppress a smile. As with their previous interview six weeks earlier, both host and guest were clearly enjoying themselves immensely. It was obvious that McGregor would always be welcome back on the show to promote himself to MMA fans around the world.

And in terms of national recognition? The next day ‘Notorious’ received a congratulatory tweet from independent Irish bookmaker BoyleSports, who had turned him down for a part-time job at one of their Dublin branches in the not too distant past, but were now keen to offer him a sponsorship deal. Another indication of his emerging social media presence in Ireland was a brief spat on Twitter involving retired Irish amateur boxer Kenny Egan, after the 2008 Olympic silver medallist included his ‘@TheNotoriousMMA’ Twitter handle when retweeting a post poking fun at MMA.

Breaking new ground for an MMA fighter and the mainstream media in Ireland, which had seen the Irish Mirror be the only national paper to preview his UFC debut, came a praiseworthy report on his fight in the Irish Independent on 11th April and appearance on RTE 1’s flagship Late Late Show the following evening. Dressed to impress alongside his SBGi teammate Cathal Pendred, who had claimed the Cage Warriors welterweight title the previous month, the exuberant McGregor was described to laughter by host Ryan Tubridy as a Dublin version of Muhammad Ali.

Eight days later came a lengthy Irish Examiner interview with the UFC’s newest “sensation”, whose rapid destruction of Brimage in Stockholm led to a decision by the ‘Bama Beast’ to compete as a bantamweight (135 lbs/61.3 kg) in future in order to battle opponents closer his own height.

“One of the biggest names in Irish sport in a few years”

McGregor’s life would never be the same again. An overnight success in the UFC after years of honing his skills while fighting across Ireland and occasionally further ashore, he now had the very real prospect of international stardom and riches beyond his wildest dreams before him. When news of his signing with the UFC had emerged McGregor’s coach told leading Irish MMA website that his fighter was “looking to make a serious impact” in Sweden. The smile on John Kavanagh’s face as Brimage fell to the canvas after just over a minute of action at the Ericsson Globe, confirmed that SBGi’s latest UFC mission had been accomplished with aplomb.

Kavanagh later wrote that the experience felt like “the conclusion of an emotional rollercoaster ride”, coming as it did some five years after his persuading McGregor to get his wayward life back on track and commit to life as a professional fighter.

An even more emotional rollercoaster ride awaited next. And while the withdrawal of Alexander Gustafsson and dominant yet inspiring victory of his debuting scheduled opponent Gegard Mousasi against unheralded replacement Ilir Latifi in the main event certainly helped matters, ultimately McGregor’s exceptional debut performance inside the Octagon and innocent charm when later faced with the media would have always ensured that he remained a key talking point once the dust had settled.

When confirming his signing with the UFC two months earlier Paul Dollery, the Irish-born Director of Media and Operations for Cage Warriors, had predicted that McGregor would soon become an international sporting superstar, echoing an earlier forecast following the Dubliner’s brutal knockout of Slovakian striker Ivan Buchinger on 31st December 2012 that ‘Notorious’ would rise to the very top of his profession and become “one of the biggest names in Irish sport in a few years”. It did not take long for such words to ring true, for after running through Brimage in such devastating fashion McGregor was immediately marked out as one to watch by UFC fans in Ireland and around the globe.

Beforehand, McGregor had told one Irish reporter that he would “shine in Stockholm”, and – in a venue built to represent the Sun in the Sweden Solar System, the largest permanent scale model of our planetary system on earth – his star indeed eclipsed twenty-five other fighters on an unforgettable night for Irish MMA.

Next on the agenda? After returning home to Dublin and handing out “envelopes with wads of cash” to people who had supported him from the outset of his MMA journey, the soon to be multi-millionaire and UFC undisputed champion McGregor had a trip to Boston’s TD Garden on Saturday 17th August 2013 to look forward to, as he continued his unprecedented journey from dole world to whole world in seven UFC fights.

– J. Curry



Review: When Ali Came to Ireland (2013)

Nothing to do with the UFC and Irish fighters, but I’ve been asked quite a bit in recent years for a copy of the following review I wrote concerning the documentary When [Muhammad] Ali Came to Ireland. The piece was originally published in the online history magazine Scoláire Staire back in early 2013.



When Ali Came To Ireland

RTE One, 1st January 2013

True Films

When Ali Came To Ireland tells the story of how Michael “Butty” Sugrue, a Kerry-born London publican and former circus strongman, succeeded in bringing Muhammad Ali to Dublin’s Croke Park Stadium in July 1972 for a fight with Alvin “Blue” Lewis.

The self-proclaimed “World’s Strongest Publican”, Sugrue was the quintessential Irish conman and a rather extraordinary character. The archive British Pathé clips of him balancing his wife on a chair between his teeth, lifting two men above his head with one arm, and arranging a publicity stunt in which an Irish barfly from one of his two London pubs named Mick Meaney was buried alive for sixty-one days (in a failed attempt to break a preposterous world record) are as surreal as they are hilarious.

The documentary is writer and director Ross Whitaker’s third production to focus on the subject of boxing, coming on the back of Saviours (2007) and Big Time (2008). This fact isn’t altogether surprising since Whitaker has long been a fan of Ali and was largely inspired to get into the business of film-making by the Academy Award winning When We Were Kings (1996), which told the story of his unforgettable “Rumble in the Jungle” victory over George Foreman in Zaire, 1974.


So then, what did “The Greatest” think of Ireland? The documentary only tells half the story by focusing on how moved Ali was by the warm welcome he received during his nine day visit to the land of his maternal great-grandfather, Abe Grady, who originally hailed from Ennis, Co. Clare. 

Although he was indeed very taken by the friendliness and sincerity of the people whom he met in Ireland, Ali nevertheless hated the isolation of his hotel on the outskirts of Dublin and the almost total whiteness of the Irish populace. Within twenty-four hours of arriving in Dublin he rang his publicist Harold Conrad, who was co-promoting the fight with Sugrue. ‘Hey Hal’, he asked, ‘where are all the niggers in this town?’ ‘Ali, there aren’t any’ came the reply.

A week later Ali told a New York Times reporter that although he was touched by how nice the Irish people treated him, he ‘would go crazy’ were he forced to stay another week in the country. Yet, despite his boredom and unease at the lack of ‘coloured folk’ to mix with, the “Louisville Lip” essentially enjoyed himself in Ireland and stayed true to his reputation by talking up a storm to promote the Lewis fight, beginning with a trademark showing at a press conference in Dublin Airport on 11th July, the morning of his arrival. 

‘It was a remarkable performance’, wrote a journalist for the Irish Press the next day, ‘His timing is as cold-bloodedly impeccable as vintage Bob Hope or Sammy Davis. The only discernible difference is that Ali is much the prettier.’

Included in the documentary is a glimpse of Mitchel V. Cogley, a leading Irish sports writer from the time, sitting unimpressed in the front row with his arms folded and head down while the rest of the assembled reporters at Dublin Airport stare at Ali, ‘the greatest attraction this planet has ever known’ to quote Sugrue. Following his famously controversial victory over Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium some nine years earlier, when he was then fighting under his birth name of Cassius Clay, Ali had been dismissed by Cogley in the Irish Independent as a ‘second rater’ and ‘the most over-rated fighter in the world’. Even when he went on to win three world titles and defeat the likes of Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman and Joe Frazier, the old-school Cogley remained underwhelmed and could never find it in himself to describe Ali as a ‘great’ fighter.


It is a pity that the documentary makers did not interview Cogley’s broadcaster son Fred, who accompanied Ali in a taxi ride to the RTE Studios in Donnybrook later that week for one of his two Irish television interviews. Clips of the second of these, a landmark interview with Cathal O’Shannon, and the touching reminiscences of the now-deceased O’Shannon, are a real highlight of the documentary. ‘Before I did it I was just another interviewer. After I did it, I was the man who had interviewed Muhammad Ali. It meant a lot to me. It means a lot to me still’, remarks O’Shannon with a smile, in what would prove to the final television interview which the much-respected Irish broadcaster gave before his passing.

When Ali Came To Ireland would also have benefitted had interviews been carried out with the likes of Peter Hamill, Bernadette McAliskey (née Devlin), Ulick O’Connor and the late Con Houlahan – all of whom could have provided entertaining personal anecdotes about Ali.

It would have been nice too had Betty McDermott, the Dublin hotel worker and part-time model who acted as the ring girl for the fight, been interviewed. The still-glamorous McDermott attended the premiere screening of When Ali Came To Ireland at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin on 16th December 2012. Speaking from the audience during the ‘Q & A’ session which followed the screening, she recalled her refusal to wear the ‘awful outfit’ she was handed by organisers and insistence on wearing her ‘own clothes’ which she felt would better show off her figure and recently acquired holiday-tan. A ‘short skirt and white knickers’ was how journalist Nell McCafferty of the Irish Times succinctly described Betty’s personal ensemble the day after the fight.

Nevertheless, the interviews with O’Shannon, the late George Kimball, Rock Brynner, Patrick Myler, Jimmy Magee and Dave Hannigan (who wrote a book about the Ali – Lewis fight in 2002 entitled The Big Fight) among others, allied with the fascinating wealth of rare archival footage all make for a well-told and terrifically entertaining documentary.


The fight itself, which occurred on 19th July 1972, was a fairly lack-lustre and one-sided affair in which Ali dominated his game opponent without ever really getting out of second gear, most likely due to a head-cold he had caught a couple of days earlier. 

A tough and powerful yet ultimately limited fighter from Detroit, Michigan, ex-convict Lewis was a former sparring partner of Ali’s who was carefully chosen for the fight due to the likelihood of him putting up a good show without ever seriously troubling his illustrious opponent. Ali dropped Lewis with an expertly thrown chopping right hand near the end of the fourth round, but a slow count of fifteen seconds allowed the Detroit fighter to get off the canvas and continue.


The documentary suggests that the fight was later comically and prematurely stopped in the eleventh round once Harold Conrad had been told at ringside by RTE that the fight needed to end quickly in order to suit satellite television schedules back in the United States. This claim fails to take into account the fact that Lewis suffered considerable punishment in the ninth and tenth rounds, during which time he repeatedly stumbled and relied on the ropes to keep himself upright, and had been warned by the referee prior to the eleventh round that the fight would be stopped unless he showed proof of turning the one-sided contest around. After seventy-five further seconds of action, which saw Lewis throw only two half-hearted jabs and get peppered with shots by the dancing Ali, the fight was thus called to a halt.

If the documentary had shown the few seconds leading up to the stoppage, viewers would have seen Lewis’s legs momentarily buckle after taking a methodical succession of jabs to the head and consequently understood why he did not protest the referee’s decision, instead opting to subsequently embrace Ali and briefly lift him in the air to pay tribute to “The Greatest” and publicly display his gratitude for what was a rare big payday.

Lewis and Ali may have done well out of the fight, earning $35,000 and $200,000 each, but the event proved to be a financial disaster for Sugrue, who lost some £20,000 of his own money due to a poor crowd of around 18,000 spectators turning up on the night. Despite the fact that the world’s most recognisable and colourful boxer fought a fairly credible opponent while still near the prime of his career, on a beautiful summer’s evening in which most tickets were reasonably priced, the historic Irish refusal to pay into sporting events resulted in a box office flop in spite of Ali’s best efforts to hype the fight. 

As Whitaker remarked in a recent newspaper interview promoting the documentary, ‘Irish people are funny – there was definitely an attitude of “Well, sure we’ve seen him on the TV talking to Cathal O’Shannon, we’ve seen him out at his hotel where anybody more or less could walk up to the door and say hello – why would we need to go and pay money to see him fight?”’

On the night of the fight, shortly before the main event began, hundreds if not thousands of fans streamed over the “Hill 16” wall in true local tradition, overturning a barrier and bypassing the rather apathetic security in place. Included in the documentary is great footage of some young fans also rushing down from their cheap terrace seats to jump onto the Croke Park pitch and take their place nearer to ringside alongside the likes of Taoiseach Jack Lynch, author James Plunkett, actor Peter O’Toole, Oscar-winning director John Huston and future American President Ronald Reagan, the latter of whom was visiting Dublin as part of a European goodwill tour in his capacity as Governor of California.

It took over five years to receive the green light to make, but the struggle for the Dublin-based “True Films” was certainly worth it in the end. This is a documentary that regularly brings a smile to the face of the viewer and one hopes that When Ali Came To Ireland will eventually be released on DVD, especially if the “Muhammad Ali V. Cathal O’Shannon” RTE interview and Croke Park fight itself can be included in full as extras. Unlike the tickets back in the summer of 1972, one suspects that such an offering would sell very well today indeed.

– J. Curry