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The Irishman who took on Eddie Alvarez long before the rise of Conor McGregor

He hung his gloves up in 2013 but Greg Loughran was a trailblazer for mixed martial arts in Ireland.

TWO LADS SITTING at the table beside me in a cafe on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street have got their heads stuck in an iPhone.

There are a few weeks still to go until UFC 205 will take place in New York and the pair are engrossed by a promo video for the event’s headline bout — Eddie Alvarez versus Conor McGregor for the UFC lightweight title.

They don’t recognise the man I’m here to meet when he eventually walks in, and that doesn’t bother him either. Greg Loughran never courted attention when he was an active fighter. Over three years since he last competed, that’s not going to change now.

“I don’t mind that at all,” Loughran insists. “I can laugh to myself about it. Since that McGregor/Alvarez fight was announced, I’ve actually probably been getting more messages from people than I ever did while I was fighting.”

Greg1 Greg Loughran

After evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of Alvarez while finishing their coffees, the pair get up to leave — oblivious to the fact that a guy sitting just a few feet away from them was quite well-placed to provide the inside track on the UFC’s reigning 155lbs champion.

When Conor McGregor takes on Eddie Alvarez in a fortnight’s time at Madison Square Garden, he won’t be the first Irishman to have shared the cage with the Philadelphia native. Back in April 2009, when McGregor’s professional MMA career was a mere four fights old, Loughran went to Florida to face the man who would become the best lightweight in the world.

* * *

Having grown up in Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s, it would be a convenient cliché for Greg Loughran to claim that the troubles pushed him towards fighting as a means of equipping himself for the dangers of living in such a hostile environment. However, the reality is that his life was seldom impacted by that turbulent period in Irish history.

The Loughran family lived rurally near Magherafelt in Co Derry. Greg’s father was a labourer on building sites in Belfast and he occasionally returned home after witnessing things he’d rather have not. Greg was grateful that he never had to experience the same and he’s glad that such incidents have now been left in the past.

“I don’t come from a fighting family or any sort of combat sports background,” Loughran explains. “My way into MMA came after I broke my leg in school while playing football. I put on a lot of weight then and got quite down in the dumps.

I left school at 16 and started working as a joiner. Then I met a guy who was training in MMA and that’s how I got started.”

Initially, Loughran’s goal was “to lose a bit of weight and build some confidence”, but training under Davey Patterson [one of the most respected coaches in Ireland and a pioneer for mixed martial arts on these shores], Loughran was soon intrigued. At the turn of the millennium, an established career path for MMA fighters from Ireland didn’t exist, so Loughran supplemented the fighting education he was receiving at Patterson’s gym with footage from old Ultimate Fighting Championship videos.

Nowadays, young fighters generally accumulate years of training before ever considering a debut fight as an amateur. For Loughran, and for the majority of his peers on the Irish scene back then, the preparation amounted to months rather than years.

“I got my fitness to a certain level and Davey Patterson used to have a show in Randalstown [Co Antrim], which I think was one of the first MMA shows ever to be held in the north. It was rough and ready,” Loughran recalls.

I fought a guy called Frank Milligan. I remember going in to touch gloves in the centre of the ring, and I was so nervous and pumped up that I actually punched him in the face before the fight even started.”

Despite the pre-fight nerves, Loughran managed to get the better of his first opponent. However, nearly three years would pass before he’d experience another victory. He went on to make his professional debut in August 2002. Taking on more experienced opponents for whom MMA was more than just a form of exercise, Loughran was thrown in at the deep end and lost his first four fights as a pro.

He knew and accepted that defeat was more likely than victory, but he was enjoying competing so much that a negative result wasn’t a sufficient deterrent. If there was a fight available, he accepted it without querying the terms. The opponent, date and venue didn’t matter. Loughran was still a novice but he was happy to learn on the job.

“I wasn’t ready for those fights at all,” he admits. “I had no combat background, I didn’t even know how to box properly. I was just game to fight. I never really knew what I was getting myself into but I was still enjoying it so I was happy.”

He may have been out of his depth in his earliest fights, but Loughran’s appetite for competition and willingness to stay active led to rapid improvement. Training daily and fighting regularly against opponents whose skills were more developed, it wasn’t long before he caught up.

By the spring of 2006, Loughran had won seven fights in the space of two years, including a first-round submission of a young Norman Parke, who would go on to become the first fighter from the island of Ireland to win in the UFC. At the age of 23, Loughran had transformed himself into one of the top fighters on an admittedly small Irish circuit.

Remarkably, he fought eight times in ’06 alone — “I always thought I was at my best when I was fighting regularly like that” – and September of that year marked the beginning of the best run of form of his career. He picked up eight consecutive victories, the last of which turned out to be one of the most significant notches on his belt.

“I came into the gym on a Monday night,” Loughran recalls. “Ian Dean [the matchmaker with the Cage Warriors promotion] had contacted Davey [Patterson] and said there was a fight in Florida the following Saturday. I just said, ‘Sure, why not?’

I was just out of a plaster for a broken hand but by Wednesday I was on a flight.”

The opponent was a highly-regarded young American fighter with a 7-1 record, whose name would soon be familiar to MMA fans around the world. But in spite of the late notice and the calibre of the man in the other corner, Loughran managed to grind out a split-decision win.

Jonathan Brookins had been beaten for just the second time in his career, but he had some big days still to come. Six months later, Brookins took Jose Aldo into the third round at WEC 36. Another two years down the line, he won a season of The Ultimate Fighter that featured Michael Johnson, Alex Caceres and Joseph Duffy.

JonathanBrookins_Headshot Jonathan Brookins, who was defeated by Greg Loughran in 2008. Source: UFC

The Brookins win was Loughran’s third against a future UFC fighter. Sandwiched between that result and his defeat of Norman Parke was a second-round submission of Andre Winner on a Cage Warriors card in Nottingham in April 2007. With the UFC due to hold its first show on Irish soil that summer, Loughran was being strongly linked with a place on the bill for UFC 72 at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast.

He was intrigued by the possibility of testing himself against the best in the world on the biggest stage in the sport, but ultimately there was something that prevented Loughran from courting a spot on a card that was headlined by a middleweight bout between Rich Franklin and Yushin Okami. His team-mates, Colin Robinson and Stevie Lynch, were the local lads on the night.

“I never wanted to be on that show that much, to be honest,” Loughran says. “The whole media thing that came with it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like the idea of having the cameras in my face and stuff like that. I was happy doing my own thing.

My big aim was actually to get to travel to America and fight over there. I was lucky enough to do that a few times. If you had given me a choice between that and the UFC, I would do the same thing now. I was still young then too. I wasn’t ready for the attention.”

Did that ever change?

“To be honest, no. It’s just not in my nature as a person. Listen, I enjoy fighting and competing, but I also enjoy keeping myself to myself. I look at Conor McGregor now and I just couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t know where to start. He’s amazing at the PR stuff. That’s just not me. Fair play to him because not everyone can do it. You can’t fake that.”

McGregor and Loughran will have something in common in 14 days’ time, however. The UFC 205 main event between McGregor and Eddie Alvarez offers the Dubliner an opportunity to achieve the unprecedented — champion status in two weight classes at once. Loughran admits that his own clash with Alvarez was the pinnacle of his career, in spite of the result.

PA-28766246 UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. Source: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Bellator is now second only to the UFC in the pecking order of MMA promotions, but their 3 April, 2009 event at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Florida was the first in their history. Nevertheless, with Bellator making ambitious projections and the show being broadcast via ESPN, it was still the biggest production Loughran had ever been part of. The $10,000 cheque also made it — “by a mile” — the biggest payday of his career.

It was another short-notice call-up too. Alvarez’s original opponent had pulled out and — after winning 10 of his last 11 fights — Loughran was offered the chance to fill the co-main event vacancy. It was going to be the most high-profile fight and the toughest opponent of his career, and despite having just just two-and-half weeks to prepare and 30 pounds to cut in order to make the lightweight limit, Loughran couldn’t find an answer that made sense when he asked himself ‘Why not?’

Loughran: “I was definitely familiar with Eddie Alvarez — probably even a bit starstruck, to be honest with you. He obviously wasn’t as big a name as he is now, but he was still one of the best around and he had fought on some big shows all over the world.

But I actually just remember being really excited for that fight. Nervous, but excited. It definitely felt like a step-up.

“Bellator was a very professional show, even back then when it was their very first show. Getting to compete against somebody like that, it was definitely the highlight of my time in MMA. That was my reward for that run of wins I had been on.”

Intro

Their records show that Alvarez needed just over half a round to get the better of Loughran, and while there was certainly no disputing the merit of his victory, the American didn’t have it all his own way while it lasted. Aware that Alvarez possessed superior wrestling, Loughran sought to keep the contest upright and had some success with his hands, aided by a height and reach advantage

“He was the better fighter on paper, without a doubt, but I went in there feeling like I had a puncher’s chance,” says Loughran. “I knew his wrestling was very good so the gameplan was to stand with him. I had noticed in some of his footage that when he does throw punches he leaves his chin up.”

Thirty seconds in, Alvarez had Loughran backing up as he teed off with a flurry. But Loughran withstood his opponent’s advances well, before hitting the target with a sweet left hook on the counter. Alvarez’s legs buckled and he was heading for the deck. For a very brief moment it looked like an opening had presented itself to Loughran, but Alvarez recovered impressively. He managed to stay on his feet and drove Loughran back against the fence in a clinch.

Knock

Alvarez exercised more caution in the striking exchanges thereafter, and it wasn’t long until he opted to call upon his wrestling. Loughran had promptly returned to his feet following his opponent’s first successful takedown attempt, but Alvarez made the most of his second bite at the cherry and locked in a guillotine choke which forced a tap after two minutes and forty-four seconds of the bout.

afafafa

It came as no great surprise to Greg Loughran that Eddie Alvarez went on to become the UFC lightweight champion — “I knew he had that potential” — when he dethroned Rafael Dos Anjos in July of this year. However, in Loughran’s view, his reign will end in New York on 12 November.

“I think McGregor will catch him with a big left towards the end of the first round. Alvarez leaves himself open to that. Then again, it’s MMA and anything can happen on a given night. But I can only see it going one way.”

***

His modesty prevents him from speculating as to what he might have achieved had he been at the peak of his powers when mixed martial arts finally entered the public consciousness in Ireland three years ago, but the reality is that Greg Loughran’s prime came a decade or so too soon for the Irish MMA boom.

Having defeated opponents who later ended up in the big show, a fighter of Loughran’s calibre would have been at the heart of the so-called ‘Irish invasion’ of the UFC that Conor McGregor began in 2013. In that regard, Loughran is one of a handful of retired fighters who will have to be content with his status as a trailblazer for the next generation.

He never clamoured for a shot in the UFC, yet that’s not to say that he would have turned down a contract had one materialised. Loughran’s desire to compete always trumped everything else, but with fewer events being staged back in those days, earning that elusive UFC deal was a lot harder then than it is now.

The media obligations that accompany life as a UFC fighter would have been a chore, but Loughran could have tolerated them in exchange for the increased income and a chance to test himself against the elite. Nevertheless, those minor regrets don’t keep him awake at night and he’s grateful for the opportunities that did come his way.

He’s also honest enough to acknowledge that his cause wasn’t helped by the numbers on his record. When Loughran hung up his gloves, it stood at 25-18. Those early losses he accumulated while serving his apprenticeship were detrimental to the figure at the top of his CV, which is so often the decisive factor in the eyes of the top promoters. Loughran, as well as those who were familiar with him, knew that his record didn’t reveal the full extent of his abilities — something the likes of Neil Seery can relate to.

“Protecting your record to impress the UFC is what nearly every fighter does now,” Loughran says. “We didn’t have that option. It was a young sport back then. You couldn’t pick and choose your opponents because there just wasn’t enough of them around. You took what fights were available because you had to.

I have looked back and thought, ‘God, I wish had protected my record’, but then again I was happy with the journey while it lasted. I fought some of the top guys about and that wouldn’t have happened if I had been protecting my record. That’s the way I look at it.”

In some respects, the defeat to Eddie Alvarez signalled the beginning of the end of Greg Loughran’s career. Although he was still six months shy of 26, the result was a blow to his self-belief and left him feeling like he wasn’t worthy of the highest level. It’s a harsh self-assessment, particularly in the context of the quality of the opponent, but the loss had a negative impact on his drive to get the best from himself. That was evident in the aftermath too, as Loughran went on to lose five more fights on the trot.

He did eventually put together another good run of results, but in February 2013, after defeating Chris Stringer in Dublin to pick up his fifth win in six outings, Loughran decided that he’d had enough. After a long career, the rewards still weren’t justifying the sacrifices. In the days that followed the fight, Loughran had to hound the promoter for the £1,500 purse he was owed. With his 30th birthday on the horizon, it was a tough place to be after investing 13 years in the sport.

“Honestly, I had my mind made up well before that fight,” Loughran insists. “Leading up to my last couple of fights, my head wasn’t right and I was broke. Beyond broke. I was struggling. The sport was evolving a lot too. The guys at the top now are better than they were before. I just didn’t have that fire in the belly like I used to. To be honest, it had been dipping since the Alvarez fight.”

You won’t find Greg Loughran on any form of social media these days. It’s the one aspect of the game that he doesn’t miss. After devoting his life for over a decade to a pursuit that seldom did much for his bank account, he’s now making up for lost time by focusing on putting down roots with his long-term girlfriend and building for the future through his full-time role with a window company. Perhaps it doesn’t sound as glamorous as ‘professional athlete’, but the job provides a decent, regular income. MMA could never claim to have done the same.

Greg2 Greg Loughran

Still only 32, the body is willing to compete again but the mind moved on a long time ago: “I could still do it, but I was on a long journey and it was a tough one. But then when you’ve had the chance to enjoy life the way you weren’t able to when you were fighting — without all the training and cutting weight and injuries — there’s no way of going back. My race has been run — unless someone wants to offer me £100,000, which isn’t going to happen.”

Loughran is keeping himself in shape with some long-distance running — he’s down to take part in the Dublin Marathon this weekend — and a bit of boxing training too with former WBO welterweight champion Eamonn Loughran [no relation], which he says has left his hands sharper than they ever were while he was an active fighter.

“At the end of the day, I’m proud and happy about what I achieved. Everybody wants to be a world champion but you have to be realistic as well. I’m satisfied that I made the most of what I had. Maybe there would have been more if I had been around at another time, but there’s no point thinking like that because life doesn’t work that way.

I was never in it for recognition and I never craved it when I didn’t get it. I had my time and I enjoyed it.”

The story of MMA in this country is now being read mostly by those who were made aware of it through the emergence of Conor McGregor. To that end, Greg Loughran will be remembered as one of the greatest Irish fighters that Ireland has never heard of. And in many ways, that’s just how he would have wanted it.

You’re a certified mixed martial arts fanatic if you can ace this quiz

Quiz: Can you identify these UFC fighters from their records alone?

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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