Irish fans showing their support for Conor McGregor at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Paul Dollery/The42
UFC 189

A letter from Las Vegas: 'Isn't Ireland a small country? How can there be so many of you?'

Paul Dollery sets the scene ahead of UFC 189.

– Paul Dollery reports from Las Vegas

“THIS IS VEGAS, man. We’re used to people coming here and having a good time. But not this many people. This is crazy.”

It’s Thursday night at Pub 1842 at the MGM Grand Hotel and the Irish invasion of Las Vegas has well and truly begun. As the chap behind the bar said, they’ve seen it all before in Vegas when it comes to revellers. At least they thought they had until this week.

Conor McGregor said recently that 2,500 fans would travel from Ireland for tonight’s interim featherweight title bout against Chad Mendes at UFC 189. For once, Irish MMA’s biggest star was off the mark with a prediction. It was a conservative estimate.

The Irish have come from all over the world for this one — other parts of the US, Canada, South America and a seemingly staggering number from Australia. Some, admittedly, have only made the trip for the craic and the occasion, but most are here for the man who has taken the world of mixed martial arts by storm.

He faces the biggest test of his career tonight and it’s one he realistically may fail to pass, but Conor McGregor’s status as MMA’s biggest star has been confirmed over these past few days.

The Dubliner can’t legitimately claim to be the best in the business just yet. However, he’s the one fighter the business can’t do without. No other athlete on the UFC roster could engineer the type of scenes witnessed at yesterday’s weigh-ins.

That the UFC opted to open up the entire MGM Grand Garden Arena for fans to see the fighters step on the scales was a statement in itself. They managed to get 10,000 of them inside the building, most of whom were Irish. There was a party atmosphere… an electricity in the air. Outside, many more had left it too late.

Republicans National Convention AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Each appearance by McGregor on the big screen was greeted as if it were a last-minute winning goal to send Ireland to the World Cup. Experienced US journalists surveyed the scene, wide-eyed and gobsmacked by the noise and colour created by those clad in GAA shirts and tricolours.

When UFC veterans like Matt Brown emerged to weigh in, they were visibly taken aback. It made no sense to them. UFC weigh-ins aren’t usually such a spectacle. Brown has been fighting for the organisation for seven years; this is his 20th fight. But he won’t forget the day he was part of the biggest weigh-ins in UFC history.

The reception for McGregor was as you’d expect. He was briefly energised by it too, because it seemed clear that the 26-year-old was severely drained from the weight cut. Mendes, the American fighting in America, was jeered all the way to the scales.

As the atmosphere built prior to the weigh-ins, one wondered how Mendes would react. Did he know what to expect? But if the Californian was spooked, he certainly disguised it well. McGregor has broken opponents mentally in the past. Mendes appears to have remained oblivious to that so far.

Cathal Pendred, Neil Seery and adopted Irishman Gunnar Nelson also felt the love from the crowd. Three years ago there were just a few hundred people turning up to watch these guys fight at home. Yesterday there were 10,000 people in Las Vegas watching them stand on a scales.

Boxing - Views of Las Vegas PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The staff at the MGM Grand have been baffled by the Irish invasion this week. By now you’re surprised if you overhear a conversation around the hotel and it’s not an Irish accent. As I sat down at 7am yesterday morning in the Avenue Cafe, my breakfast was soundtracked by chants of ‘There’s only one Conor McGregor’ coming from one of the crowded bars on the other side of the casino floor.

“Isn’t Ireland a small country? How can there be so many of you?” asked the aforementioned barman last night. The MGM Grand hasn’t seen an invasion like this from east of the Atlantic since Ricky Hatton fought Floyd Mayweather in 2007.

One man can still spoil the party, however, and he’s very capable of doing so too. Conor McGregor has more to lose than gain against Chad Mendes tonight. Victory puts him back in the same position he found himself before news of Jose Aldo’s rib injury emerged just a matter of weeks ago. Defeat will see him overtaken in the race for the title.

Nevertheless, the tale of McGregor’s rise to super stardom is one of the most remarkable in the history of this young sport. Thousands of people have spent thousands of euros and dollars to be here this week.

And all because of a young man from Dublin.

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