An Irishman will debut in the UFC tonight for the first time since 2016

Wicklow native Richie Smullen will aim to capitalise on the opportunity at the Pearl Theatre in Las Vegas.

The Ultimate Fighter: Undefeated Cast & Coaches Media Day Richie Smullen fights on tonight's UFC card in Las Vegas. Source: Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

RICHIE SMULLEN HAS vowed to make the most of an opportunity which looked like it may have slipped from his grasp just a few months ago.

On tonight’s TUF 27 Finale card at the Pearl Theatre in Las Vegas, Smullen will become the first Irish fighter since Straight Blast Gym team-mate Charlie Ward in November 2016 to make a debut for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Smullen, a 26-year-old native of Arklow, will take on 24-year-old American opponent Luis Pena in a lightweight bout on the bill, which is to be headlined by the clash of middleweights Brad Tavares and Israel Adesanya.

Competing for the largest organisation in mixed martial arts will mark the realisation of a dream for Smullen, a skilful grappler who has long been regarded as a fighter with a promising future by his peers at the SBG camp on Dublin’s Naas Road.

Speaking to The42 last year, SBG head coach John Kavanagh said: “Richie is one of my top guys and that opinion is shared by his team-mates in the gym. His name is probably the one that’s almost always mentioned first when you ask around about who to look out for.”

After accumulating a professional record of 3-0-1 since graduating from the amateur ranks in July 2016, Smullen opted to pursue a UFC contract by auditioning to appear on the most recent series of its reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter, which premiered in April.

With UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier — who headline tomorrow night’s UFC 226 card — acting as opposing coaches, Smullen advanced through the tryouts before being selected as Cormier’s third pick.

However, shortly before his opening bout — against Allan Zinuga — Smullen was removed from the competition after being declared medically unfit to compete. Having initially experienced severe cramping in his legs, Smullen was taken to hospital and diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis — a breakdown of muscle fibers which can be a consequence of over-training.

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Although he was subsequently no longer in contention to win the series of The Ultimate Fighter, Smullen has been handed a second bite at the cherry. Last month it was announced that both he and Luis Pena, tonight’s opponent, will each have a chance to prove themselves on the UFC stage after their respective TUF experiences hadn’t gone according to plan.

Pena, who boasts a professional record of 4-0, was also ruled out of the competition after sustaining a fractured foot in his unanimous-decision victory over Jose Martinez Jr.

INPHO:Gary Carr Richie Smullen in the aftermath of his victory over Andrew Murphy in September 2016. Source: INPHO/Gary Carr

“This is a fight in the UFC so it’s a huge opportunity for me. I’m going to grab it with both hands,” Smullen told The Mac Life this week.

“I’ve got a really good opponent so I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never looked for an easy opponent or never fought an easy opponent. I’m here to test myself against the best in the world.”

Sixteen months have passed since a fighter from Ireland tasted victory in the UFC; that being Joseph Duffy’s triumph against Reza Madadi. A win for Richie Smullen on the sport’s biggest stage would be a much-needed shot in the arm for Irish MMA.

Smullen will feature on the preliminary portion of tonight’s card, which will be broadcast live on BT Sport 2 from 1am. Canadian fighter Brad Katona, who now also trains at SBG in Dublin, will feature on the main card against Jay Cucciniello after 3am.

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