Cageside view

Questions answered... Doubters silenced... History made... Takeover complete

Paul Dollery signs off from Las Vegas on a memorable weekend for Irish sport.

– Paul Dollery reports from Las Vegas

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts UFC interim featherweight champion Conor McGregor. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

THERE WAS A moment during last night’s UFC 189 card when things appeared to be looking ominous… particularly from an Irish perspective.

Five fights in, the event wasn’t delivering in terms of entertainment in the octagon. The two defeats for the Irish fighters — Neil Seery and Cathal Pendred — made you wonder if this wasn’t meant to be the memorable night that fans had read about in the script.

Enter Matt Brown.

He’ll probably never get his hands on that UFC welterweight belt but when it comes to providing value for money for the viewer, Brown is one of the greats. His submission of Tim Means was thrilling and it breathed life into the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Not that the atmosphere had been subdued up until that point. Far from it. The predominantly Irish 16,019-strong crowd had been in fine voice all evening, whether the chant was ‘Ole Ole’, ‘Stand up for the boys in green’ or ‘Where the fuck is Aldo?’.

However, they were beginning to grow impatient. The chants became more frequent as they sought to pass the time until the arrival of the real star of the show. Trips to the bar became more frequent too. One fan sitting behind the reporters at cageside kept himself occupied by seemingly letting every single UFC fighter within earshot know what was on his mind.

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts Matt Brown celebrates his victory against Tim Means. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“Cody, you couldn’t finish your dinner. Faber, you’re a bitter old midget. Howard, I want my money back. Hey, Swick! Next time you go away, please stay away. I’m falling asleep.”

But Matt Brown got the audience interested in the action again and they stayed captivated until the conclusion of what many — including several veteran journalists who have been covering the organisation for years — would describe as the best pay-per-view event in Ultimate Fighting Championship history.

Next, Thomas Almeida obliterated Brad Pickett with a brutal knee that knocked the Englishman back and caused his head to clatter off the canvas, the sound of which will stay with me for a long, long time.

Gunnar Nelson then got the Irish — sort of — back to winning ways with an extremely impressive first-round stoppage of Brandon Thatch. Jeremy Stephens also used the knee to set up a big win over Dennis Bermudez in a bout that seemed destined for Fight of the Night honours until Rory MacDonald and welterweight champion Robbie Lawler entered the fray for their rematch.

“That was a war” is a hyperbolic and overused statement in mixed martial arts, but for once, it was apt. Lawler and MacDonald were a bloody mess as they chipped away at each other, each waiting for their opponent to finally crumble. As the bout prepared to enter the fifth and final round, more blood was wiped away from MacDonald’s face and its pungent smell lingered.

It was MacDonald who broke first — just as his nose and foot had done so earlier in the bout — and Lawler, who had managed to secure the support of the majority of the Irish fans in attendance, successfully defended his title.

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts Rory MacDonald lands an elbow to the face of Robbie Lawler. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Then we were ready for the main course. As the light emptied from the MGM Grand, the haunting voice of Sinéad O’Connor filled the arena instead. Below the raised platform from which ‘The Foggy Dew’ flowed, Conor McGregor emerged. The star of the show.

The famous arena has played host to many major combat sports events over the years, but never had it experienced an ovation like this. The cacophony partially obscured McGregor’s unique walkout music as he stepped into the octagon looking far fresher and more spritely than the drained and dehydrated athlete who had weighed in for the fight just over 24 hours earlier.

The lights went down again and another platform appeared on the opposite of the arena. McGregor’s opponent, Chad Mendes, was being accompanied by American musician Aaron Lewis’ track ‘Country Boy’ — which was quickly drowned out by a chorus of ‘Ole Ole Ole…’

Conor McGregor has been true to his word as far as predictions are concerned, so his fans have no reason to doubt him by now. However, a nervous tension pervaded the arena as referee Herb Dean issued the fighters with their instructions. After the protracted build-up to UFC 189, the big moment had finally arrived. The toughest test of McGregor’s career. The wrestler question. Plenty to gain, but even more to lose.

Following Friday’s weigh-in, some admitted to being less convinced about a McGregor victory having seen him on the scales. It looked like the weight cut had been more difficult than normal. What impact would that have?

Or perhaps it wasn’t the cut, but the drama of the last few weeks that had taken a toll. McGregor didn’t seem himself at the weigh-in. He looked exhausted. Agitated too, as evidenced by his unusual backstage altercation with Urijah Faber beforehand.

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts Chad Mendes scores a big takedown against Conor McGregor. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Of course, we were all reading between the lines a little too eagerly, but it was by no means a straightforward evening’s work for McGregor. He claimed afterwards that he was never in any real danger, but Mendes pushed him into uncharted territory.

McGregor was dumped on his back and then cut above his left eye by an elbow. When he returned to his feet, we laid eyes on something never seen before: a bloodied Conor McGregor. Twenty bouts into his professional career, the Dubliner’s flesh had been sliced open for the first time.

Fans were taken aback by it. They’d never seen this Conor McGregor. Conor McGregor in trouble. Conor McGregor in a guillotine choke. Conor McGregor losing a fight.

Mendes won the first round on the scorecards. As McGregor walked back to his corner at the end of the round, he gestured defiantly to suggest that everything was under control — in spite of the blood and his opponent’s superiority during the opening five minutes. But he knew he was in a fight, and his taunting of Mendes — “That all you got?” — would need to be toned down in the second round lest it cost him the fight.

When he wasn’t being pinned down by Mendes, it was clear that McGregor was hurting his opponent with punches and kicks. Avoiding takedowns for long enough to unload of flurry of strikes potent enough to put Mendes on the canvas was going to be the key, but the superior wrestling of the American was guiding him to another round in the eyes of the judges until he opted to pass guard in search of a choke.

Mendes had dragged Conor McGregor into deep water but when the Irishman re-emerged, there was a UFC belt around his waist. Mendes’ pursuit of the submission opened the door for McGregor to return to his feet. When Mendes got back up, he was visibly exhausted. The look on his face had changed. He knew what was coming.

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts The straight left that paved the way for Conor McGregor's championship victory. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

As McGregor fired off precise shots that connected more often than not, Mendes staggered, gasped for air and responded with lazy swings of his overhand right that had become slower and more desperate.

For all his extravagant techniques, McGregor’s most dangerous tool continues to be that straight left down the pipe. That’s what eventually sent Mendes crashing. As the Californian covered up, McGregor added some ground-and-pound as the icing on the cake before Herb Dean stepped in to confirm his status as the UFC’s interim featherweight champion with just three seconds remaining in the second round.

He would have visualised the moment and how it would play out, but when it did arrive, McGregor didn’t seem quite sure how to react. He dropped to his knees and the tears came. For those few memorable minutes in the octagon, Conor McGregor the brash entertainer disappeared… to be replaced by an overwhelmed young lad from Crumlin who had just realised his dream.

Despite the pre-fight animosity, he and Mendes embraced in a touching show of sportsmanship. McGregor’s parents and sisters also arrived, along with his SBG team-mates, to hail the new champion. Even during his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, McGregor was still too overcome with emotion to switch the media persona back on.

His rise to the top in the UFC has been rapid but the journey has been long. When I first met McGregor, he was a couple of days removed from his first Cage Warriors win. His purse for the fight could be measured in hundreds, not thousands or millions, and the attire was t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms instead of custom-made suits. That was less than four years ago.

McGregor was 24 when he made his debut in the UFC. He doesn’t turn 27 until Tuesday but the man has already settled the debate about who the biggest star in mixed martial arts is. He has transcended the sport. People in every corner of the world tuned in for their first MMA fight last night because of this cocky kid from Ireland who everyone’s been talking about.

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts Conor McGregor is embraced by his mother, Mags, after becoming the interim UFC featherweight champion. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Even his own doubters are finally starting to get on board. Until now they saw him as an arrogant upstart who hadn’t done enough to justify his level of fame and fortune. But after backing up his bold claims — again, as he has been doing since he first arrived in the UFC — there’s no more scope for denial. Conor McGregor is the real deal.

It has been a surreal few days in Las Vegas. We’ll probably never get an accurate figure for the number of Irish fans who came here this week to push McGregor towards that UFC belt, but it’s been eye-opening — for the locals, in particular. This is Vegas. They expect people to let their hair down while they’re here. But the Irish fans left their mark and took that to an entirely new level.

“I’ve worked here for a very long time and I can tell you I’ve never seen anything like this before,” an usher at the MGM Grand Garden Arena told me as I made my way from the venue last night, with a chorus of ‘You’ll never beat the Irish’ coming from the bar down the hall.

“I’ve never heard this place so loud. The Irish like to sing… a lot. I felt like I was in Dublin tonight. What’s with that? There are thousands here from your country. Why do they love this kid so much?”

Conor McGregor has responded emphatically to every question that’s been asked of him, but perhaps that’s one even he might struggle to answer. Of course, they support him because he’s representing Ireland successfully on the world stage, but there’s got to be more to it than that.

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts Ireland's first ever UFC champion. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Is it because he bucks the trend of the Irish sportsperson as the underdog, succeeding against the odds? Or because they’re amused by his shtick? Whatever the reason, McGregor has earned their adoration and brought Ireland from minnows to monarchs in the world of mixed martial arts. He wasn’t lying when he said it was the McGregor era.

Early indications are that 2 January will be the date for McGregor’s featherweight title unification bout against Jose Aldo at the MGM Grand. The wait will be long but Las Vegas won’t complain.

Six months should be just enough time to recover from this weekend.

‘It overwhelmed me and I came to tears’ – Watch Conor McGregor’s post-fight press conference

In pics: Conor McGregor becomes a UFC champion

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