There were 9,500 tickets on offer to the UFC’s event in Dublin on July 19, 2014, and they all went fast. You see, there was this guy the locals were pretty excited about. A featherweight by the name of Conor McGregor. One of their own. They’d waited years to see him in the UFC, and now here he was, his third fight in, returning home as a first-time headliner to a packed house at The 02.
In some ways it feels like more than three years have passed since then. Maybe that’s because so much has changed.
For one, there’s McGregor himself. Before he was announced as the headliner of UFC Fight Night 46, he was telling anyone who would listen that he was guaranteed sellout material in his part of the world. Put him on a card shadowboxing and you’d fill The O2, he said.
As with much of his patter, at the time it seemed like he was just trying to be funny. Then a few years later he sold pay-per-views of his interviews and filled stadiums with his press conferences, and suddenly it seemed less jokey and more prescient.
That July night was his first trip past the prelims for the UFC. He made his debut on a Facebook stream the previous spring, polishing off Marcus Brimage in 67 seconds. Then that August he moved on up to the cable TV prelims of the very first UFC event to be broadcast on FOX Sports 1, which was a recently rebranded channel so new that many cable subscribers didn’t know if they’d be able to even see the fights in the weeks leading up to the event.
McGregor won a unanimous decision over future UFC featherweight champ Max Holloway that night, though at the time it was hard to see what great things either of them had waiting for them down the line. Just one of 13 fights on the night, and it came with nowhere near the hype bestowed upon the headliner featuring Chael Sonnen against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
McGregor would undergo knee surgery after that bout and stayed out of action the rest of the year. By the time he returned, things were slightly different in the UFC.
The company had launched a new over-the-top streaming service called UFC Fight Pass, and in early 2014 it began using that service to broadcast entire events at odd hours from distant shores. Singapore. Berlin. Macau. Auckland. This represented a new tier of UFC programming – one firmly at the bottom.
A little more than six months into its existence, it felt reasonable for McGregor to headline a UFC Fight Pass card, which hardly felt like real events anyway. They loved him over in Ireland, or so we heard. He was gaining some attention in the U.S., too, but along with it came skepticism. Put him up against someone who can grapple, people said, then we’ll find out what he’s made of.
That wish seemed to be on the verge of coming true when the UFC matched him up against American Top Team fighter Cole Miller, who raised eyebrows and confusion when he blasted McGregor in a post-fight interview, calling him “Colin McGoober.”
The pairing seemed to have the mix of animosity and clashing styles that would check all the UFC’s usual boxes. But then Miller withdrew with an injury, and in stepped Diego Brando, a Brazilian buzzsaw with a penchant for starting fast and fading the same way.
The buildup was classic McGregor. It got intense, and at times it got personal. McGregor insisted that the UFC had decided to cut Brandao, but had kept him around just in case it needed him, as was the case once Miller dropped out. At the weigh-ins McGregor threw his hat at Brandao, and the two had to be restrained by UFC President Dana White (check it out in the video above).
For McGregor, it was all preamble leading to the inevitable.
“I haven’t been impressed by any of these guys in a long, long time,” McGregor said before the bout. “Sit them right there and let them see the new king. Let them bow before the new king. I have a clear vision of that gold belt being strapped around my waist by the end of the year. I’ve predicted the future before, so I’m not going to doubt myself this time, either.”
By the time fight night rolled around, The O2 buzzed with an energy that made the crowd feel twice its actual size for those watching on the UFC Fight Pass stream. You could watch McGregor’s entrance and see the starry backdrop of cellphone cameras lit up for the big moment. The man of the hour strolled calmly to the cage wearing a Dethrone T-shirt with a version of the Fighting Irish logo reformed in his own image. The pop from the crowd came through even on laptop speakers, even in broad daylight back here in the U.S.
It didn’t take McGregor long to fulfill his own prophecy. He basted Brandao with left hand counters. He reversed his takedown attempt and softened him up from the top. He worked the body until Brandao’s facial expression went from fierce to fatigued. When he bounced a straight left off the side of Brandao’s skull, the Brazilian sunk to the mat like an exhausted man collapsing into bed.
A few more punches and the matter was settled. A solid wall of cheers came up from the crowd, a sea of open mouths and raised hands clutching plastic cups of beer.
Being interviewed by UFC commentator Dan Hardy in the cage afterward, McGregor briefly let himself get sucked into discussing the Xs and Os of his victory before remembering who he was.
“You would have to be something special to come over here in my hometown and take this away from me,” McGregor said, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. “There’s not a man alive that can come on this isle and beat me.”
According to the UFC, the event went down as the most successful in the short history of UFC Fight Pass, as well as being one of the year’s most successful international events at the gate. In Ireland, it broke records as the highest-rated sports event for the UFC’s local TV broadcast partner, 3e.
Once all the numbers were in, they predicted fame for the 25-year-old McGregor. For himself, he predicted much more.
“What’s next for me is I’m going to go backstage with Mr. Lorenzo Fertitta, toast some fine-ass whiskey, and talk about football stadiums next,” McGregor said. “Football stadiums and world titles – that’s what I want.”
As they closed their laptops that Saturday afternoon, there had to be some fight fans wondering for the first time if maybe this guy could actually make those wishes come true.