2016 – A landmark year for Irish Mixed Martial Arts
It wasn’t always like this.
Kids weren’t entering school gates enthusiastically discussing how an Irish UFC champion performed at the weekend. And nobody was visiting their local bookshop wishing to read the insights of an MMA coach.
Our boxers were the gladiators of the Emerald Isle – from Steve Collins twice conquering the profound villain Chris Eubank to Bernard Dunne establishing Dublin as a home for the sweet science.
2005 was especially bleak.
MMA promotion Rings held a rare show at the Point Depot which featured venerable and still active UFC fighter Gegard Mousasi.
Not only were the bouts lacklustre but the main event was scrapped after a fighter had second thoughts about making that walk.
As John Kavanagh recalls in Win or Learn, beer bottles were flung by angry punters in what was a “shambolic night for Irish MMA”.
Contrast that to 2016 and consider the extent of the sport’s popularity.
The potential of MMA in Ireland was teased with in 2009 when the UFC staged their first show here with Tom Egan becoming our first UFC representative.
Despite defeat for Egan, a visual path was created for Irish combatants who were ready to pounce.
UFC Fight Night 46 at the O2 in 2014 was the occasion Ireland made its arrival onto the world stage.
Paddy Holohan, Cathal Pendred and Conor McGregor all secured victories in front of a deafening and vociferous Dublin cauldron.
Some ignorantly label it as the start of an unprecedented journey. But that night was the culmination of years of dedication which helped inspire the success of 2016.
March – a second round rear naked choke inspiring a stunned silence in living rooms across Ireland.
August –An instant classic which displayed technical brilliance and breathtaking courage. Redemption. Some even whispered of it being our Ali/Frazier.
November – The crowning of a two-weight UFC champion. That powerful image of the fighter sitting atop the cage with two belts held high.
Moments indelible in Irish sporting history.
A plethora of words have been and will continue to be documented based on the special achievements of Conor McGregor this year.
Just as boxing scribes reached old age and boasted of being around for the glory days of Joe Louis, followed by writers who covered Muhammad Ali – people in Ireland, journalists and fans, will proudly tell new generations about the time Conor McGregor transcended the sport of MMA.
We are living through a period of greatness.
In December, more history was recorded, as James Gallagher, a 20-year-old fighter, brought Bellator MMA over to Dublin in a co-promotion with BAMMA.
The SBG featherweight contender went 2-0 with the promotion.
Having Bellator President Scott Coker travel over for a press conference in November as well as for the fights in December indicated that one of the biggest influencers in world MMA was targeting the Irish market for talent.
Sinead Kavanagh, who went 4-0, certainly gave the American a convincing case.
Cage Legacy Fighting Championship, a new MMA promotion for professionals and amateurs, held its opening event in Drogheda in October.
It signalled the appeal of the sport as it attracted fans and big name fighters to gather outside of the capital in what was a quality production.
Irish MMA in 2016 will also be remembered for tragedy.
Portuguese combatant Joao Carvalho died in April following a TKO defeat to Charlie Ward in the National Boxing Stadium.
It was a devastating moment in the sport that shouldn’t be ignored in telling the narrative of Irish MMA.
Thankfully, progress has been made.
Safe MMA Ireland and the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA) introduced mandatory scans for professional fighters, making Ireland one of the safest countries to compete in MMA.
They are now recommending that amateur Irish fighters undergo a one-off brain scan, an idea that will be tested at Cage Legacy on February 11th 2017.
Needed improvements in grassroots MMA has led to amateurs being afforded more experiences before joining the professional ranks. Team Ireland medalled at both the European and World amateur championships this year, affording them opportunities of travelling the world and developing their skills.
In June SBG Tallaght was opened.
Children with their mothers and fathers gathered for the open day where they examined the modern facilities, were shown the benefits of training in martial arts and even bumped into a few famous fighters.
To see such exhilarated faces both young and old for the opening of a mixed martial arts gym was inspiring.
Kids growing up today will benefit from world-class facilities and will be guided by some of the greatest minds in mixed martial arts, all available in their home city.
Expectations are higher than ever for 2017 -the sport has proven that anything is possible if you work hard enough.
Before, it was a minority who consumed MMA with laptop screens shining brightly in the early hours of Sunday mornings.
Now entire families are exposed to MMA, Conor McGregor t-shirts are displayed for sale on the Ha’penny Bridge and Henry Street and more news organisations are covering it than ever before.
If 2014 was the year Ireland introduced itself to the MMA world, 2016 was the year they asserted their authority, produced legacy-defining moments and laid more foundations for Ireland to continue their prosperity for decades to come.
The takeover continues.