The biggest talking point coming out of the UFC’s most recent trip abroad was definitely the crowd which filled the O2 Arena in Dublin, Ireland from the very first fight until Conor McGregor finished off Diego Brandao and delivered as good a performance on the mic as he did in the cage. It was the first time the organization visited Ireland in five and a half years. For multiple reasons, the next event won’t take nearly as long. The biggest reason that a return is imminent — and the reason the UFC took so long to return — is that the quality of fighters the country is producing has increased dramatically. Back at UFC 93, the only Irish fighter on the card was Tom Egan. Egan became the only fighter that John Hathaway has finished in his UFC career. On this card there were four Irish fighters who are far more skilled, and all emerged victorious on the night. The other reason is that the Irish fanbase is rabid and very passionate about combat sports. Now that quality MMA fighters are developing in the country, they have individuals to put their considerable enthusiasm behind. The combination of those factors resulted in one of the best UFC crowds in history, rivalling Rio de Janeiro at UFC 134 and Montreal for UFC 83. The fights themselves obviously helped as well. If the UFC took a card to Dublin and all of the Irish fighters booked ended up losing, or all of the bouts were boring, the crowd simply doesn’t have anything to work with. Instead, the Irish fighters were booked intelligently and all of the fights except one turned out to be entertaining. Speaking of entertaining, Conor McGregor (15-2) is built to do just that. Between his pre-fight talk and his style in the cage, the man is fun to watch, and Diego Brandao (18-10) was the perfect test. Brandao offered resistance for the first half of the opening round. The Brazilian came forward to land a few good shots on McGregor and also attempted a handful of leglocks. None of that offense seemed to faze the hometown hero, who began to pour on offense as soon as he felt Brandao tiring, and the finish came very quickly. McGregor proceeded to call out all of the contenders in the featherweight division, asking them to come to Ireland to fight him. That conflicts slightly with Dana White’s plans, as he stated in the post-fight press conference that McGregor’s next fight won’t be in Ireland.
As for his next opponent, there are no shortage of fighters lining up for a crack at the brash featherweight. The prevailing sentiment seems to be for a bout with Dustin Poirier. This would be a smart booking as a McGregor win instantly boosts him into contention at 145, while a loss to a top fighter like Poirier would not hurt his stock too much. Stylistically it would be a tremendous fight as well. Poirier’s defensive liabilities also make him one of the few top-ranked fighters McGregor could likely defeat at this point. A fighter who has been training closely with McGregor and may have an even higher ceiling as a fighter — if not a draw and personality — is Gunnar Nelson (13-0-1). The 25-year-old became only the second fighter (alongside Tim Kennedy) to finish Zak Cummings (17-4). Nelson always looks uninterested in everything, but that carried over into the cage for the first seven minutes or so of his performance. Once he woke up however it was not long before he got Cummings to the ground, executed a beautiful back-take, and then found the rear-naked choke. Nelson’s ground game is spectacular, and his striking is effective — even if it’s unorthodox. The calculated approach he takes to developing his skills has certainly paid off, and it’s time for the UFC’s sole Icelandic fighter to take a step up. Two veteran grapplers are fighting in a month’s time and the winner between Demian Maia and Mike Pyle would be an excellent test of Nelson’s grappling and provide him an excellent name on his resume.
The bout with the most immediate title implications was in the flyweight division, as Ian McCall (13-4-1) picked up his second straight UFC win over Brad Pickett (24-9). McCall was simply the superior fighter. He landed more on the feet, scored more takedowns, and outgrappled his English foe. It wasn’t the most exciting fight out of either man, but it was a solid high-level scrap. Pickett is still going to win fights at 125lbs, but will always struggle with the speed and technical ability of the top fighters in the division, while McCall looks to make a title run in an increasingly crowded flyweight division. (Yes, I realize the irony in that statement since Chris Cariaso was just given a title shot.) Should Zach Makovsky get past Jussier Formiga next month, a bout with McCall would certainly earn the winner a title shot, and it could result in some of the best scrambling in MMA. Northern Ireland’s Norman Parke (20-2-1) opened proceedings on the main card by bullying Naoyuki Kotani (33-11-7) for the 8:41 duration of their bout. Parke looked at least one weight class bigger than the Japanese fighter and used his obvious physical advantages to make the fight his. Kotani presents a tricky submission game, but once Parke became comfortable with the fact that he could shut that aspect of Kotani’s game down, he went to work with solid strikes on the ground. Parke called out Diego Sanchez in his post-fight interview, but I see no real benefit to making that bout. Instead, I’d like to see someone who can legitimately challenge Parke’s grappling, and I think either Michel Prazeres or Vinc Pichel could do just that. The undercard featured some phenomenal performances, including Ilir Latifi (9-3, 1 NC) showing off some powerful striking to go alongside his strong grappling game. Cathal Pendred (14-2-1) proved to be incredibly tough as he survived a brutal beating in round one from Mike King (5-1) before coming back in the second round to get a rear-naked choke victory which sent the crowd into a frenzy. Pendred’s teammate Patrick Holohan (10-0-1) started the night off in fantastic fashion for the locals, as he provided the biggest upset on the card, dispatching Josh Sampo (11-4) with a first round rear-naked choke. The UFC has been on quite a roll of late in terms of putting on exciting fights. Their next offering shouldn’t break that streak as the UFC on Fox 12 headliner between Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown seems as close to guaranteed entertainment as MMA can get. That card goes down next Saturday from San Jose, and MMAOddsBreaker.com will have plenty of previews, picks and analysis for you. Only the lines for the four main card bouts are out right now, so keep an eye out early in the week for the preliminary lines to be released as well.