IT CAN BE difficult to stop yourself from being a little nostalgic at a time like this. The journey began in Laser video shop on George’s Street on a Friday afternoon in 1996. I picked up a copy of UFC 1, saw mixed martial arts for the first time when I went home that evening, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
During those early years, it didn’t matter how much I felt I could, or could not, achieve. I knew that being involved in this sport was what I wanted to do with my life. The fact that things have turned out quite well is just an added bonus.
Over the next 48 hours, three of my fighters from Straight Blast Gym will compete for the Ultimate Fighting Championship on the biggest weekend in the organisation’s history. The man who’s at the top of the bill — which features a plethora of the very best fighters in the world — was a boy who had never set foot in a cage nine years ago when he first walked into my gym.
Conor McGregor, Gunnar Nelson, Artem Lobov and myself, we all started at the bottom. Novices. The men who’ll compete in sold-out Las Vegas arenas this weekend are the same men who fought in small GAA halls on many occasions along the way.
For the first 20 years of its existence, Irish MMA fans watched the UFC from a distance. They loved the fights but, with the exception of UFC 93 in Dublin, their own country played no part. That stage was for the Americans, the Brazilians, the Canadians and some of their European neighbours.
Nevertheless, this is the most important week the UFC has ever had and — 8,000 kilometres away from home — Ireland is at the very heart of it. Thousands of supporters have parted with thousands of euro to be here and show their support. Having waited so long to have their own horse in the race, this week is their reward.
But let’s not go too far down memory lane. There’s important business on the agenda to address first. We’re focused entirely on the task at hand and the importance of the completing it successfully.
We start tonight with Artem making his UFC debut in the finale of The Ultimate Fighter. It’s an interesting situation because his opponent, Ryan Hall, was training with us recently in Dublin before we even knew that he’d end up stepping in as a late replacement for Artem’s original opponent, Saul Rogers.
Either way, Artem was going to be facing someone he was very familiar with. Saul is a member of the SBG team in Manchester and they also fought each other in 2011. Back then, Saul was a member of another team and he won a very close fight by a split decision. Artem was initially disappointed because he chased that rematch for a long time and, with them both now being SBG fighters, that was absolutely the last opportunity for it ever to happen.
As for Ryan, he was initially due to fight a different opponent on tonight’s card before the reshuffle happened, so I was actually going to be in his corner. Instead, I’ll now obviously be on the opposite side. As soon as the fight is over, however, we’ll renew our good relationship and discuss the possibility of him cementing his connection with SBG.
It’s going to be a very satisfying moment to walk out with Artem for the first time in the UFC. People may look at the numbers on his record and say he shouldn’t be there, but anyone who has followed the regional circuit closely will be wise enough to read between the lines and see that there’s nobody more deserving of the opportunity.
While doing his utmost to grab the UFC’s attention, he constantly fought the best guys around instead of following the lead of other fighters by padding his record. Sure, he had a stroke of good luck by getting a second chance on The Ultimate Fighter, but for the first time in a five-year professional career, he finally got a break. And with three knockout wins in the meantime, he certainly made the most of it.
Tomorrow night, Gunnar Nelson goes into a fight I’ve been looking forward to for a long time — against Demian Maia on the main card at UFC 194. Gunni hit a stumbling block last year when he lost to Rick Story but he’s been reinvigorated this year and has really gotten into his stride. Seeing Conor’s success has been a major incentive for him.
Don’t be fooled by his laid-back demeanour either, because he is incredibly competitive and is just as keen as Conor to show that he’s the best. Gunni wants to get that welterweight belt and he wants to keep it. Tomorrow night he has a really good opportunity to move closer to that by showing that he represents the new wave of MMA grappling, as opposed to Brazilian jiu-jitsu in a gi transferred to MMA.
If he can get that victory, a spot on the UFC London card in February would be a nice next step for Gunni. Beyond that, my dream card for UFC 200 next July would have Conor McGregor in a lightweight title bout and Gunnar Nelson fighting for the welterweight strap.
For now, however, we’ll keep our attention fixed on this weekend, which culminates with Conor’s meeting with Jose Aldo for top spot in the featherweight division. In my last column I mentioned how I think the fight will unfold and that hasn’t changed.
My belief is that Aldo has never really fought someone who has pressured him the way Conor will. The guys he has faced have mainly been small wrestlers who are learning to strike: Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, Frankie Edgar… the list goes on. For a blueprint on how to beat a very good wrestler by staying on your feet, Aldo is your guy to study. He has done that brilliantly for 10 years.
But he hasn’t fought a top striker. Mark Hominick almost stopped him in the final round but now he’s taking on someone who’s much bigger than Hominick and with twice the power. Maybe I’m deluded, we’ll see, but I genuinely believe this will be a very one-sided fight.
After the first exchange, for the first time in his career, you’ll see Jose Aldo putting weight on his heels and walking backwards. He has never felt the power he’ll feel tomorrow night. Mendes managed to put Aldo on his ass. Conor will do the same, but the difference this time will be that he won’t get back up.
As for what’s next, even though this cut to 145lbs has been very smooth, my preference would be for Conor to make that move up to lightweight right away. The ideal scenario, from my perspective, would be for that to happen next summer at UFC 200, as I alluded to earlier. That would give Conor the scope for some rest and time off, but there’s no way he will sit on the sidelines for six or seven months.
To that end, perhaps a fight at 155lbs in March or April would be nice. Unless Frankie Edgar does something extraordinary tonight against Chad Mendes — and I think that fight will be very close — then I’m not sure there’ll be any reason to stick around at featherweight.
Nevertheless, we’re one win away from an undisputed UFC world championship. That’s the biggest prize in the sport. The ultimate goal. Yet somehow, the journey still feels like it’s only just beginning.