The Hope of a Nation

Outside the Octagon is a weekly column from editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia.

UFC featherweight Conor McGregor
Looking back now, Thomas Egan never had a chance. At UFC 93 in January of 2009, the 20-year-old was the local representative on the promotion’s first visit to his Dublin hometown, and you can imagine what type of pressure that can put on the shoulders of a young man less than 18 months into his pro career.

Then the youngest fighter on the roster, Egan had four pro fights and a lot of local hype surrounding him as he prepared to meet fellow Octagon newcomer John Hathaway. England’s “Hitman” was young and new to the organization as well. But he was also the veteran of ten pro fights, several being held in the Cage Rage promotion that was perhaps the biggest in the UK at the time. So he had gotten a taste of the bright lights, and his personality was such that he didn’t really get rattled by much outside of competition.

This was evident at the pre-fight press conference, where he smiled broadly while sharing the dais with some of the greats of the game, including Hall of Famer Mark Coleman and headliners Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson. Of course, the bulk of the questions went to Egan, but the Irishman handled things like an old pro himself.

It was on fight night that things went south for the youngster from Dublin, who had only started training three years prior. In less than a round, Hathaway stopped him, and just like that, Egan’s UFC career was over.

Egan joined Northern Ireland’s Colin Robinson and Stevie Lynch as local fighters who showed up to the big show and gave it their all, but just couldn’t get the wins that would both push their careers forward and also give a boost to the local MMA scene. It was almost a confusing situation, because boxing had always been a strong suit of the Irish sporting culture. Countless champions emerged from the Emerald Isle over the years, but just like England didn’t really emerge on MMA’s world stage until Michael Bisping broke down the door, Ireland needed that spark. Little did people know that it would come from one of Tom Egan’s training partners named Conor McGregor.

In January of 2009, McGregor was 3-1 as a pro, fighting for a team coached by John Kavanagh that he remembers as being “three people deep at the time.” He wasn’t on the UFC radar, he wasn’t even on the verge of big things in Europe, but in his head, he was already fighting on the biggest stages in the sport.

“I always felt like I was this guy, I always felt like there was big hype around every fight I was fighting, even though I was fighting in front of 20 people in a little club hall somewhere,” McGregor told me last year. “I always felt like it was a world title fight.”

Eventually, McGregor’s talent began to reach the size of his dreams, and as the wins piled up, the world began to pay attention. In 2013, he got the call to compete in the UFC, and two wins over Marcus Brimage and Max Holloway later, he’s headlining in Dublin against Diego Brandao on July 19. It’s been a whirlwind and somewhat unbelievable journey thus far to everyone but the man who calls himself “Notorious.”

“Now that these things are actually happening, it just feels like normal to me,” he said. “I know once that door shuts, that’s when I perform, that’s when I arrive. I’m confident in my ability and I let my fighting do the talking.”

Some would say the 25-year-old has been talking more than fighting, as he’s called out practically every big name in his division. But that’s part of his charm, and as UFC vet Brandon Vera once said, when you make bold statements and predictions, you are then held responsible for them. McGregor is fine with that, and he’s backed down from nothing.

In this day and age, this is what it takes for the world to sit up and take notice, and Ireland has been taking notice of McGregor, his teammate Cathal Pendred, and the rest of the Straight Blast Gym squad, which includes UFC newcomer Patrick Holohan and The Ultimate Fighter 20’s Aisling Daly. But now that they’ve got the attention of their nation, they need to perform.

McGregor is happy to lead that charge.

“I feel the time is right now,” he said. “The Irish public has seen what a true martial artist really is and it’s captured the heart of a nation. Everyone is behind me and I carry a nation with me in there every time. This is only the beginning and I am only the first of many. There will be many to come after me. Even looking at the guys in the gym, they’ve all upped their game, and everyone seems more focused and dedicated. The UFC dream is real and it’s within reach. Even the 15 and 16 year olds that are training, there’s a path for them, a route that we’ve created for them to take. So the sky’s the limit for martial arts in Ireland.”

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