Ultimate fighting kicks its way to the top

How did UFC become such a hugely popular sport in just two decades?

Three days after his four-minute win over Diego Brandao in Dublin last week, Conor McGregor's next fight was confirmed for 10 weeks later (Sept 27th) against Dustin Poirier in Las Vegas.

A day later he penned a book deal with Gill and Macmillan.

This massive week in the brief UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) career of McGregor came just 15 months after his 67-second debut KO of Marcus Brimage. It would surely have come sooner had he not sat 10 of those months out with a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament).

McGregor’s numbers – $180,000 (€134,000) in fights and bonuses – tell a story. But some of the most intriguing figures to emerge from last week were 3e’s record viewing figures of 600,000 for a sporting event and the 35 minutes it took to sell 9,500 seats at the O2.


This sort of momentum needs a face and McGregor fits perfectly, but it can’t just be him and the fact more people than society might care to admit love a good scrap.

As Bernard Dunne brought Neilstown with him, so McGregor rallied Crumlin, Patrick Holohan brought Tallaght, and Neil Seery Finglas. Large tracts of the capital converged on the docks and those who didn't make it tuned in.

Dubliner Cathal Pendred and the sport has benefitted from his long-term friendship with former Belvedere College classmate and current Ireland prop Cian Healy, a more orthodox professional athlete whose support lends publicity and, in some cases, credibility.

With McGregor, Pendred and Holohan, Iceland's Gunnar Nelson completes the Straight Blast Gym quartet, protegés of "Godfather" John Kavanagh representing Irish MMA in another assault on the UFC's top order.

They have utilised social media to great effect, especially Twitter, engaging with their fans and opponents, from pre-fight trash talk and post-bout displays of respect and humility, to pictures of pints in the pubs people know.

The sport’s stars are still accessible and their public appreciate it, as they do the UFC’s willingness to deliver the fights that they want.

With centralised contracts and the ability to oversee the career paths of all of its competitors, the UFC can deliver quickly, like it did with news of McGregor's Poirier bout. In its 21-year history it has staged 283 events, a little over 13 a year. President Dana White has fighters and fights on tap with a fraction of the promotional and contractual faffing around that makes boxing so tedious these days.

After each event, he opens the press conference with the gate receipts and the bonus payments; fight, knockout and submission of the night.

What you see is what you get and people like what they see.

Carl O'Malley

Carl O'Malley

The late Carl O'Malley was an Irish Times sports journalist