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MMA vs GAA: The passion of Irish fans

Ireland’s love affair with the GAA (Hurling and Gaelic football for non-Irish readers) has been a staple in Irish hearts and minds for hundreds of years. That love is embedded in every small town and village in Ireland, with supporters young and old packing the ham sandwiches to head to support the lads and ladies of Ireland chase a ball around a field on a cold and wet Sunday morning.
The All Ireland championships will pack out the stadiums with thousands upon thousands of die hard and “band wagon” supporters, draped in their county’s colors, to scream themselves hoarse at the team. The passion from these supporters, whether they are long term GAA players and fans, or the people there that can’t name a player on either team or kick a 45′ is the same. A passion unrivaled in any other sports fans in the world for any other sport. The heads in hands for those missed shots, to the hands in the air and empty lungs for the shots over the bar, the atmosphere and emotion for every fan is overwhelming. The questions is; can that passion be equaled when supporting other sports. For Irish people, the answer is yes.
Irish people have always had a powerful relationship with sport and are quick to worship their sporting heroes, regardless of their position in their chosen sport. Take for example Cork man Rob Heffernan, winning gold in the walking event at the world athletic championships. The country burst with pride and it became a talking point on the high stools for a few bright summer nights. That national pride that has long been a trait of the Irish people overshadowed the sport and worshiped the man. This modest man from the rebel county, whom had come close to medals in 4 Olympics but never stepped on the podium, walked his way into the hearts and minds of the Irish public. Katie Taylor lifted the nation when she clinched the gold medal from the Russian in a tight final at the Olympic Games. It is no exaggeration to say the country came to a standstill to watch the Bray girl trade leather, staying cool as a breeze with the weight of the pressure, take the coveted gold medal. This quiet girl fighting in what many still believe to be a man’s world, overshadowed the lads and hushed the critics that said ladies shouldn't fight.
It is safe to say the Irish love a fight, we have a rich history in boxing with two Olympic gold medalists and the likes of Bernard Dunne and Steve Collins winning world titles in the professional ranks, and of course the boxers have been the highlight and held the hopes of Ireland at the Olympics for the last few games. The question is; can that love to transfer to MMA? One man gave us the answer. Conor McGregor.
This flash, confident young man from Dublin captured the nation with his flawless, confident appearance on “The Late Late Show” with SBG stable mate Cathal Pendred. The lads were well spoken and represented the MMA world in a way that marketing teams could only dream of doing. Conor didn't hesitate to jump on Tubridy and correct him on the term cage fighter, as it’s a stigma that will only hold the sport back from that elusive full mainstream acceptance. The interview showed the nation that fighters weren't all (with some exception’s) knuckle dragging, grunting cave men but instead some of the best educated athletes in sport whom just have a passion for one of the toughest tests of self in sport.
For McGregor’s first fight against Marcus Brimmage the MMA community was behind him, for the Holloway fight the nation was behind him. The late late appearance, word of mouth, Paddy Power, RTE news coverage and a twitter war with Olympic boxing medalist Kenny Egan had propelled him on the cuff of main stream in Ireland. He’s now on the way to being a bonafide star. He has a long way to go but we can now make the comparison between his fights in the UFC and the die -hard and bandwagon fans in GAA. On the day of the Holloway fight, my Facebook feed was flooded with his image and messages of support for the out spoken two division cage warriors champ, not just from the usual MMA fans, but from girls and lads I knew had no previous interest in MMA, cheering on the man of the hour in his sport.
The Holloway performance won him more acclaim and even more fans, pubs across the country showed his fight to a passionate crowd of supporters who after pledged to start “training UFC” on Monday morning. Phrases like that show us that the sport and UFC brand have a long way to go in Ireland, but with stars like McGregor and the possibility of Cathal Pendred and Chris Fields competing in the next series of TUF the promotional possibilities in for the sport in Ireland are bright. The fight itself was a master class, quietening many critics that questioned if McGregor had a ground game or a chin. After dominating the fight standing, taking some hard left hooks from the very game Holloway, McGregor took the fight to the mat with ease, passing guard and transitioning to the mount with ease on way to a one sided unanimous decision victory.
Can the sport get as big as Football or Hurling in Ireland? No. But can Ireland love and support its MMA stars with the same passion, all be it on a smaller scale? Absolutely! There is now MMA gyms and traditional martial arts schools that have adapted to teaching MMA techniques in almost every county in Ireland. Mark Leonard’s no head shots amateur MMA league has shown how big it has become, with lads and ladies of all ages coming to try out the sport in a safe environment with minimum risk. It is often difficult to differentiate the amateur fights from the pro fights in promotions such as “Battlezone FC” and “Cage Contenders” due to the skill levels and heart shown.
Many GAA and rugby coaches are turning to MMA coaches to get their lads ready for season, this has led to many GAA lads staring MMA training instead. This will help the sport to grow further, those teams and supporters, friends and family will go to the shows to support their fighter and in turn create fans of the sport. It’s one thing watching it on TV, but being in the arena to soak up the atmosphere and the euphoria that comes with watching a knockdown, drag down fight between two warriors will rival that of the injury time in an All-Ireland Final when your team is one point down. This is pivotal for the growth of MMA in Ireland. Many old school GAA coaches no longer look at the sport as two lads “slapping each other than hugging each other on the ground” but instead appreciate the technical aspects and the extreme conditioning that the athletes have and are looking for ways to incorporate it into their team to give them an edge.
The future is bright for MMA in Ireland, although we as a sport can’t compete directly with the GAA, we have our own place and ability to capture the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland. Our stars like McGregor and Pendred and many more to come will shine bright and drive the sport further. The snags we have such as times the fights are broadcast will be overcome in the years to come as the sport evolves through our MMA heroes, and when we have Mammies coming to fights in 30 years’ time with ham sandwiches, we’ll know we made it.

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