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Waking up to a Feb. 12 email detailing Bellator MMA’s fight-week schedule for Bellator 240 this Saturday in Dublin was the shot to start the race. An email later in the day announcing that the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s next event in the Irish capital will take place in August quickly delayed said race.
Over the last five years, the Bellator-UFC rivalry has not been much of a rivalry at all. A Patrick Holohan-Louis Smolka headliner marked the UFC’s last trip to the Emerald Isle in October 2015, while Bellator has planted its flag in Irish soil roughly twice a year since then. The Scott Coker-led promotion has also picked up a majority of the up-and-coming fighters from Ireland—Cage Warriors Fighting Championship has done well, too—while the UFC has basically ignored the country, save for one “Notorious” exception.
Conor McGregor is the only Irish-born, Irish-trained fighter on the current UFC roster. Joseph Duffy was born in Donegal and trains in Canada; Paul Redmond and Norman Parke were released; and Holohan, Cathal Pendred, Neil Seery and Aisling Daly have all hung up the gloves for one reason or another. The golden generation of Irish MMA in the UFC, which took the sport by storm at the height of McGregor Mania, has all but faded.
Into that void has stepped a new wave of prospective fighters. Ian Garry, Paul Hughes and Joe McColgan have built strong profiles in Cage Warriors, but the majority of talented mixed martial artists in Ireland call Bellator home. Some are at the starting line in their respective careers—a stark comparison to their predecessors, many of whom climbed the ladder by paying their dues on the regional scene. McGregor fought 14 times before he signed with the UFC, while Duffy (13), Pendred (16), Parke (18) and Daly (19) all had extensive resumes before they arrived at the highest level of the sport.
Bellator has signed some fighters who were approaching their peaks, like Redmond, Philip Mulpeter and Peter Queally. However, others were relatively wet behind the ears. James Gallagher was 3-0 when he agreed to terms with the promotion, and Kiefer Crosbie carried a 4-0 record into his Bellator debut. Furthermore, Leah McCourt—she will headline the Bellator Dublin portion of the event—was 1-1 when she joined the roster, while Danni Neilan and Ciaran Clarke made their professional debuts on Bellator cards.
That leaves us with some interesting questions.
Which local fighters will be signed by the UFC ahead its visit to Dublin? Cage Warriors would be the obvious first place to look given its history of providing the UFC with talent on this side of the world. Rhys McKee, who will fight for the Cage Warriors welterweight title this summer, seems like the most obvious choice. Garry and Hughes are fantastic talents, but an opportunity of that magnitude might come a little early into their careers. Others, like McColgan and Decky McAleenan, would likely need a few wins to get on the card. Outside of Cage Warriors, Artem Lobov could be re-signed if his Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships contract allows; Chris Fields and Alan Philpott have put in the work over the years and might be hoping for the call; and the aforementioned Duffy could return, as well. It is different from a few years ago when the UFC had the pick of the Irish talent.
Is this the beginning of a war in the area between the UFC and Bellator? It seems a bit of a coincidence that the UFC announced its return to Ireland a week before Bellator 240 when the event is still six months away. Were these the first shots fired? As we have seen down through the years with the purchase of Pride Fighting Championships, Strikeforce and other entities, the UFC does not like losing control of its stranglehold on the sport anywhere on earth. That is exactly what has happened in Ireland over the last five years, and it appears as though the company has had enough.
The events ahead are more important than they have been in years. Bellator 240 had Queally in the original headliner, with Gallagher scheduled for main event duty on the Bellator Dublin portion of the card. However, both men suffered injuries that forced them to withdraw, leaving the lineup light on talent with the UFC unexpectedly breathing down Bellator’s neck. Irish fans hope that healthy competition forces matchmakers to bring in higher-profile fights to spur interest.
It has been a slow and worrying period for MMA in Ireland over the last few years, much of the negative tide stemming from the tragic death of Joao “Rafeiro” Carvalho in 2016. Perhaps now the sport is finally on its way back.