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Sherdog’s 2021 Walkout Song of the Year


Walkout songs largely hit differently over the last year, as fans were only in the building for a smattering of big shows. What was once a crucial part of the fight game in a competitor’s entrance felt hollow, or perhaps turned intensely personal, as the tunes echoed through the likes of the UFC Apex or Bellator’s “Fightsphere,” to name but a few empty locales. The return of fans in attendance at major events, a story that should draw some attention across our sport, massively impacted how fighter’s entrances felt. They were few and far between, so some fighters made certain to make them count.

Only 10 Ultimate Fighting Championship cards went down with thousands of fans in attendance, and the Bellator MMA quantity totaled even fewer packed-house events. Rizin Fighting Federation tamped down its pageantry for the most part in Japan, while tape-delayed dances in One Championship inside a dark, empty room lost any luster they could hold. Should a fighter’s entrance at Rizin 33 prove truly memorable, however, it will be given its proper shine.

This quieter atmosphere in smaller buildings without decent acoustics or booming sound systems took some of the sting out of walkout songs that might have landed harder. Alex Morono, always a fan of unorthodox entrance music, may have picked a gem in “Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship” by swashbuckling metal band Alestorm, but it felt underappreciated as it went untelevised inside the UFC Apex. That very same night of UFC Fight Night 191, Khalil Rountree would have burned the house down with his brilliant selection of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck,” but again, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The clever choices still made an impression, like Tabatha Ricci’s pick of the theme from the movie “Jaws” composed by John Williams ahead of her first UFC win, which mattered more given her nickname of “Baby Shark.” In what could be called the best walkout song of the UFC this year, Tai Tuivasa bucked conventional music selection to go with “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls before his shellacking of Greg Hardy, and it was bolstered by a considerable percentage of the crowd inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas singing along. Winning the audience over proved to be the most valuable determining factor in award criteria this year, leading to a clear choice by a majority of Sherdog voting members. First, we should take a quick look at awards gone by.

As if Diego Ferreira wanted to get himself back in contention, the inaugural winner of the “Walkout Song of the Year” award in 2018 walked out to the tune of “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins again in the final UFC event of the year. In 2019, the winning nominee brought something about as different as a Loggins song as possible, in the form of Kron Gracie’s petrifying air raid sirens from the film “The Purge.” With 2020 practically devoid of fans at the shows, it seemed fair that Darren Till took home that year’s award by using silence as his backing ahead of his matchup with Robert Whittaker. If Till’s non-selection seemed emotionless, then it is only fitting that the 2021 “Walkout Song of the Year” award clock in as easily the most emotional track heard all year at any combat sporting event.

For around 30 years in Northern Ireland, a low-scale war called “The Troubles” took place around the country regarding its status belonging to the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Skirmishes broke out for years as paramilitary groups and nationalist types battled British and local forces, but ultimately, civilians were often caught in the crossfire. In March 1993, a few bombings took place in Warrington, England, and a pair of children named Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry died as a result. Shortly thereafter, Irish rock band The Cranberries, helmed by frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan, penned a protest song titled “Zombie” about the bombings, which topped many international charts for quite some time.

Cut to Nov. 5, 2021: Bellator returns to Dublin for the first time in over a year and a half, bringing many Irish fighters to serve under the Bellator 270 marquee. None proved more significant than its main event, pitting Ireland’s own Peter Queally against Patricky Freire for the vacant lightweight belt. In this headliner, Queally had the chance to become the first Irish champion in a major MMA organization since Conor McGregor. To make matters better, Queally, in front of a home crowd, took on a man he already defeated six months prior. Even though Irish fighters on the card had shown mixed results to that point, Queally still brought hope to the Emerald Isle.

Freire entered first, with “Eu Fiz o Jogo Virar” by MC Poze do Rodo, Mainstreet & Ajaxx, a nondescript autotuned Brazilian track playing in the 3Arena as he was showered in boos during his march to the cage. Even though “Pitbull” may generally be a popular fighter, he was facing a local, and all bets are off when traveling to hostile territory. When he settled in the cage and the lights turned low, few expected how emotional the scene was about to become.

Fans were elated simply for Queally’s picture appearing on the giant screen, but when the opening guitar chords of “Zombie” strummed over the speakers, the thousands upon thousands in attendance lit up at once as if a switch had been flipped in the building. Their fighter had entered the arena, and he was perhaps minutes away from becoming the first Irish Bellator champion. As the song intro floated through the air, Bellator play-by-play commentator Sean Grande masterfully introduced the song itself on the broadcast and noted its significance.

“It became an anthem for a new generation of Irish,” Grande remarked after briefly describing the song’s history, “and no better one with which to serenade their heroes.”

At that point, the result ceased to matter. The glory of Ireland would have undoubtedly swelled to a bursting point had Queally emerged victorious, but uniting the crowd together in song was a bigger triumph than any could have hoped. Even after the commentators ran out of notes to describe the match itself, the music played on, with the Irish faithful on their feet belting out the words as loudly as possible. After allowing the music to continue as long as the promotion felt comfortable, it had to move on with the show. That, as it turned out, did not matter, either.

“The song is an anthem for a new generation,” Grande repeated, “one represented here. Not by cowards who bomb innocent children in the street, but by warriors like Peter Queally, who fight with respect—and for respect—for themselves, their country.”

Try as he might, cage announcer Michael C. Williams may have spoken the words introducing the main event, but the fans completely drowned him out. Pausing briefly to blast Freire with boos, the crowd then cheered Queally louder than most crowds have in recent memory, all before shifting into classic “Ole” sports chants. When the bout actually began, those in the building remarkably started singing the chorus of “Zombie” again, even as their man began to start fighting. “The Showstopper” had done the unthinkable: He had truly stopped the show.

Queally was not the first fighter to use “Zombie” as a walkout track, and he may not have even been the first in Bellator or even the first in a Bellator card in Dublin to select it. As people worldwide crave the return to normalcy after the pandemic, those attending live events display ample amounts of relief and enthusiasm at those shows. At the UFC’s very first card back in 2021, UFC 261 in Florida, the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena was practically full for the card opener, and Ariane Carnelossi and Na Liang received heroes’ welcomes in the loudest pop curtain-jerkers could imagine. When Queally fought in the first Dublin card in some time, making it to the stage as the headliner and representing his people was enough. Despite coming up short, he carried his nation on his back for the duration of his bout and beyond. It is no surprise that he has already drawn the co-main event billing for Bellator’s next offering in Dublin in 2022.

As a man that united practically everyone in the 3Arena during his walkout, Queally brought relief, joy and, perhaps most importantly, pride to those in the building and watching around his country. He was, for a couple moments, the warm little center around which the life of this world crowded. When 2020’s “Walkout of the Year” winner was silence, it is fitting that the 2021 Sherdog.com “Walkout Song of the Year” is a powerful, enrapturing anthem that meant more to Queally and the fans than most can imagine.
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