Joe McColgan and Andy Young are among those to speak out
To the watching public, UFC Belfast went down a treat.
Despite Neil Seery and Ian McCall’s bout being scrapped at the eleventh hour due to the American falling ill, the UFC-starved Belfast crowd was in full voice on the night and even brought a fantastic backdrop to some of the most forgettable bouts on the card.
The presence of Conor McGregor at the SSE Arena was vital to the spectator’s experience. Chorus after chorus of "Ole, Ole, Ole" rang around the venue, only to explode when the double weight champion waved to his adoring gathering.
His teammate, Artem Lobov, provided the night with its biggest pop when he defeated Teruto Ishihara. McGregor scaled the Octagon’s fence in celebration as the arena reached fever pitch, but there was noted drop in the atmosphere when he left shortly after Lobov’s main card curtain raiser.
In New York, the weekend before, you could barely walk ten meters without seeing some kind of advertising for UFC 205. Granted, the event had massive historical implications as it marked UFC’s first show in New York and the iconic Madison Square Garden, but in comparison, there was no buzz at all around Belfast last weekend.
According to unbeaten Belfast fighter Joe McColgan, who sat Octagonside at the event, there was no excitement in the city because there was no local talent on the card.
“You could have been visiting Belfast last weekend and you wouldn’t have known there was a UFC event on,” said the FAI fighter.
“I work in Belfast and I saw no advertising for the event in town. There was no chat about it. No one was interested in it locally. It was just really flat.
“Of course, if there was a Northern Irish fighter on the card, particularly someone from around the Belfast area, that would have got some excitement around the city.
“I’m not even talking about myself when I say that, but take a guy like Karl Moore. If he had been on that card he would’ve had the whole of west Belfast queuing up for tickets the day they were released.
“Word of mouth is still the best form of advertising around here and everyone would have been buzzing for Karl had he got his debut that night. It would’ve spread like wildfire.
“And it’s not just Karl. There are plenty of guys up in Ballymena who are ready for the step up. Alan Philpott, Rhys McKee and Andy Young could’ve got a massive amount of people coming to the event and talking about it too.”
Next Generation flyweight, Young, who was also in attendance on the night, remembers UFC’s last visit to Belfast nine years ago. With local fighters Steven Lynch and Colin ‘Big C’ Robinson on the card, Young recalled the excitement in Belfast ahead of UFC 72.
“Nine years ago there were billboards everywhere,” said Young. “There were advertisements on every wall in the city. From what I could see, there was none of that this time.
“I had yet to find a full-time gym at the time, but I was a huge UFC fan. I can remember the buzz the event had. Everybody was talking about it and everyone was genuinely excited to see the fighters from Northern Ireland get in there.”
McCall versus Seery did not ultimately go ahead
McColgan believes that because the tickets sold so quickly for the event, there was no pressure on the promotion to seek out local talent.
“UFC Belfast sold out quickly, and maybe because of that there was no pressure on the promotion to source local talent. They did their job. Maybe if they had been struggling to sell the tickets, then they would’ve got a Belfast guy on it.”
The FAI man also highlighted the importance of McGregor being in attendance on the night.
“When you peel the layers back, we had a half Russian, half Dublin guy getting the biggest cheers of the night in Belfast, and really, the fight was just ok,” said McColgan. “There were a couple of good moments, but I don’t think the performance was worthy of the reception that he got.
“The only reason why he got that ovation is because he is McGregor’s main training partner and McGregor was there in the front row cheering him on and living every second of it with him. If McGregor wasn’t there, I really don’t think he would have got that reception.”
Similarly, Young had a revelation when he watched on from the crowd. The flyweight believes that he saw a clear shift in the fan base from the last time UFC visited Northern Ireland, with Conor McGregor fans vastly outnumbering the amount of MMA fans in attendance.
“If UFC Belfast showed me anything, it’s that the fan base has changed considerably. I think Conor McGregor fans are more common in Ireland than UFC fans now,” stated the Next Generation man.
“There was a great atmosphere at the event. Some of the Icelandic fans were still there even though Gunnar Nelson had to pull out, and they were the ones starting those Viking chants.
“We had Mexican waves and everything, it was fantastic, but I honestly feel as though McGregor being in the building brought that kind of excitement to the event.
“I think that’s great. His success is a huge part of the popularity of the sport over here, but I bet if you compared that crowd to the one that was at UFC 72 you'd notice that there were far more diehard fans of the sport in attendance that night.”
And it’s not just about the fighter’s in Northern Ireland getting snubbed. Dublin fans will understand better than most the significance of the knock on effect a UFC event can have on the sport’s consumption in a location.
Since McGregor took on Diego Brandao in July 2014, the sport’s popularity has gone into the stratosphere. There are thousands of young Irish fighters honing their craft in the hopes of one day reaching a similar level to ‘The Notorious’. For McColgan, the UFC has a responsibility to enthuse the masses when they arrive in a city as the world’s flagship MMA promotion.
“UFC is the premier stage for mixed martial arts in the world and I think they have a responsibility to push more people towards the sport in the countries that they visit. The best way to do that is to have local fighters at the shows.
“Think about how many kids in Dublin believe they can be the next Conor McGregor now. Kids in Belfast just can’t relate to Gegard Mousasi and Uriah Hall in that way. It was a real missed opportunity.”
Young highlighted the lack of publicity MMA gets in Northern Ireland and suggested that having a Northern Irish fighter on the card would have given publications the perfect incentive to give the sport more coverage.
Young said: “The media in Northern Ireland have yet to embrace MMA. It’s booming in the south because of Conor, but if UFC had just put one Northern Irish guy on the card all of the papers and TV stations would have jumped all over it.
“That would’ve been free publicity as well. It was a key opportunity to promote the event by having a local guy on there, but it didn’t happen. There were two Welsh guys making their debuts that night. They did brilliant and their traveling support was great, but why put them on instead of just one Northern Irish guy? I don’t get it.”
McColgan insisted that the event had little lasting impact on the Northern Irish MMA community, with the only conversations about the event being focused on how SBG welterweight Charlie Ward, who had four professional tests to his name going into the event, got handed a UFC debut over some of the talents in the region.
“No one is talking about the event in the gym. The only thing people are talking about is why I didn’t get a shot, or someone else from Northern Ireland didn’t get a shot. With a nine year wait for a UFC card to come back to Belfast, you would expect everyone in Northern Irish gyms to be buzzing, but it’s like it never happened.
“It’s quite insulting for a lot of people that UFC brought three guys up from Dublin and thought that would be sufficient as a hometown draw.
“It’s very tough when you consider that they gave a Dublin-based fighter a debut, Charlie Ward, based on nothing more than his affiliation with Conor McGregor. This guy had a 3-1 record with all of his wins coming against guys with limited records.
“People will say that the guys in Northern Ireland aren’t ready for the stage, and they’re wrong, but how can you say that when Charlie Ward got his shot? It really makes no sense to me.
“No disrespect to Charlie, I completely understand him taking the opportunity, but from UFC’s point of view it doesn’t make much sense.”
For the Irish fans who still don’t see the point of the Northern Irish MMA community’s disappointment with the event, Young pondered how they would react if the tables were turned on them.
“Imagine if there was a UFC show in Dublin and they just brought up a guy from Northern Ireland to be the hometown draw. Even when they go to the different American states, UFC usually have a local fighter on the card.
“It’s like they just knew the tickets would sell out anyway, so what’s the point in getting a local guy? It was really disappointing.”