A daytime UFC event in Ireland broadcast on Fight Pass lacking in your usual "big names" of the sport really shouldn't be in the running for being one of the most special and enjoyable events in recent memory, but this was clearly no ordinary card. In what has been a sensational month of fights, UFC Fight Night Dublin delivered the goods, with plenty of finishes on the preliminary card, good showings by the favored main card fighters, an electrifying performance by Conor McGregor, and all of that was backed by an immensely loud crowd inside the O2 Arena. It was a Fight Night show that felt as big as a PPV, and it's great news for both fans and the UFC.
It's time now for another edition of Winners and Losers, which should be back in the hands of Patrick Wyman, who claims he's away on his honeymoon in Thailand, but is really just scouting the best middleweight prospects for 2022. In the meantime, I've got the keys to this car, and we'll examine the real winners and losers from Saturday's show:
Conor McGregor. If he's a star in the making, then dominating in the main event in front of your home supporters is a good start. It's reasonable to say that he's 2-3 more good wins away from a title shot, and now that he's developed into a local hero, the next step is to grow his brand in North America. His striking is on-point, he has lethal power and finishing ability, and while his resume is light on contenders, Marcus Brimage, Max Holloway, and Diego Brandao is hardly an underwhelming list of opponents to start out your UFC tenure. Finding stars and potential cable television and/or PPV draws 155 lbs and below has been a struggle since B.J. Penn's dominance came to an end, but they may have something here with McGregor, who so far has been as good as advertised.
Gunnar Nelson. Perhaps the reason why Gunnar Nelson always looks so small that you wonder why he doesn't drop to lightweight is because he keeps fighting ex-middleweights. Hell, Zak Cummings was a light heavyweight! So lets cool the breaks on Gunnar to 155 for a second. He's a savant on the ground and there's no doubt about it. While he didn't submit Jorge Santiago he absolutely dominated him on the mat, and has otherwise submitted his other UFC opposition. There are still question marks surrounding his ability to fight strikers who can exploit his rather suspect defense, but I think his nonchalant style and general lack of emotion has be believing he doesn't actually feel punches. Nelson is a damn good fighter already and it's time to fight top 15 opposition, because he's more than earned it, and he's also developed a significant following in Europe that could make him a regional star.
Ian McCall. You witnessed what happens when a not-too-fast bantamweight drops to flyweight and can't get past one of the faster flyweights in the division. McCall got the crucial takedowns when he needed, didn't engage in an all-out brawl versus Pickett, picked his shots well, mixed up his strikes effectively, and was just clearly the superior fighter. At worst, he fights one more time to get a title shot. Best case scenario is the rather chaotic status of the flyweight division merits him a fight with the Johnson/Cariaso winner.
Cathal Pendred. Pegged as one of the favorites to win TUF 19, Pendred underwhelmed on the show and was fortunate to be one of the few fighters from that season to get a UFC contract. A loss to Mike King in front of his home support would've probably sent him back to Cage Warriors, but he overcame a huge beating in the first round and took advantage of a fatigued King to get the rear-naked choke. His post-fight interview was great, his toughness certainly can't be questioned, and it looks like he's going to stay in the UFC a bit longer, and deservedly so after such a hard-fought comeback. A drop back to welterweight is a must, though, and he has to work on (above all else) his striking if he wants to hang around in arguably the deepest division in the sport.
Irish MMA. The last time the UFC went to Ireland, the only Irish-born fighter on the card was Tom Egan, who lost to John Hathaway and never fought in the UFC again. Marcus Davis was everyone's de facto Irish fighter despite not actually being from Ireland. Fast forward to present day, and Irish fighters were 4-0 on the card (plus Northern Ireland's Norman Parke getting his own win), culminated by McGregor's knockout win. The sport has come a long way in Europe and Ireland's best showed their stuff in fine fashion.
Irish Fans. One of the best things about the UFC's European ventures has been the passion shown by the local fans. Ireland may be a cut above the rest, because the noise level was incredible and they made every fight from the prelims to the main event feel like a championship bout. There was a tremendous amount of support, a knowledgeable fanbase, and with the Irish fighters all winning it really enhanced the terrific atmosphere.
Brad Pickett. The only real reason Pickett moved to flyweight was to make one last run at a title shot. His clear loss to Ian McCall basically shoots everything down. He already mentioned that he's going back up to bantamweight, and there's nothing wrong with that. At 35 and unable to get past the elite of either division, it's perfectly acceptable to close out his career as the action fighter he always has been.
Tor Troeng. The Swede really had every reason to win this fight easily, but he looked lost on the ground and it more than nullified his clear advantage in the striking department. Troeng is 1-2 in the UFC and his only win came against Adam Cella, who will forever be known as the guy Uriah Hall nearly murdered on TUF 17. At 31 and with 23 pro fights under his belt over the span of 9 years, I don't think there's reason to believe he can improve significantly to sustain any sort of success in the UFC. He might be gone withing the next two fights depending on how the book him.
Josh Sampo. If Sampo didn't beat Ryan Benoit in his UFC debut he'd be as good as gone and I'd have on issues with it. He missed weight vs. Benoit, missed again vs. Holohan before making it on the 2nd attempt after the weigh-ins were over. Sampo was a big favorite to beat Patrick Holohan and he was dominated and choked out in a round. He's not winning and he's not making weight on the first try, which tells me his next fight is either "win or get out".
Phil Harris and Cody Donovan. Neither man had any margin for error last night and they both lost, with the latter getting finished. Harris was only brought back because Louis Gaudinot failed his drug test, so he's a goner now. Ditto for Donovan, who drops to 1-3 in the UFC and probably isn't good enough to merit a late call-up any time soon.
Neil Hall. My "favorite" moment was when Ian McCall had mounted Brad Pickett, and Hall told the fighters to "work". It's one thing to warn fighters for general offenses, but he was almost like an overbearing uncle with his incessant talking.
The judges for the Cathal Pendred/Mike King fight. Pendred was thoroughly dominated in the 1st round, having been taken down, later knocked down and nearly finished via TKO, as well as needing to fend off a submission attempt before the round ended. Pendred really didn't mount any offense, could've conceivably had the fight stopped if there was a different referee in the cage, yet Ben Cartlidge, Mark Collett, and Dean Weir all saw it just 10-9 and NOT 10-8 for King. I don't know what it takes in this sport to score a lopsided round a 10-8, but in most cases homicide is required.
-- Diego Brandao came out firing as aggressive as usual after 2 minutes, but the skill gap was evident and barring a flash KO he had only a smidgen of hope to win this one. The lack of any serious development in his game 28 fights into his career and with 6 KO/TKO losses to his name leads me to believe Brandao is never going to contend and he'll basically settle into an action fighter/gatekeeper role.
-- Zak Cummings didn't really generate much offense against Gunnar Nelson, but he didn't get blown out either. It was a reasonably competitive fight with Cummings content to kickbox and avoid Gunnar's outstanding grappling right up until he could avoid it no longer. It was a short notice fight against a talented prospect, so it's not a devastating loss for him. He can definitely hang with the middle and lower tiers of welterweight just on his size and strength alone.
-- Norman Parke is still undefeated in the UFC and he picked up his first finish inside the Octagon. There was plenty of talk over his potential after he won TUF Smashes, and we hadn't really seen that in his previous UFC fights, but with a relatively easy win and a stoppage against an (admittedly always overmatched) opponent can spark some interest in the Northern Irishman. Calling out Diego Sanchez was smart on his part, as Diego is basically the perfect type of name opponent for Parke to up his stock.
-- Naoyuki Kotani shot in for takedowns from so far out that I'm pretty sure he was actually in the 5th row of the crowd on one of his attempts. Unless the UFC had planned to use him for the Japan show, it's really tough to see him staying in the promotion much longer.
-- Chris Dempsey isn't a natural light heavyweight and Ilir Latifi thumped him as expected. Dempsey needs to drop to middleweight while Latifi needs to fight Jon Jones instead of Alexander Gustafsson.
--Good for Trevor Smith to potentially keep his job with the upset over Tor Troeng, who essentially played right into his strengths and Smith took advantage of it.
-- Nikita Krylov has a 2-2 UFC record. Let that sink in for a bit.
-- Patrick Holohan got the biggest upset of the night by dropping the solid veteran Josh Sampo, avoiding the armbar, and superbly getting the rear-naked choke. He probably should've received a performance bonus and it's a shame that he didn't. No one had submitted Sampo prior to last night, which is a nice feather in Holohan's cap.