Northern Ireland

Conor McGregor: UFC fighter ready for homecoming fight

Conor McGregor
Image caption Conor McGregor believes a defeat of this weekend's opponent, Diego Brandao, could give him a shot at the UFC's featherweight championship

Ireland's best-known mixed martial arts fighter has said he believes he will be given a world title shot if he wins in front of a home crowd this weekend.

Conor McGregor is one of the rising stars of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

In the UFC, competitors fight inside an eight-sided cage using various combat styles to try to knockout or submit their opponent.

McGregor is headlining the organisation's Dublin Fight Night, which is being held on Saturday at the city's O2 arena.

The event sold out almost immediately and much of that is credited to the Irish man's star power.

"This is what kept me up at night," he said, during a break from training.

"Those thoughts of headlining a card and bringing the UFC back to my home country and showing Ireland what this sport is all about.

"Not a lot of people here knew about this sport before me - now everybody knows."

In interviews, Conor McGregor is outspoken, charismatic and supremely self-confident.

It is a combination that has made him a favourite among fans and a target for other fighters.

Rival featherweights are lining up to challenge McGregor, well aware that his bouts will attract attention.

All of that makes him a valuable asset to an organisation like the UFC, where the business is selling fights.

"I want them all to want to fight me," he insisted.

"It creates interest. It creates drama. It creates big fight nights.

"It is exactly how I planned it."

Belief

In Ireland, McGregor is now a chat show regular, he has been the subject of a documentary and his name helped ensure that the UFC's Dublin Fight Night was an immediate sell-out.

But it is in America where the big money is and the man, whose nickname is 'The Notorious', knows it.

He believes a quick defeat of his opponent, Diego Brandao, could put him in line for an opportunity to win the UFC's featherweight championship.

"I imagine the title shot will be in Vegas - I almost feel the title shot is already won," said McGregor, who seems to have nothing but belief in himself.

"I am already picturing a stadium (in Dublin) for a title defence.

"I have put in the work. I have put in the time. I feel untouchable."

Image caption James Gallagher, from Strabane, County Tyrone, trains in Dublin alongside McGregor and fellow Irish UFC fighter Cathal Pendred

However, success in the UFC, which is regarded as the premier league of mixed martial arts, is anything but easy.

Competitors are expected to know a wide-range of fighting techniques including boxing, wrestling and jiu jitsu.

And bouts can be gruelling affairs.

Many MMA supporters say the UFC's fighters are among the best-conditioned athletes in any sport.

But the British Medical Association (BMA) is not impressed by such claims.

It has called repeatedly for the sport to be banned.

'Health risks'

"Every sport has risks but mixed martial arts is human cockfighting," said Dr Peter Maguire of the BMA.

"The aim is to do as much damage to your opponent as possible.

"There are serious health risks."

The UFC insisted that competitors are well protected.

It provides health insurance for its fighters and doctors are always present when bouts are taking place.

It also points to the various rules and regulations in place to try to ensure fighters are not injured. Although, inevitably, some are hurt.

"In 21 years, the UFC has never had a serious injury," said John Kavanagh, who trains UFC fighters at the Straight Blast Gym in Dublin.

"There's not a lot of professional sports that can say that in 20 plus years they have never had a broken back or a fatality."

Throughout the Straight Blast Gym, there are people training in the hope of breaking into the UFC.

James Gallagher had his first amateur MMA fight at the age of 13.

Image caption Nathan Kelly, 9, is already a jiu jitsu and kickboxing champion

He turns 18 in October and he hopes to turn professional shortly afterwards.

But already he is training alongside UFC fighters like Cathal Pendred and Conor McGregor.

"Within the next year I believe I will be in the UFC," said James, who travels from Strabane in County Tyrone every week to train at the SBG Ireland gym.

"It is such an honour to train with guys who are there - where I want to be."

James is far from the youngest hopeful. There are several children's martial arts classes taught here.

One of the students is Nathan Kelly, who at the age of nine, is already a jiu-jitsu and kickboxing champion.

'Money and gold'

He said his hope is to eventually become the UFC's youngest ever champion.

"Jiu jitsu is going to be in the Olympics. Kickboxing is in the Olympics," he said.

"I want to get that UFC gold and an Olympic medal."

Conor McGregor - who openly says he is in the sport for "the money and the gold" - believes he is close to that goal he shares with Nathan.

That inevitably means there is pressure on him this weekend and he has a nervous energy around him.

At one stage, he connected his MP3 player to the gym's stereo to let people hear the music he plans to play as he walks into the arena.

"Are you getting goosebumps?" he asked.

To an extent, McGregor is playing the showman but a look of anticipation can be seen on his face.

He knows that he must be impressive on Saturday to have a hope of fighting for the world featherweight championship.

The UFC's marketing team may well be just as anxious about the contest.

The organisation needs well-known fighters to continue its aggressive expansion outside of its core business base in America.

And Conor McGregor is undoubtedly one of its most marketable names, particularly in Europe.

A title fight would mean a lot to both of them.

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