Cageside Report: Bellator Dublin

Cageside Report: Bellator Dublin

By Arwen Sheridan 

Last Friday night saw Bellator return to Dublin’s 3Arena. The show was a sell out and from my vantage point, I could discern exactly just one empty seat, mine. Try as I might, each time I was tempted to sit down, the action around me brought me back to my feet.

The card was stacked and from the first fight to the last there were plenty of talking points. The show kicked off mid afternoon and as the crowd steadily trickled in, the atmosphere grew. The fighters on the preliminary card were treated to as responsive and attentive a crowd as the main event.

With so many local fighters in action, the thousands in attendance definitely had skin in the game. However, they didn’t reserve their appreciation for their native sons and daughters.

Early in the evening Ilias “The Blade” Bulaid, secured a first round knock out via flying knee, over Greece’s Vitalic Maiboroda. It was a spectacular finish and the fans were mesmerised from that point on.

After that the Irish in attendance were treated to four wins in succession by their compatriots. Among these, two in particular stood out for me.

First off was Richie Smullen’s defeat of Sean Tobin in the first round. Smullen secured the submission victory by rear naked choke. The Arklow man is clearly a fan favourite and with such a display of skill, it is easy to understand why. With two Bellator wins in a row now, Smullen is becoming one of the Promotion’s rising stars.

Another fight with an early finish was Leah McCourt versus Kerry Hughes. McCourt put on a clinic for her travelling support and executed her, by now signature, first round finish. I have had the opportunity to chat to both women in the run up to this fight.

When I met McCourt at Bellator’s Press conference, I was struck by how sweet she was. The quiet and almost reserved lady I met in the Gibson Hotel, bore little resemblance to the absolute animal I saw in action on Friday night. She entered that cage with only victory on her mind and she made short work of it.

Among her supporters was her long-time friend and training partner, UFC’s Molly McCann. It was lovely to see the genuine bond between these women. McCann celebrated her friend’s victory as though it were her own.

Another fan favourite, Will Fluery, was next to make the walk to the cage. Famous for his trademark moustache and his “spud life,” the Tipperary man is much beloved for his down to earth approach. He is a straight talker and never seems to take himself too seriously. He faced perhaps his exact opposite in personality, London’s “Magic” Norbert Novenyl Jr. The Londoner put on an exhibition in showboating, culminating in “flossing” during the third round. This did little to curry favour with the partisan crowd. Fluery ultimately suffered defeat via a unanimous decision.

Dublin’s own Kiefer “BDK” Crosbie was next up. Crosbie was disqualified in his last fight for an illegal knee. Although he has maintained on the run up to this fight with Hugo Pereira that he is still “undefeated,” it was evident early on that a little bit of caginess has crept into his fight craft.

The fight ended in a victory for BDK, having gone to the judges. He said himself in his post-fight interview that he was trying to avoid doing anything “stupid.” As a result, the fight lacked a little of the flair we have come to expect from the Dublin man. Hopefully, getting back in the win column will restore his swagger.

Crosbie is set to become an even bigger daddy in the coming months as he and his partner get ready for the arrival of a new baby. Congratulations.

Following the win by one of their own, the Dublin crowd had the Arena rocking. Thrilled by all they had seen and eagerly anticipating the fights still to come. Sadly, the next fight, between Myles Jury and Benson Henderson, almost threatened to dampen the atmosphere.

This fight was the main event for Paramount’s TV audience, and I can’t help feeling they may have been disappointed. The Irish MMA supporters are true fight fans, they love a scrap and will get behind anyone putting on a good show.

Unfortunately, it was far from a good show. The fight was pedestrian at best, and I would struggle to pick out a significant moment to highlight. Henderson won by decision but fifteen minutes of watching a fight in which nothing much happened had left the audience a little flat.

Luckily, Conor McGregor picked that exact moment to make his entrance. Flanked by half a dozen or so minders and handlers, he undoubtedly made his presence felt. Despite his lack of activity inside the cage, and his negative publicity outside it, McGregor is still much loved by the MMA community.

His arrival, coupled by the efforts of the ring girls, got the audience engaged again. Just in time for one of the standout moments of the night.

The first fight on the televised main card saw Peter “The Showstopper” Queally, take on Ryan Scope. I was born and raised in Dublin and have been to more events in the 3Arena than I can count. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never heard so vocal an audience as I did when Queally made his way to the cage.

He made this walk to The Cranberries “Zombie.” The entire crowd were on their feet, singing along. It is hackneyed to say they raised the roof, but that is exactly what they did. The Arena buzzed with excitement as the audience continued their raucous rendition, drowning out Scope’s own walk out music.

The two rivals settled into the fight and seemed evenly matched throughout the first round. Early in the second, Scope had Queally hurt and on his back. It looked like the fight could be stopped any moment. In a miraculous showing, against the run of play, Queally somehow managed to recover and went on to knock Scope out. It was reversal of fortune, the like of which we rarely get to see.

Speaking after the fight The Showstopper credited the home crowd with getting him off the canvas. I well believe it. In that moment when it was looking like Queally was about to suffer his first finish, the fans got behind him and the energy was palpable. Ten thousand people willed him to his feet.

The arena exploded in ecstasy when Queally won. Even McGregor got swept up in the excitement as he jumped onto the cage to embrace his training partner and friend. The joy was sincere, and it was a pleasure to witness. McGregor’s suit came off the worst of it, ending up marked with Queally’s blood.

Despite a long evening of action, the fans were still well and truly up for it. The much-publicised bout between Richard Kiely and Michael Venom Page was up next. There is no love lost between these two rivals. While it is hard to know how much of it is genuine animosity and how much is for the benefit of the media, there was plenty of disrespect evident from both camps.

It began without a touch of gloves and degenerated from there. Kiely received a warning from Dan Miragliotta early on for giving MVP the finger. Shortly after that, the referee had seen enough showboating and penalised MVP for simulating taking a selfie while he had Keily on the canvas. MVP seemed unphased by having the point taken, almost as if he knew it was going to be irrelevant.

Midway through the first round Page caught Kiely with a flying knee and secured the knockout. MVP now looks poised to headline Bellator London in November. In his post-fight interview, he called out Douglas Lima, obviously eager to redress the one defeat on his otherwise unblemished record. Lima is already scheduled to fight in October, so it looks unlikely that he will have space on this dance card for MVP until next year at the earliest.

After MVP vs Kiely, we should have had the main event of the evening. However, due to a scheduling change we saw debutant Danni Neilan take on Camila Rivalola. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. The Irish woman ended up having her first professional fight in front of a sell out crowd, in a televised co-main event. Neilan looked confident throughout and took victory by unanimous decision over her more experienced opponent. You can’t ask for better than that!

When I spoke to Neilan in the run up to this fight she told me a story of how she went to see Conor McGregor fighting in Canada, as she was just beginning to get involved in MMA. Little did she know that he would be in the crowd cheering his heart out for her, in her very first professional fight.

The main event was next up. James Gallager (9-1) vs Roman Salazer (13-9.) Salazer was a last-minute call up, following Cal Ellenor being ruled out on medical grounds. I have massive respect for anyone who stands in on short notice. Especially when it means fighting in the main event against a hometown favourite.

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Much was made of Salazar’s failure to make the catch weight, but I think he can be forgiven for this under the circumstances. In perhaps the least surprising moment of the night, The Stranbanimal executed a choke on Salazer and brought the fight to a close in a matter of seconds.

A shower of empty beer cups rained into the cage as the crowd expressed their displeasure. I could hear fans grumbling about not getting their money’s worth and I am inclined to agree with them. They came to see “The Jimmy Show” and it was over before it began.

Obviously Bellator could not do anything about Ellenor having to pull out. However, there is an argument to be made that they could have found an opponent for Gallagher with a more comparable record.

Even before this fight there were rumours in the MMA community that Bellator were protecting the Northern Ireland man. If they want him to be taken seriously on the international stage, they are going to need to do a better job of matching him.

All in all, it was an incredible night of fights. The event ran smoothly and more or less on time, which is no mean feat. It is undeniable that Bellator are doing great things for Irish MMA, giving fighters a living and delivering high level entertainment to the fans. I am already looking forward to the next one.

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