The next two weeks represent a significant period for Irish fight fans on three separate fronts.
This Saturday Cork boxer Gary “Spike,” O’Sullivan (22-1, 15 KOs) will take on England’s Chirs Eubank Jr (20-1, 15 KOs) in a fight that is eerily reminiscent of when Chris Eubank Sr. defended his WBO world super-middleweight title against Ireland’s Steve Collins.
Later that night in UFC 194 at the MGM grand, Las Vegas, Dublin’s Conor McGregor the interim UFC Featherweight champion meets Jose Aldo in their much anticipated showdown.
One week later the WBO world middleweight champion, Limerick’s Andy Lee (34-2-1, 24 KOs) will defend his title against the undefeated Billy Joe Saunders, (22-0, 12 KOs) the only fighter to inflict a defeat on both the professional records of O’Sullivan and Eubank Jr at the Manchester Arena.
Since joining the UFC two years ago McGregor the 27 year old mixed marital artist dubbed, ‘Notorious,’ has become one of its biggest stars. If he beats Aldo, he will unquestionably be the top fighter in the featherweight division and the win will elevate him to the status of global superstar.
The exuberant McGregor is a journalists dream, he fires off soundbites almost as quick as his signature spinning kicks. With his flashy suits, matching crocodile shoes and unique elocution McGregor has often been portrayed in the media as a caricature of a man. The eccentricities of Chris Eubank drew similar criticisms from journalists in the 1990s, but what both Eubank and McGregor share is the ability to silence their detractors with results.
McGregor’s rise to the pinnacle of his sport coincides with a meteoric rise in popularity for MMA in Ireland. The Straight Blast Gym of Ireland, based in Dublin under head coach John Kavanagh, not only spawned McGregor but also several UFC fighters including Aisling Daly, Paddy Holohan and the recently retired, Cathal Pendred.
Despite some reports that suggest that UFC is waning in popularity in America, it is arguably the most popular combat sport in the world. McGregor’s rise in popularity has inspired a generation of young people to get involved. The notion that a young man from Dublin could achieve fame and fortune with his bare hands makes the sport attractive to young people with similar aspirations.
Proponents of UFC have talked about how the sport is eclipsing boxing in terms of popularity. Although I recognise the popularity of mixed marital arts as a purist I feel it can never match boxing in terms of drama or excitement.
In it’s purest form boxing is about hitting and not getting hit. I appreciate the sluggers who battle it out in the ring but the true boxers who blend a good offensive with a great defence always grab my attention. Boxing has evolved significantly from its bare knuckle roots and it is not all about ferocious knockouts and bone snapping submissions unlike MMA.
My first encounter with UFC was in the mid-nineties when it was still a tournament concerned with determining which martial art was the most effective. I remember watching UFC 4 nd being underwhelmed by the grappling style of UFC legend Royce Gracie.
Modern UFC matches are now characterised by a variety of martial art styles, involving stand up fighting, grappling and submissions. The UFC seems dominated by a more generic style of fighting, which involves getting opponents on the ground in the quickest time and punching them out or getting them to submit in a hold.
It means that on an average UFC card, you could have a conveyor belt of fighters with the same generic style. It becomes monotonous, which puts the UFC in the precarious position of having to rely on its stars like McGregor to keep audiences interested.
Boxing’s popularity is also heavily dependent on stars with crossover appeal, something the sport has lacked since the nineties. The disappearance of boxing from terrestrial television channels is perhaps a reason why boxing’s popularity has declined.
Boxing has fallen behind soccer, rugby, golf and tennis in terms of media coverage, yet I am adamant in my belief that it remains one of the few sports that can consistently deliver pure drama and excitement to its fans.
A case in point is Andy Lee, a boxer who has consistently delivered thrills to Irish fight fans throughout his career. He is arguably the most grossly underrated Irish boxer ever and his story reads like something out of a Hollywood movie.
Lee enjoyed a successful amateur career, which included a Silver medal at the world juniors in 2002 and the 2003 World Championships in Bangkok where aged just 18, he lost on points to the eventual tournament winner and current middleweight kingpin; Gennady Golovkin. Lee went on to win three Irish national titles, a European bronze in 2004 and he was also Ireland’s sole boxing representative at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Lee’s amateur exploits brought him to the attention of legendary boxing trainer Emmanuel Steward, who offered him the opportunity to turn pro and box out of the world famous Kronk Gym in Detroit. Steward recognised the Limerick fighters potential and was vocal in his belief that he would one day become a world champion.
Lee turned pro in March 2006 and built an impressive record that at one point read (28-1, 20 KOs). Despite being ahead on the judge’s scorecard Lee was stopped in an unsuccessful world title challenge against WBC middleweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. It was after that, his second loss that Lee questioned his future in boxing.
Shortly after that fight Emanuel Steward passed away and Lee enlisted the help of Adam Booth to help rebuild from his loss. A series of comeback fights led to the infamous encounter with heavy handed John Jackson in Madison Square Garden in June 2014.
Lee was down in the first round, he was behind on the score cards and getting backed up against the ropes when in the fifth round he landed a short right as Jackson was throwing a straight right. Lee connected first and Jackson was unconscious before he hit the canvas. It was a tremendous comeback win and it set up a world title fight against the undefeated Russian Matt Korobov.
Lee won that fight in spectacular style stopping Korobov in the sixth round to lift the vacant WBO middleweight title. Emmanuel Steward’s prophecy had come true.
The first defence of Lee’s world title turned into a non-title bout when the former champion Peter Quillin failed to make weight. As it transpired this was another fight not for the faint hearted. Lee was on the canvas in the first and third rounds before battling back to drop Quillin in the seventh and earn a split draw.
Both Lee and McGregor have proven themselves to be warriors and their stories are inspirational to young fighters. However at a risk of exaggerating the rivalry between boxing and MMA or the disparity between both in terms of popularity, it is clear that McGregor and the UFC enjoy significantly more column inches than Andy Lee and boxing does in the Irish press.
From this pair the one with the most natural charisma is McGregor. The more reserved Lee has conceded that he could not promote a fight in the same way as the ‘Notorious,’ Dublin fighter does. You will not see Andy Lee on the American chat show circuit or making outrageous comments as McGregor does.
The UFC star has admitted that, “he loves beating people up for money,” and in an interview with BT Sport he told journalist Gareth Davies, “He was prepared to die…prepared to kill,” when he steps into the Octagon.
In the past some boxers have made similar ill-advised comments to the media. Such rhetoric makes me uneasy because it goes without saying that the threat of injury or death is ever-present in boxing.
Whether you are a MMA fighter or a boxer, you are competing in your sport because you want a better life for you or those around you. Fighters do talk about death as casually as McGregor did, they know that danger is always there but no one wants to inflict that hurt on their opponent or suffer the same themselves.
UFC remains in its infancy as a sport with only four recorded deaths in sanctioned fights dating back to 2007. Boxing has had 923 deaths during a 118 year period between 1890 and 2007. That averages out as 7 deaths a year in boxing. It is a real concern in the mind of a professional boxer.
I would hope McGregor’s comments are the exception rather than the norm and that they would not be repeated by aspiring UFC fighters.
McGregor’s trainer John Kavanagh spoke to International Business Times about his fighter’s motivation saying, “He’s not driven by money or fame, he’s driven by content, by competition. He would fight every weekend if he was able to.”
Despite his more outrageous comments McGregor is passionate about the sport that has provided him with his current lifestyle. He is vocal about how he has given back to his family who supported him throughout his life. At his core he appears an honest and decent individual.
However the ordinary doesn’t seem to sell fights these days. Speaking to Second Captains, Andy Lee summed up the public’s fascination with MMA perfectly, “I think the UFC is more for the instant gratification kind of generation. The YouTube video watching generation. Where you’re in, two guys fight each other and it’s over quickly. It’s a quick pay off, whereas with boxing it’s more of an investment and sometimes you don’t always get the pay-off. But you have to appreciate what you’re watching in terms of artistry and the history attached to boxing.”
Boxing is like a long term investment, I have followed the sport since I was in my early teens and I grew up watching Andy Lee box for his Irish national titles on RTE. I appreciate the technical skill, the drama and excitement that comes with the build up to every fight. As Lee points out, sometimes you don’t get back what you have invested but with the weight of history in boxing you are always aware that the next star or the next super fight is just around the corner.
I also appreciate that there is no quitting in boxing. When MMA fighters are caught in a submission they can tap out in anticipation of pain or injury. Pain both in and out of the ring is an occupational hazard for fighters like Lee.
It has proven to be career suicide when boxers have quit in the ring, which is why it saddens me that he isn’t a bigger star considering the heroics he has shown in battling back from the brink on several occassions.
Andy Lee deserves to be a bigger star in Ireland, he may not feel the need to be, but as a boxing fan I feel that one of the greatest fighters this country has ever produced.
It may seem like sour grapes on my behalf but I really feel that if more of the public took notice they would realise that Lee can provide as much excitement in fights as an entire UFC card put together.
With his upcoming bout against Billy Joe Saunders, which is boxing’s first ever all-traveller world title fight, Lee may have finally found the rival that can help him capture the public’s imagination. The winner of O’Sullivan v Eubank Jr. will also be circling the winner of Lee v Saunders which should provide further excitement down the road for Irish fight fans.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Andy Lee has admitted to being a fan of Conor McGregor and like him I will be cheering McGregor on as he steps into the octagon with Jose Aldo.
This has not been an attempt to discredit the UFC, in fact boxing can learn lessons about marketing and promotions from the mixed marital arts community as the sport continues to grow.
Instead, this has been an attempt to remind fans of all combat sports that Ireland has two proud warriors and that we should support them for however long they are willing to lay it all on the line in the name of guts and glory and the fighting Irish spirit.