On July 19, 2014, the mixed martial arts universe watched in awe as a nation heralded the emergence of an icon.
At UFC 93 in 2009, legends such as Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Mark Coleman and headline duo Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson had catered to diehard Irish fans. This time, with Conor McGregor at the forefront of the UFC's second Dublin event, it took on a much broader national significance. After two wins with the UFC, the Dubliner became a household name, introducing the entire country to his sport.
McGregor told anyone who would listen that he would "drag the UFC back to Ireland" for a showcase of national talent. After kicking the door open to the world's biggest stage, he wanted to force as many native combatants through before fighting for a world title.
Nobody doubted that it would be memorable. Yet, nobody could have possibly foreseen the magic that emanated from the 3 Arena and around the world that night, all for a sport that the vast majority of Irish people had never heard of 18 months before.
Dubliner Neil Seery and longtime McGregor training partner Gunnar Nelson -- from Iceland, but an honorary Irishman because of his time at the SBG gym in Dublin -- were the first two names added to the July marquee, and the addition of Northern Ireland's Norman Parke would soon follow. Cathal Pendred thought he was scheduled to compete the week before the Dublin event due to his participation on "The Ultimate Fighter," but was thrilled when he discovered he would make his debut at home instead.
"I had put myself in a lot of debt and I was struggling to pay my rent," Pendred told ESPN. "I had my college degree, I had different avenues I could've gone down, but I chose to do this. That debut was the light at the end of the tunnel -- it justified all of the sacrifices I made."
The UFC's return to Dublin sold out in minutes. The fighters themselves were inundated with inquiries and Seery sensed an opportunity for devilment.
"I used the situation to wind people up," Seery said, laughing. "I'd post something on Facebook like, 'Paul Redmond [Team Ryano teammate] has two free tickets for the first people that contact him,' and then he'd get hammered with calls and messages."
The scars from the siege for tickets remain with Pendred.
"To this day, I'm quite bad at getting back to people, and it's because in the lead-up to the event, my phone was jumping with Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, emails, WhatsApps, text messages -- all from people looking for tickets. It was insane. Lads that I made my communion with were getting on to me!"
Initially, Paddy Holohan was happy to attend as a fan. Somewhere among the outrage over tickets, he managed to snare two for himself. He even competed at a poker tournament to claim another pair. But after Holohan had failed to book a place on a season of "The Ultimate Fighter" the year before as a bantamweight, UFC president Dana White had promised him that he would get a shot at flyweight, if the promotion returned to Ireland.
Weeks out from the event, and two back surgeries since their agreement, "The Hooligan" discovered that White was a man of his word.
"I was driving along the quays and John [Kavanagh] rang and said, 'How would you like to sign for the UFC?' I had to take a deep breath and get myself together, because I had been through so much to just get that phone call," Holohan said. "There were times when I didn't think I'd compete again. Deep inside I knew that the boat was not leaving the dock without me on it -- I helped build that boat."
On fight day, the 3 Arena had a magnetic effect on Irish sports fans. Thirty minutes before the fights kicked off, traveling media marveled at the soon-to-be-legendary assembly that had already packed the rafters, singing songs synonymous with Irish sporting conquests, including the legendary summer of the Italia '90 World Cup -- often cited by past generations as "the best time of our lives," when the Republic of Ireland's football team reached their first World Cup and went all the way to the quarterfinals before losing to hosts Italy.
Suddenly, the country was saturated with MMA experts. Debates would burst into action in bars across the nation, as people gesticulated over the status of McGregor's knee following surgery and the strength of his ground game.
The Irish charges got a taste of what was to come at the event's weigh-ins the day before. However, it wasn't until Kavanagh -- the head coach of SBG who led four fighters into bouts that night -- gave Holohan some sage advice that the enormity of the event came crashing home.
"I remember John saying to me, 'Enjoy this now, because it's going to be the last few minutes of your normal life,'" Holohan recalled. "Do you know that feeling you get when you stand in front of a big speaker at a concert? It's like you can feel a breeze, there's that much sound hitting you. That's exactly what the crowd felt like.
"It felt like I was marching into a burning building. It was like I was numb. When I see pictures of myself walking to the cage that night, I don't even recognize myself."
The ovation Holohan received after getting the Irish off to winning ways had seldom been seen so early in a fight night. It was barely 5 p.m. and the majority of the sold-out crowd had been baptized in half-drunk pints, flung in enthusiasm when Holohan's second-round submission signaled the end of Josh Sampo's night.
Next up was Pendred. Two minutes into the contest, Mike King collapsed the collective lungs of the Green Army when he dropped the hometown hero with a right hand.
"I felt like the fans were matching my emotions," Pendred recalled. "I heard the gasps when I got dropped. I could tell the crowd was freaked, but I nearly wanted to turn and face them and say, 'No, this is fine.' I never once said to myself, 'I'm done here.' I had that determination because of the sacrifices I made. It meant everything to me, there was no way I was letting it go."
Pendred persevered and was rewarded with a second-round submission win, just like Holohan before him.
McGregor and Nelson were the last two left in the SBG dressing room. "Gunni" remembers how they were feeding off the energy that seeped through the walls and into their holding chamber. When he heard Holohan and Pendred celebrating outside of the room, he burst through the door and dragged them inside for a triumphant embrace.
"I was going mental," Nelson said. "The funny thing was, I was going crazy, but in the next room, Dana White was going even more crazy -- he was screaming his ass off! When Cathal got that finish, there was probably more noise coming from Dana than there was coming from the whole arena. I was screaming, Conor was screaming, everybody was screaming. It just got me, it got me good. I wasn't even thinking about my fight at that point, I felt like I was in there with Cathal."
Suddenly the talk of an Irish clean sweep was becoming a reality. Set to compete next, Seery was feeling the weight of it all.
"I'm warming up in the back and I see Paddy going out and winning. Then I see Cathal going out and winning. Suddenly, I'm thinking, 'I'm up next.' Meanwhile, I'm seeing all of these people on social media who have bet on the Irish clean sweep. Up until I walked out, my mates were sending pictures of their betting slips and saying, 'If you lose you're dead, you stupid little midget!'"
Seery outclassed Phil Harris over the three rounds and was serenaded with an iconic Irish rebel song, "The Fields of Athenry," en route to victory. Seery had lost his nephew Jamie -- one of three triplets -- a week before the event due to complications at birth, but the atmosphere inside the 3 Arena empowered him.
"It lifted me. All these people here to see you, a whole country watching. ... They're in there throwing every punch with you," Seery said. "I can't put into words how hard it was to get through it. There's no doubt that I took a lot from the crowd that night."
Opening the main card, Parke took a second-round stoppage victory to push the Irish to 4-0. When Nelson latched onto a signature choke to win the co-main event, the crowd greeted him as one of their own.
"I was so young when I first went to Ireland and I felt like I was marinated in the Irish culture," Nelson said. "Dublin has always been a second home to me. The opponent and other things didn't really matter, it was just being out in front of these people and it meaning so much to them. I felt like I was at home."
By the time McGregor made his walk, the gathering had reached fever pitch -- such adoration hadn't been witnessed on the shores since the Pope's visit in 1979.
"The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck," Pendred remembered. "It was incredible. It made me proud to be Irish -- not just because of Conor, but because of the way the fans were that night."
Added Seery: "It wasn't just about us as individual fighters, it was about Ireland. I was watching Conor out there and I was thinking, 'This is for us.' I don't think you'll ever see anything like it again."
It barely took four minutes for "The Notorious" to dispatch Diego Brandao, securing a 6-0 win streak for the Irish along with Holohan, Pendred, Seery, Parke and honorary citizen Nelson. The crowd itself became a protagonist in the tale, reaching levels of 111 decibels when McGregor claimed victory.
In his postfight address, McGregor didn't make the moment about himself. Aware of the national significance, he unselfishly sent a message on behalf of the team he led on the night:
"We're not here to take part, we're here to take over."
At the postfight news conference, Dana White couldn't hide his delight.
"They've blown the doors off this place," White said. "Every fighter on the UFC roster now wants to fight in Ireland. ... It's this crazy thing. The event in Ireland has become an event in itself."
It was probably the last night McGregor belonged to the Irish. Two weeks later, he set sail for the U.S., taking Irish fans, fighters, coaches and media with him on his journey to UFC title fights, becoming interim featherweight champion less than a year later by beating Chad Mendes in Las Vegas.
Parke, Nelson and McGregor are the only remaining active fighters among the Irish contingent who competed that night. Holohan now earns a living as a politician and a coach following his forced retirement in 2016. Pendred owns a restaurant and also boasts an acting career. Seery continues in his role as warehouse manager, the same gig he kept up during his fighting days.
One thing they all can agree on is that a night like July 19, 2014, will never be seen again.
"I'm very proud that I had a part to play that night," Nelson said. "When I started over there, it was a small scene -- everybody knew each other. To see what it had grown into that night was amazing. It was surreal to see this gathering of people on what would turn out to be the biggest night in MMA history."
"I don't know if we'll ever have a group of fighters like that again," Seery said. "They'll tell you that they're as hungry as us, but they're not. ... They're chasing money, we were chasing a dream."
"I'll be reliving that moment for the rest of my life," Holohan added. "I think that's what I'll see before I die. There will never be a night like that again."