Bellator Dublin: Sampling the big fight night atmosphere with Irish fans

By Dermot BroganBBC Sport NI
Kiefer Crosbie
Home favourite Kiefer Crosbie beat Iamik Furtado on a split decision

Agony, ecstasy, incredible atmosphere - Bellator Dublin had it all, and then some.

I have watched countless hours of mixed martial arts over the years, so in attending a live high-profile MMA event for the first time I knew what to expect. Or, so I thought.

UFC president Dana White labelled Irish MMA fans the craziest in the world after bringing his promotion to Dublin in 2015. I was keen to find out in person just how true that statement was.

The punters soon arrived in huge numbers and the 3 Arena was almost packed to capacity towards the end of the preliminary card, which showcased some of MMA's up-and-comers.

The decibels rose every time an Irish fighter made that walk to the cage, but it wasn't until Straight Blast Gym prospect Frans Mlambo arrived that the first proper spike in volume occurred.

Ricky Bandejas scored a knockout win over Frans Mlambo on the Dublin bill
Ricky Bandejas scored a knockout win over Frans Mlambo on the Dublin bill

Soon after, "Zombie" by the Cranberries began circling the arena. Thousands took to their feet, hands in the air, perfectly mimicking the ballad made famous by the late Dolores O'Riordan.

If ever the word "goosebumps" was relevant, it was at that moment. I had never experienced anything quite like it before.

Taking in such events in front of the small screen always meant concentrating solely on the fights. Seeing first-hand the sheer amount of manpower, planning and effort that goes into making these nights a success means that is almost impossible.

The fighters make their entrance down a ramp with their chosen song blaring while their face is displayed behind them on a monstrous, vivid screen. It's not unlike something you might see in WWE.

Situated mere yards from the cage, the press area is where I was able to watch it all unfold.

In that environment though, it's difficult just to watch what's going on inside the cage when there's so much activity outside it.

For one thing, I tended to find myself scanning the immediate vicinity of the cage to see if any celebrities or high-profile fighters were around.

Leah McCourt saw off Judith Ruis
Top-of-the-bill Leah McCourt saw off Judith Ruis in a featherweight bout

Lo and behold, Belfast boxing icon Carl Frampton was in attendance to show his support for headliner Leah McCourt, who hails from his city.

James "The Strabanimal" Gallagher also arrived to great fanfare - he had been due to be the night's headliner before injury forced him to withdraw.

Interestingly, his scheduled opponent Cal "Pacino" Ellenor was also sat cageside, and as Gallagher passed by he glared at the Englishman as if fishing for a reaction.

Ellenor simply smiled and ignored his adversary, but the two had a heated exchange on social media days before so it was intriguing to see the psychology up close when they came face-to-face.

Quick access backstage meant I could observe fighters in the seconds before they put it all on the line, while also witnessing the post-fight trauma or elation etched on their faces as they returned to the locker room.

One fighter on the losing end of a dramatically close decision uttered expletives on his walk back from the cage, while his victorious opponent strutted back grinning from ear to ear. How fine the margins are as the roles could easily have been reversed.

When Leah McCourt did what she had to do in the main event to claim a unanimous decision, she embraced her daughter Isabella in the centre of the cage immediately afterwards. The look of sheer joy on Leah's face, to have had that touching moment, was special.

To witness this, and the rest, in person was incredible. A night at the fights? Don't mind if I do.

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