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How a little-known fighter had a major impact on MMA in Ireland

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Tom Egan
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Despite immense hype, Tom Egan, bottom, was no match for John Hathaway at UFC 93 in Dublin. (Getty Images)

Some of the biggest names in mixed martial arts were atop the card at UFC 93 in Dublin on Jan. 17, 2009.

Mark Coleman, now a UFC Hall of Famer, faced Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, who will one day make the Hall of Fame, in the co-main. Two other future Hall of Fame members, Dan Henderson and Rich Franklin, headlined the card.

But at the pre-fight news conference, a largely unknown fighter was garnering as much attention as the superstars sitting on either side of him.

The Irish media was infatuated with a Dubliner who was added to the card almost as an afterthought, simply to attract a bit of local attention. No one, though, could have expected what occurred.

Tom Egan, a 2-0 welterweight whose confidence and ability to talk attracted Irish media in droves, was the rare UFC undercard fighter who was garnering as much attention as the stars.

"It was so surreal," Egan said of the attention he received pre-UFC 93 and on his entrance to the O2 Dublin Arena for his bout with John Hathaway. "I was like, 'Wow. This is hard to believe.' I was young and wanting to succeed and then to have that all happen, it truly was surreal. I think that's the best word to describe it.

"I think John and I were the first guys from the preliminary card to be put up on the dais at the pre-fight press conference because so many people wanted to talk to us. I remember seeing some of the guys and saying to myself, 'Look, there's Mark Coleman. Hey, there's Shogun. And there's Dan Henderson and there's Rich.' To have been sitting at the same table with them was incredible to me."

When Egan entered the arena for his bout with Hathaway, it was like the arrival of the Beatles in New York. The roar in the building was deafening. The 21-year-old Egan was greeted as a conquering hero.

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It's now Irishman Conor McGregor's turn to feel the immense support in Dublin. (Getty Images)

It's now Irishman Conor McGregor's turn to feel the immense support in Dublin. (Getty Images)

On Saturday, a similar story will play out at the O2. Hometown hero Conor McGregor will face Diego Brandao and will undoubtedly receive one of the most raucous welcomes any fighter in UFC history has ever gotten.

But five years before Conor McGregor, Tom Egan was the man.

Egan's now 26 and living in Boston, where he trains under Peter Welch and trying to get his career back on track. He's 7-5 and on a two-fight losing streak.

If McGregor proves worthy of the enormous hype he's receiving, he'll owe a bit of thanks to Egan, who paved the way for him.

"I always saw the picture in my head of me being atop the bill and headlining a massive show somewhere," McGregor said. "But I went to UFC 93 to support Tom and when I saw that, it made it real. It reiterated to me that this wasn't just a dream I was having, that I was seeing the future. I knew it was out there for me and very reachable."

McGregor is 2-0 in the UFC, with wins over Marcus Brimage and Max Holloway, both good but not great fighters who are nowhere close to the featherweight title picture.

No less than UFC president Dana White believes McGregor is a potential star, however. There have been plenty of fighters who have come, and quickly gone, who didn't have the talent to match the hype. White, though, is convinced that McGregor is the real deal.

"I really believe he's got the talent to be special," White said. "He's a very talented kid."

Egan is the guy who, in a lot of ways, made everything possible. He helped invigorate the MMA scene in Dublin by his appearance at UFC 93, though he chuckles at the notion now.

He's honored, he said, that anyone would say that about him.

"If people feel that way, it would mean a lot to me to hear that," Egan said. "If I had some role at all in helping Irish MMA and helping to get others to train, then I'm blessed to have played a role in that. I know there was a lot of energy for me in the crowd that night being the only Irishman on the card. They were incredible and hopefully I did help move things along."

Egan is a longtime friend of McGregor's. The two went to school together and know each other well.

McGregor is perhaps the UFC's No. 1 trash talker, which is saying a lot. His confidence knows no bounds.

He told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday he's believed for a long time it was his destiny to do something special in life.

"I dreamed for years of being in a stadium [playing soccer] and scoring that huge goal and hearing the crowd go nuts," he said. "And now, it's playing out that way, just in fighting. I believe after this fight, I'm going to be fighting in a stadium with a massive crowd behind me."

That, Egan said, is no act that McGregor has created in order to gain attention. For as long as Egan remembers, McGregor was always that way.

"He's got a deep belief in himself and he's not shy about talking about it," Egan said. "I remember him for years talking about what he'd do and how he was going to make it. His success now only validates what he had to say then."

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Conor McGregor, top, elbows Max Holloway during their featherweight bout in August 2013 in Boston. (Getty Images)

Conor McGregor, top, elbows Max Holloway during their featherweight bout in August 2013 in Boston. (Getty Imag …

The Irish papers in those days were filled with stories about Barack Obama, who was about to be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. A bus driver in Dublin, Ireland, said, "Good luck with Obama," to a small group of Americans who disembarked.

There were pictures of Obama in storefronts all over downtown Dublin.

But in those same newspapers, a few pages behind the stories about Obama, was the story of Tom Egan.

He lost that fight, getting stopped in the first round, and has bounced around looking for success. He's become a vastly better wrestler than he was in those days; wrestling was a weakness then, but he says it's his strength now.

No matter what happens in the rest of his career, though, he's always going to have that memory of his moment on the big stage.

"It was a great disappointment for me to lose that fight and the professional in me struggled to find an answer for why I lost," he said. "But as a regular individual, just as Tom the person, I was exceptionally happy. It had been less than two years since I first put on the MMA gloves and all of a sudden I was in the UFC and I had this massive crowd behind me.

"My professional side was hurt and disappointed and really looking for answers. But from a personal standpoint, I don't think I'll ever forget that week and that night."

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