Issue 206

June 2024

December 31, 2012

The Helix, Dublin, Ireland

Cage Warriors 51

By Brad Wharton

It was supposed to be one of the biggest comebacks in combat sports history. Conor McGregor, MMA’s biggest ticket by almost every measurable metric, was back in the cage for the first time since a gut-churning leg break prematurely ended his third fight with Dustin Poirier. 

You can like or loathe McGregor (you’ll find plenty of a like-mind either way), but you can’t deny the man’s credentials or impact on the UFC and the broader MMA landscape. 

It didn’t matter when he last fought or who he last beat; tickets for McGregor’s planned return were like gold dust, selling out in minutes and generating what was to be the highest gate in the promotion’s history only for a broken toe to put paid to it all. This isn’t the first time Conor has crossed paths with the infamous injury bug. Before Mayweather, the movies, and the millions, a series of events led him to a fateful New Year's Eve in Dublin and a fight that would change the trajectory of his life forever. 


By the Summer of 2012, the whispers around Conor McGregor had started. A failed apprentice plumber from Crumlin, Ireland, living off social welfare, McGregor had given boxing a go before making the switch to MMA, eventually finding himself training in the then-ramshackle facility that was John Kavanagh’s SBGi in Dublin. 

After a couple of early career missteps against countryman Joe Duffy and Lithuanian leglock wizard Artemij Sitenkov, McGregor had righted the ship under Kavenagh’s tutelage, and with the help of a merry band of teammates who would form the foundation of the first Irish MMA revolution. The Irishman had enjoyed a coming out party of sorts against Steve O’Keefe at London’s HMV Forum that February, pouring elbows onto the Englishman’s temple until he went limp.

The Cage Warriors crowd lit up; a star was in their midst. The win had earned McGregor a shot at the promotion’s featherweight title, which was not as big a deal then as it is now. 

Promoter Graham Boylan was still in the process of rescuing what had been a floundering IP for years; a big part of that plan involved regular shows in his native Ireland, but for that, Cage Warriors needed a star. By the time McGregor had choked out fellow #1 contender Dave Hill to capture the vacant 145lb title at Dublin’s Helix Theatre in June, it was clear that they’d found one. 

Plans were hastily arranged for McGregor, now going by the moniker ‘The Notorious’, to make his first defense against American grappler Jim Alers. 

It was a risky move; Alers was considered the favorite heading into the bout. Due to the promotion's commitments to Middle Eastern investors, McGregor would fight far from home in Amman, Jordan. 

That’s when fate – and the Injury Bug – intervened. 


There’s a trope among McGregor ‘haters’ that he’s never defended a title. While technically true, he was days away from doing just that when a bizarre training accident took him out of the Alers fight. 

Atem Lobov, while now deep in the guts of an ugly legal case with McGregor over the financials of his Proper 12 whiskey empire, was once one of his closest allies and his main sparring partner. 

Lobov was a beast, a hard-nosed sparkplug of a man and the epitome of an anyone-anytime-anywhere-fighter. McGregor liked to simulate combat as closely as possible when sparring, and with Lobov opposite him in the cage, he was assured of as many good, hard rounds as he could manage.

Unfortunately, during one of the final sessions ahead of the Alers' bout, a stiff shot from the Russian left Conor with a gruesome depression fracture of the cheekbone. 

The upshot was an inevitable postponement of the fight, but it wasn’t all bad news. The contest was now slated for Cage Warriors 51 on New Year’s Eve in Dublin. 

McGregor was chomping at the bit. His fans were bombarding UFC President Dana White on social media, and what felt like a genuine movement was in its embryonic stages. 

Tickets flew out of the door for the Dubliner’s homecoming, but just as things were hitting fever pitch, disaster struck. 

Alers was out. A serious knee injury was the culprit. It was devastating news. Rumors were swirling that the UFC had a contract inked and ready to go, seeing the potential of a cult figure who would be popular not just at home but to the scores of Irish Americans on the nation’s east coast. 

Two weeks before Christmas is hardly the ideal time to find an elite featherweight, let alone one prepared to sacrifice their holidays to step into the pressure cooker of a Dublin crowd against their local hero. Matchmaker Ian Dean worked his magic, and with McGregor desperate to remain on the card, a solution was found in the shape of 21-3 Slovakian wrecking machine Ivan ‘Buki’ Buchinger. 

McGregor would move up to 155lb for the bout and the opportunity to hold two world titles simultaneously: a promotional first. 


Come fight night, it was apparent that this was not just some title fight on a regional promotion; this was the start of something wild. 

Thousands claim to have been in attendance that night, but the truth is that the venue only held a paltry twelve hundred. 

Not that you’d have known it from the roars as MC Joe Martinez announced McGregor as the fighting pride of Dublin, Ireland. The place went ballistic, and the extra security drafted in struggled to maintain order as the masses almost spilled from their seats. 

Buchinger was stoney-faced. A knockout artist with a wickedly unorthodox submission game and a wealth of big fight experience, on paper, he looked to be a nightmare for McGregor. 

The Helix is a theatre; the acoustics in the building are phenomenal, and with New Year's cheer (and more than a few pints of the black stuff) flowing through the crowd, the sound had reached a cacophony.   

But as the horn sounded for the start of the first round, an eerie calm had fallen over McGregor. It was like he was on auto-pilot, gliding around the cage like he was back in the gym sparring with Lobov or doing a movement exercise. 

It was the proto-Notorious performance: wide stance, karate bounce, snapping of front kicks and spins to manage the distance, and digging in with the left hand early. 

The Irishman was giving his man none of the space previous Cage Warriors opponent Diego Gozalez had, and it was paying dividends. A takedown surprised everyone, but the Slovak quickly swept out and muscled back to his feet. 

Feints, taunts, more kicks; Conor did everything he could to draw ‘Buki’ onto the left hand, snapping his head back whenever it found a home. 

Buchinger wasn’t shying away from the fight. That much was true, but he couldn’t land a glove on his opponent. 

“That left is getting through, and it’s like a piston!” yelled commentator John Gooden as two more and a knee crashed through Buchinger’s guard.

He bravely trudged forward on stiffened legs, but as a clumsy right hand swished wide of the mark, McGregor countered with a sublime sliding left hook. 

Buchinger crumpled into the canvas, arms splayed at strange angles. 

The room erupted; the air filled with noise, beer, and joy. 

It was the birth of a legend, perhaps the most successful career in MMA history, and the chance to say, “I was there” for those twelve hundred in attendance.