Darren Till really had Echo Arena rocking on Sunday. It was reminiscent of the rousing scene at The O2 when Conor McGregor headlined a UFC show there back in 2014. Of course, Till is from right there in Liverpool, and McGregor is a native of Dublin, so apparently this is what happens when you put an exciting fighter on display in his hometown.
What UFC fighter should get the next hometown main event?
We asked the members of our panel — ESPN MMA reporter Brett Okamoto, ESPN MMA editor Greg Rosenstein, SportsCenter host Phil Murphy, and digital contributors Jeff Wagenheim and Eric Tamiso — for their take.
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Okamoto: As far as ones we've already seen are concerned, Stipe Miocic in Cleveland doesn't get the respect it deserves. Full disclosure: I grew up near Cleveland, so I'm probably biased — but believe me when I tell you that UFC 203 in September 2016 was awesome. Till in Liverpool on Sunday. McGregor in Dublin. Mark Hominick in Toronto, back at UFC 129. Randy Couture in Portland, Oregon, at UFC 102. Those are a few special ones that come to mind, personally.
A new one we haven't seen yet? Forgive me, I'm going with the obvious answer here. It's lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in Russia. Of course. Nurmagomedov's fan base is incredible. It's a region that knows the sport. If Nurmagomedov fights Conor McGregor in 2018, it will be in Las Vegas — not Russia. But Nurmagomedov in Russia would be insane, regardless of opponent.
Murphy: This one is easy to pick, difficult to execute: I want to see McGregor fight at Croke Park in Dublin.
McGregor is comfortably MMA's biggest star with the sport's most rapidly growing fan base. If you put him on a main event in front of more than 82,000 Irishmen, the event would sell out in minutes, and the fight night buzz would surpass anything the UFC has ever seen, regardless of the opponent. You could print posters with McGregor squaring off against a silhouette, put it at Croke and demand wouldn't dip.
Two problems keep that event from happening — well, three, if you count McGregor's inactivity.
Dublin is a rain-heavy city, and Croke Park is an outdoor venue. Site issues could be mitigated by throwing it in 3Arena (formerly The O2), but that cuts capacity (and gate) by more than 80 percent. The appeal to the promotion and event headliners is smashing the gate record. Keep the event outdoors and cover the canvas.
The larger obstacle is timing. An event of that magnitude would warrant prime-time viewing in the United States, which runs well past local curfew in Dublin. If one scenario would cause something to give — local authorities bending on time restrictions and/or the UFC opting for an earlier pay-per-view slot — this would be it.
If the UFC can handle those three significant moving parts, the payoff would be more than worth the headache.
Wagenheim: Let me begin by being the first on our ESPN coverage team to selflessly offer to make the long journey if Holloway is scheduled for a main event in Hawaii. I have the perfect shirt for the occasion. However, with Holloway already in possession of a title belt, he's not exactly what the UFC is after with these hometown fights. Same with McGregor and Nurmagomedov. In its two most prominent such bookings — Till in Liverpool and McGregor (2014 version) in Dublin — the promotion was seeking to supercharge the rise of a promising contender in a high-energy setting.
It's a game of three-dimensional chess, really, trying to match an up-and-comer with an untapped market. Kamaru Usman in Nigeria seems brilliant until you realize the 13-1 welterweight has lived in the United States since he was 8 years old. Valentina Shevchenko (15-3) going for the flyweight belt in Lima? It's not exactly her hometown, since she didn't move to Peru until she was an adult. Yair Rodriguez in Chicago — or even Chihuahua, Mexico — would have been fun, but he lives in limbo now. How about Colby Covington in Dante's City of Dis?
The UFC has scheduled its first event in Russia for Sept. 15 in Moscow, and the announcement shined a spotlight on Nurmagomedov as well as flashy 15-1 featherweight Zabit Magomedsharipov. But they're both from Dagestan, nearly 1,800 miles from Moscow. Booking one of them in the Russian capital would be like giving a fighter from Kansas City, Missouri, a hometown fight at Madison Square Garden.
So if the UFC is looking to boost an up-and-comer, how about putting Magomedsharipov at the top of the marquee in the Dagestan capital of Makhachkala? He has barely cracked the rankings but fights with a headliner's flair. And while the city of 600,000 on the Caspian Sea isn't exactly an MMA promoter's dream destination, it's unquestionably a breeding ground for top-shelf talent. Bring the Octagon to town and put Magomedsharipov on a bill with lightweights Islam Makhachev (15-1) and Rustam Khabilov (22-3). Let's put the pronunciation skills of Bruce Buffer to the test.
Tamiso: The energy inside The O2 in Dublin in July 2014 was electric when McGregor beat Diego Brandao. That was his third UFC fight, and even then you could tell this kid was going to be special. In his bouts since then, droves of Irish fans have made the journey to Las Vegas, New York and Boston to create an atmosphere rarely seen in combat sports.
Now imagine those fans, their numbers having grown exponentially since 2014, not having to travel and getting to see their idol battle inside an 82,000-seat stadium in Dublin.