Paul Hughes on Conor McGregor’s influence on Irish MMA: ‘He did break down mental barriers for us young lads coming up’


Paul Hughes credits Conor McGregor

This past Saturday, Hughes made his PFL/Bellator debut, finishing Bobby King in the co-main event of Bellator Dublin. It was an impressive performance for the Irish prospect in front of his home country, and it was made all the more special for Hughes as his countryman Conor McGregor sat cageside for his fight. After the fight, Hughes even shouted McGregor out saying, “People talk shit, but this man changed the game and changed all of our young fighters’ lives.”

Speaking with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour on Monday, Hughes said that while he initially had other plans for his post-fight interview, McGregor’s presence brought on his impromptu speech.

“I wanted to call out Usman Nurmagomedov for the lightweight belt,” Hughes said. “[But] he got booked against Alexander Shabily at, whatever it is, end of the year. So the likelihood of them having a fight and me fighting him before the season next year just didn’t seem likely. So I just kind of held my tongue.

“Plus it just didn’t come about. The post-fight interview kind of went a different way, obviously, with McGregor showing up and having an exchange with him. So it kind of ended up going a different way in the post-fight interview.”

Hughes’s speech in support of him actually came at an interesting time for McGregor. “Notorious” was set to headline this weekend’s UFC 303 card against Michael Chandler but withdrew after breaking a toe during his training camp. The revelation that McGregor pulled out of a fight for a toe injury earned the former UFC champ-champ plenty of critics, but Hughes stands by Hughes isn’t one of them.

“It came from the heart,” Hughes said. “Dan asked me the question, ‘How does it feel having Conor McGregor here?’ I had just seen him, he came up to the cage, I was looking at him, and I just spoke from the heart. That’s the reality. I’m just speaking the truth. He did break down the mental barriers for us young lads coming up, especially coming from the island of Ireland.

“Just 10 years ago he was fighting [Diego] Brandao in the same arena, and that was the beginning of his rise and the beginning of the change of Irish MMA forever. Then 10 years later, he’s inspired me and I’m in the same arena, co-main eventing my first huge, global show. And there I am having an interaction with him cageside. It just felt right to thank him, because it was just the truth.”

If McGregor opened the door for Irish fighters, Hughes is part of the next generation of Irish fighters hoping to pick up his mantle. The 27-year-old former Cage Warriors champion is now 12-1 in his MMA career with the longterm goal of entering the PFL lightweight season next year. In the meantime, he’s going to sit back and enjoy his first win in the promotion and then see what comes next.

“I’m going to take a week here and just take it in,” Hughes said. “It’s been a crazy journey since getting out of that — even before getting out of that Cage Warriors contract... Getting that all done, getting a fight booked in the 3Arena, a show being built around me, and finally going and doing the business. So I’m going to take a week and then after that we’ll talk to PFL-Bellator and see what they would like me to do. “


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