Cage Warriors 161: An Evening I Will Not Forget

Paul Hughes makes his entrance for the CW 161 main event. Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors.

I’ve been lucky enough to cover a few fight nights on Irish soil in recent years, but something about Saturday night felt special.

It wasn’t the most successful night in Irish MMA by any stretch. Irish-trained fighters went 6-3, overall. Nor was it as grandiose in crowd size as the sell-out 3Arena shows that fans have come to expect in Dublin. There was a little bit of everything though.

I witnessed heartbreak in defeat for a number of budding prospects, their coaches wearing the emotional damage of loss. The type of pain on their face—in the quiet moments backstage far from the gaze of the watching world—that reveals the deep care and connection they share with the young men they steer.

I listened to fighters—who many (myself included) have placed heavy labels on—grapple for an understanding of what went wrong, and why? A night that was meant to offer them up under the bright lights as the next answer, had suddenly left them in the shadows with nothing but questions.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the winning fighters, either. Some limped into the media room, acknowledging limbs broken by the process of victory. The cost of success varies in this sport, you see.

The crowd’s voice ebbed and flowed through the peaks and valleys of the night. As is commonplace at Cage Warriors Irish events, pockets of fans grouped together in support of their fighter or gym, whether it be Team KF, Team Ryano, or Fight Academy Ireland.

Team Ryano’s Solomon Simon was first to give the Irish something to cheer about. “King” notched his third stoppage since turning pro in January, scoring a 3rd-round submission over Finland’s Marko Sarasjärvi.

Solomon Simon extends his unbeaten record to 3-0. Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors.

The volume climbed a few decibels for Simon’s teammate, as chants of “Gerry!” rung around the intimate RDS setting. Ger Harris—a long-time protégé of Irish MMA legend Owen Roddy, now fighting out of Team Ryano—entertained his Ballymun faithful with an arsenal of “high performance moves,” bludgeoning Ryan Hewitt’s face en route to a comprehensive decision victory. For Harris, this was his audition to impress the Cage Warriors brass in the hope of earning a multi-fight contract.

Ger Harris lands a flush head kick on Ryan Hewitt. Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors.

Taka Mhandu earned a hard-fought decision vs Moldovan veteran Alexander Pirev. The Team KF fanbase willed “The Cat” on, screaming advice from beyond the cage as they threw each punch and kick with their guy to close out the prelims portion of the night.

A bloody Taka Mhandu celebrates in victory. Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors.

Paddy McCorry sent beers skyward and tempers soaring with his comeback submission over Frenchman Samir Kadi. A fight that seemed to be slipping away from the West Belfast middleweight turned on its head through the FAI man’s perseverance with the guillotine choke. It wasn’t the cleanest performance of McCorry’s young career, but it demonstrated a grittiness and an ability to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, which will stand to the 25 year old as his career progresses.

Paddy McCorry locks in a guillotine choke to score a comeback submission. Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors.

After rising in celebration earlier in the night, the Team KF supporters were left stunned as bright prospects Leon Hill and Ryan Shelley succumbed to submission finishes. The night was meant to hold redemption for Shelley following his 3Arena defeat to Tobias Harila earlier this year. A chance to reassert himself into the upper echelon of the Cage Warriors 145lbs division. For Hill, it promised a 7th consecutive win and three in the space of just 6 months under the promotional banner. Instead, both fighters will be forced to regroup and reset for the nights still to come.

A dejected Ryan Shelley, following his loss to Jordy Bakkes. Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors.

Where Shelley was denied, redemption was granted to fellow Whitehall native, James “Jimbo Slice” Sheehan. The Team Ryano captain suffered a close decision loss to now-UFC fighter, Oban Elliott, in April. After surviving an early storm from 19-fight veteran Olli Santalahti in round 1, Sheehan assumed the driving seat for the rest of the contest, comfortably besting his Finnish counterpart over three rounds. Title contention surely looms for the modest Dubliner, who has now won 6 of his last 7 bouts. With former foe Omiel Brown fighting Giannis Bachar next month in London for the vacant welterweight title, the potential rematch storyline is within touching distance.

Has James Sheehan booked himself a title shot? Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors.

Cage Warriors’ Irish contingent is in a state of flux, currently. Some are young new pros who have only just left the starting line. Others, already burdened by “prospect” labels, are perhaps further away from title contention than we originally thought. With Rhys McKee and Caolan Loughran already gone to UFC, Cage Warriors will need to wait for a clear star to emerge on whom they can rest the responsibility of selling a larger Dublin show next year.

However, there is one fighter who still fights under their banner (for now), who stands ahead of the pack.

For while Saturday was a night of talent development for most of the Cage Warriors Irish, it belonged to one man, and one man alone.

Cage Warriors 161 was the Paul Hughes show.

Comparisons have and will be made to Irish MMA nights of yesteryear. I can’t tell you if Saturday was a throwback to the Cage Contender days or Helix nights. Nor do I think they are of equivalence. What I can tell you is that Saturday night felt like a star-making performance on Irish soil for Paul “Big News” Hughes. A homecoming coronation for the king without a crown.

For some time now, the world has known Hughes’ name. His absence (as of yet) from the UFC roster is often a talking point on social media. His skills are highly regarded worldwide. I’ve long been impressed by the Fight Academy Ireland charge’s fighting capabilities myself (who hasn’t?).

This was something different though. This was the total package. A man who had the Dublin crowd eating out of the palm of his hand before he even entered the arena.

As Jan Quaeyhaegens stood waiting to make his walk to the cage, Hughes fans surrounded the Belgian, venomously serenading the challenger with the most aggressive rendition of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” I’ve ever bore witness to. There was no title on the line, of course. Hughes moved up to lightweight for this one, his new division. Make no mistake though, in the eyes of the Derry fighter’s supporters, Quaeyhaegens was here to challenge their champion.

It was the first time the Lavey man competed in front of a Dublin crowd since his professional debut at BAMMA 28 in February 2017. On that night—at the same event Paul Redmond and Norman Parke went to war in the main event—a 19-year-old Hughes took the domestic circuit by storm, executing what I believe to be the most electric professional debut in the history of Irish MMA. He was the talk of the town, the name on everyone’s lips. And then just like that, he was gone.

The 6-year road back to Dublin was long and winding.

Multiple hand breaks. A 2-year absence from competition as a result. Retirement talks. Comebacks. Short-notice opportunities. Fighting up weight classes just to get a fight. Early Cage Warriors run highlight-reel finishes. Bloody wars with Jordan Vucenic and Morgan Charriere. More injuries. Rematches. Title captures and unifications.

The Paul Hughes story already fills a number of chapters.

With all the focus on the UFC as of late, it caught me by complete surprise on Saturday night that, just perhaps, this night in Dublin was exactly what Hughes needed. I couldn’t see it beforehand.

And then he made the walk.

As “Grace” began to ring out around the RDS, it was clear the conductor had found his orchestra. Hughes took on the form of a meditating monk, eyes closed, soaking in every lyric. As “Grace” ended and Nipsey Hussle’s “Victory Lap” began, Hughes’ eyes opened. The 26 year old surveyed the crowd, before dancing his way to the cage, oozing all the confidence of a man who has already read the script.

Hughes’ confidence entering the cage was only matched by his fearless fighting style when the door locked behind him. After stunting Quaeyhaegens attacks with a series of early low leg kicks, the final blow took just under 3 minutes. Hughes landed a picture-perfect check left hook, sliding out of range before spinning the Belgian’s head on its axis, as Quaeyhaegens slumped to the canvas.

The maestro had brought the Dublin crowd to its crescendo, and all that was left to do was scale the cage and sample a can of Forged Irish Stout, an ode to both his new sponsor and the double champion who’s path he follows.

Sometimes in MMA, the obstacle becomes the way. While many of us will maintain that Hughes should never have had to fight again in yellow gloves, on this occasion, it was meant to be.

Paul Hughes once again proved that his days on the regional scene are numbered. His fights with Vucenic and Charriere will go down in history as legendary nights for the Cage Warriors brand, but it was fitting that his swansong was on Irish soil.

This was a moment that Irish MMA will get to savour for years to come. The night that Hughes punched his ticket to the UFC in the RDS. A special night for a special fighter.

No ink has been signed with Dana White and company yet, but that almost seems irrelevant now.

It’s no longer if, but when.

The cream always rises…

Paul Hughes poses with the Irish flag following his victory. Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors.

Andy is a multimedia reporter, interviewer, writer, with a strong focus on Irish MMA. Co-host of The Auld Triangle podcast. Follow Andy on Twitter (@andyste123) and Instagram (@andystevensonMMA).

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