Having been recently awarded the 2020 IMMAF Oceania Championship Gold medal in Australia our featured fighter of the week is none other than three time IMMAF gold medalist Ryan Spillane of IMMAA club SBG Cork City under head coach Liam-Og Griffin.
Ryan kindly agreed to give us an insight into his whirlwind of a journey in mixed martial arts and how competing at the IMMAF championships as a proud representative of Team Ireland has provided him with opportunities he would have never dreamed possible.
When Ryan first considered trying out an MMA class back in May 2012 he never had any intentions of becoming a fighter. His focus at the time was entirely on his rugby career which was looking promising as he was playing at a high level for the Munster rugby academy and was considered a likely candidate to be selected for the future Munster team. When rugby season began to slow down towards the Summer Ryan decided he needed to find something new and interesting that would benefit his strength and endurance during the off-season.
Having seen a friend post a photo on facebook of an MMA class at a nearby gym called K2C Ryan believed it may be beneficial to his rugby training and wished to try it out. While he may have seemed like a confident, outgoing and athletic young man to an outsider, Ryan was crippled with fear and nerves at the thought of walking into an unfamiliar environment to train with new people in a sport he had never tried before and so he enlisted his cousin to attend with him for moral support. Luckily for Ryan the first MMA class he attended was based on learning how to execute a double-leg takedown against an opponent, this was of course, nothing new to Ryan as it was similar to the rugby tackles to which he was accustomed. While all of the other members in the class were of a similar age to Ryan, none came close to matching his size as a 100kg, 6ft 5” 16 year old, and so coach Liam-Og offered to be his training partner for the drill. Unfortunately for Liam-Og, Ryan was not yet fully aware of his size or power and instead of gently landing him on the mat as he was supposed to, Ryan opted to use his full force to launch him across the room and head first into the shutters of the gym windows, splitting open a gash in Liam-Og’s head which required several stitches. Ryan recalls seeing the wound and thinking ‘well the least I can do is start up a membership now that I’ve maimed the coach’.
As he continued to attend classes at K2C the cousin he had initially joined with had decided to give up MMA but luckily at that stage Ryan’s confidence had increased significantly and he finally felt capable to attend classes without his cousin by his side because of the close relationships he had built with his teammates. After 6 months of attending 3 classes per week in kickboxing and MMA Ryan’s coach approached him with the opportunity to fight in a local white collar boxing match. He accepted the fight but with no other teenage opponents within his weight bracket, the only opponent available to him was an adult man. He claims that fight was a special moment in his career because his father, a former Team Ireland boxing coach stepped in to corner him and although the fight resulted in a draw it grew Ryan’s confidence in his abilities as a fighter and gave him a taste for being under the spotlight.
Disaster then struck as Ryan dislocated his thumb during a rugby training session, due to the nature of the injury and the likelihood of recurrence he was dropped from the Rugby team which caused him to lose his love of the sport. However rugby’s loss was MMA’s gain as with his dreams of creating a successful rugby career now seemingly unattainable Ryan decided that he would switch his attention to focusing instead on building a career as a fighter.
Increasing his MMA training to 5 days per week he was committed to giving fighting his undivided attention and focused the majority of his time on striking and wrestling techniques. He went on to fight in twelve separate IKF kickboxing matches but soon found himself on a losing streak that hindered his self belief.
Ryan then chose to take a break from his MMA training while suffering through a mentally dejected period as a result of dropped from his rugby team, He states that he has always had an insatiable appetite and struggled greatly with his diet, regularly switching between strict, low calorie temporary diets and overindulgent junk food binges but once he no longer had his training regime to work off the excess calories the weight began to creep on. In a matter of only 6 months his weight had increased from 115kg to its heaviest ever at 155kg. Knowing his health was in jeopardy Ryan made the decision to resume his MMA training and upon returning to the gym learned that K2C had now affiliated with SBG Ireland to become SBG Cork City. Knowing that Ryan needed a goal to strive for to keep him on track Liam-Og offered him a fight within days of returning to the gym on one condition – he needed to lose 30kgs in three months. Having accomplished this impressive feat through a rigid diet and intensive training sessions Ryan made his MMA debut on a show called “The Reckoning” and although he lost the fight, he felt content with his performance. Having difficulty finding opponents as a heavyweight his next opportunity to fight was at the first ever IMMAF European Championships in Birmingham in 2015 as a representative of Team Ireland where, to his coaches shock he pulled guard to win via a leg-lock in the preliminary round but was defeated by Kimura in his second fight.
On returning to Ireland he had an important decision to make regarding his future – whether or not he should attend college. Deciding to ultimately ‘put all of his eggs in one basket’ Ryan chose to focus solely on building a career in MMA rather than pursue a third level education.
On short notice he accepted the opportunity to fight for the Battle Arena Heavyweight title in Oxford, England. Knowing he was the underdog he recalls feeling the pressure of hearing the crowd go wild for his opponent while they stayed eerily silent during Ryan’s walkout. With the crowd against him he knew he needed to make a statement, and finishing the fight with a head kick TKO only 10 seconds into round one did exactly that. Referring to that night as his ‘first taste of fame’ he recalls strangers lining up to take photos with him and the feeling of being so attached to his belt that he became upset when the flight attendants made him store it in the luggage compartment on the flight home.
The following two years proved to be an incredibly difficult period for Ryan as he adopted a negative attitude towards his training and fighting which caused him to lose 6 of his next 7 fights and had a number of fights cancelled on short notice. Struggling to keep his weight down in between fight camps he found he had lost his drive and passion for the sport. Ryan suspects that these losses were primarily due to one key factor – his mindset. While he believed he was technically superior, fitter and stronger than many of his opponents, he wasn’t focusing or performing to the best of his ability once he entered the cage, so much so that coach Liam-Og even stated that at times he knew Ryan was not about to perform well before a fight would even begin.
Having become increasingly frustrated with his lack of progression in the sport Ryan decided to quit MMA and do some travelling in Australia instead. Knowing that Ryan’s biggest obstacle was his mentality Liam-Og convinced him to participate in a skype seminar with sport psychologist David Mullins who had previously worked with UFC stars such as Conor McGregor and Paddy Holohan. Ryan considers that moment as an eye opening experience which enabled him to realise his mistakes and most importantly learn from them. With renewed self-belief Ryan agreed to return to MMA and was determined to work harder than ever before. While still in Australia Ryan accepted a fight on only one days notice and although he broke several bones in his hand while throwing a hook, he gave an extremely dominating performance which he ultimately won via a standing guillotine choke. He recalls coming to the realisation that this was exactly how he should be performing at every opportunity. After receiving surgery on his hand and returning to Ireland with a fresh perspective towards his career Ryan set himself a new goal – to become an IMMAF gold medalist. Having competed at the IMMAF championships on two separate occasions previously Ryan knew from experience the incredibly high standard of fighters he would meet there and believed that it was the ultimate proving ground to test his abilities as a fighter. One of his favourite aspects of competing at the IMMAF tournaments is that fighters are always guaranteed fights, with such a large number of athletes keen to put their skills to the test there are always fights available for the athletes, unlike on local shows where bouts are quite often cancelled for various reasons and fighters can be left with no opponents to compete against.
After completing his fight camp in a splint post-surgery Ryan won his preliminary fight at the 2017 IMMAF championships via a first round armbar but lost in his second fight due to one imperative mistake – not listening to his coaches advice! Ryan remembers Liam-Og repeatedly warning him not to throw any kicks as his opponent had a strong wrestling background and would seize any opportunity to take him down. Forgetting this crucial advice during the adrenaline rush of the fight Ryan’s first attempt at an attack was to throw a kick, which unsurprisingly his opponent used to his advantage by catching his leg, taking him down and submitting via a straight ankle lock in round one. Reflecting on this experience Ryan reveals that it did not diminish his enthusiasm for MMA, he simply regarded it as a mistake that proved to be an important aspect of the learning curve of the sport.
When Ryan decided to return to the 2018 IMMAF European championships in Romania he gratefully accepted an offer from SBG Ireland head coach and IMMAA president John Kavanagh to train at his gym in Dublin where there was a plethora of seasoned fighters similar to Ryan’s size to spar and train with alongside of his usual training at SBG Cork. Spending countless hours travelling from Cork to Dublin and back and sleeping in the gym proved to be worthwhile as he went on to win his first IMMAF European gold medal after two dominating performances, both results in first round stoppages.
At this point in time news had spread of Ireland’s new up and coming MMA prospect and Ryan was inundated with interviews, sponsorship opportunities and multiple offers of professional contracts. Deciding to postpone advancing to the professional ranks was a difficult decision to make but it was decided that it was in his best interest and benefit to his progress in the long term and instead he chose to focus on the 2018 IMMAF world championships. Following the completion of a 20 week long fight camp leading up to the tournament he felt extremely confident in his abilities even though this event had more heavyweight fighters than ever before with a staggering 17 athletes registered to compete within the heavyweight division. Ryan blazed through his opening fights with ease finishing his first fight of the competition in a round one submission of the first ever toe-hold finish in IMMAF history followed by a 21 second TKO stoppage which led him to the semi-finals, a fight which he considers to be the toughest of his career to date. As the first fight to last for three rounds since his amateur debut Ryan found this to be extremely testing of his cardio and endurance but managed to push through his limits to finish the fight by ankle-lock in the third round, thus qualifying him to progress to the finals. With his goal in sight Ryan was looking forward to experiencing the same euphoric feeling he had experienced when he won the European championships but unfortunately the fight was unable to proceed as his opponent failed to attend the weigh-ins.
The realisation that he would be crowned champion in this manner was bittersweet for Ryan as he felt cheated of his victory and wanted the opportunity to fight for the title but was left with little choice in the matter.
Returning to Ireland with a his second amateur championship gold medal Ryan again had the opportunity to graduate to the professional ranks but after careful consideration with his coaches, they decided it would be best to remain at amateur level while they worked on some areas of his game that they felt needed more attention, specifically his takedown defence and stopping his opponents from passing guard. Ryan was then offered the opportunity to captain Team Ireland as they battled Team Poland on Reign MMA on a rooftop show in the first ever sanctioned MMA event in Dubai. In a true display of skill and tenacity Team Ireland won every single fight with Ryan being the main event of the promotion and winning via a first round heel hook. Although elated with the outcome Ryan had mistakenly succumbed to bad habits of the past by allowing his opponent to take him down and pass his guard and so the wait for his professional debut was prolonged once again.
Due to a knee injury Ryan was unable to attend the 2019 European championships and feeling frustrated by the postponement of his professional debut he reluctantly agreed to register for the 2019 world championships but admits that his heart wasn’t in it as he was too fixated on advancing to the professional ranks. His motivation began to dwindle and he found himself reverting to his old habit of allowing doubts and insecurities to cloud his mind, resulting in a disappointing performance in the preliminary bout which caused him to be eliminated from the competition. Ryan claims this was the lowest point of his career, overwhelmed with shame and discouragement at his defeat at such an early stage caused him to slip into a depressive state and he refused to leave his hotel room for the remaining duration of the tournament. Solemnly he admits that he felt as though his opportunities for a professional career were slipping through his fingers.
His team of dedicated coaches and training partners all rallied around Ryan on his return and worked extremely hard to help restore his confidence levels and improve his weaknesses. One of the most difficult aspects of his daily life which needed attention was his diet, while he had always been capable of losing or cutting weight for a fight, he would often binge on junk food when he did not have a fight scheduled and found he had adapted an unhealthy all or nothing approach to nutrition. His manager Barry O’ Callaghan of Alpha Fighter Management organised for him to meet with renowned nutritionist Johnny Holland who provided him with a tailored nutritional programme designed to meet his individual needs as an athlete. Ryan refers to this as a ‘game changer’ as he saw a distinctive increase in his energy and performance as a result of his new diet plan and felt this provided him with the balanced approach to nutrition which he had been previously lacking.
In early 2020 when IMMAF content manager Jordan Curren contacted Liam-Og to see if Ryan would be interested in competing at the Oceania championships in Australia he wholeheartedly jumped at the opportunity. The pair travelled 35 hours to the Gold Coast Australia where Ryan took full advantage of the opportunity to redeem himself with a triumphant win by TKO just 32 seconds into the first round, earning him the Oceania championship gold medal.
Acknowledging that his team and support system have been the driving force behind his success he would like to express his appreciation for his coach Liam-Og Griffin for all of the time and endless hours he has put into Ryan’s career, Rory Hennebry for being an exceptional training partner and receiving numerous deadened legs without complaint, Marlene and Jimmy for their constant and unwavering support, guidance and encouragement and Johnny Holland for his outstanding nutritional advice.
While currently he continues to train as much as he can from home during this social isolation period Ryan states that his sights are set on making his long awaited professional debut and his long term goal is to make such an impression upon the mixed martial arts community that he is referred to as ‘The Baddest Man Alive’ which he believes would be the ultimate legacy to achieve. He also hopes to follow in the footsteps of his coach, by opening a gym of his own and raising the next generation of mixed martial artists once his fighting career has reached an end.
We here at the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association are incredibly proud of Ryan’s achievements as a representative of Team Ireland and would like to wish him the very best of luck and skills as he ventures into the professional ranks in the very near future.