“I know I can, and I will!” – Those are the determined words of the first ever IMMAF featherweight female youth world champion and our featured fighter of the week Sarah Elliott-Sheridan of IMMAA gym SBG Charlestown under head coach Owen Roddy. At only 17 years of age Sarah has already proven herself as a force to be reckoned with by blazing trails and breaking barriers for female mixed martial artists both in Ireland and across the world.
Having lost her passion for gymnastics after 8 years of training, Sarah’s journey into martial arts began when she enrolled in a beginners introduction to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu course at Balance BJJ in 2016, where she learned the fundamentals of grappling as a means of defending herself against typical sibling rough-housing from her older brother. After taking a break from BJJ training to focus on her schoolwork Sarah first became aware of SBG Charlestown when she read ‘Win or Learn’, a book written by IMMAA president Coach John Kavanagh which details his journey and experiences within MMA. Finding herself intrigued by the sport Sarah plucked up the courage to attend her first class at SBG Charlestown. She recalls feeling utterly terrified and insecure at the thoughts of entering an MMA gym for the first time on her own but as soon as she walked through the doors she was warmly welcomed at the desk by Linda, coach Owen’s sister who made her feel at ease and reassured her that she would fit in perfectly. The first class she chose to participate in was a Muay Thai class, and although she was the only female, she was relieved to see that everyone was extremely friendly and encouraging, and not at all intimidating as she had expected. From that moment on, she was hooked. She remembers finding sparring in the striking classes difficult to get used to in the beginning as she found herself apologising each time she hit someone and turning away each time a punch would hit her, until coach Gav Kelly gave her an important piece of advice that would benefit her training greatly “The are two rules you need to follow in this sport – don’t be afraid to hit, and don’t be afraid to get hit.”
Training in a mixture of both teen and adult classes she committed herself fully to her new found passion by travelling a 40 minute bus journey to the gym and training for 3.5 hours per day, 5 days per week. She jokingly reminisces about the irony of her first visit to SBG Charlestown by saying “I was so shy and scared coming to the gym for the very first time, it was such an unfamiliar environment at the time, whereas now it’s the safest environment I know and like my second home, it’s my happy place.”
As she began to delve further into her quest for MMA related knowledge through online research she was surprised to learn that head coach Owen was far more distinguished in the sport than she had previously realised. Recalling “Owen is such a down to earth guy, he never acts like he’s better than anyone else and is always willing to help anyone no matter what level of experience they’re at, so it was surprising to find out that he had such a world class reputation in MMA.”
Like many others Sarah had a preconceived perception about MMA as being a mindlessly violent sport before she began her training and learned it is far more technical than she had realised, requiring endless amounts of study and constant refinement of technique.
In December of 2018 after only 6 months of training Sarah could hardly believe it when she was awarded the SBG Charlestown student of the year award. She fondly recalls being overwhelmed with emotion at receiving the award and regards it as the moment her confidence sky-rocketed and she began to believe that she was capable of building a real future in the sport.
Going into her 5th year of secondary school Sarah found that her concentration skills and ability to focus in class were now better than ever before as a result of the discipline she had acquired through her MMA training.
In March of 2019 IMMAF announced their plans to hold the first ever cadet MMA world championships and coach Owen approached Sarah with the opportunity to attend the team Ireland squad try-outs for the international team. Eager to put her skills to the test Sarah participated in the try-outs and after demonstrating her ability to prevail against older and more experienced athletes made a profound impression on the coaching panel, she was accepted onto the 2019 Team Ireland international squad. She recalls her mother being so excited that she shouted the news to the neighbours from the balcony of their home in the city centre. Growing up in the inner city flats of Dublin Sarah has always been aware of the stigma associated with coming from a place labelled as an ‘underprivileged area’ but claims that she has never agreed with this prejudice as she considers the members of her local community to be some of the most supportive and encouraging people she could ever hope to meet.
Having a clear goal to strive towards Sarah’s focus was set solely upon her training and improving her technique at every opportunity. As one of very few females in the gym at the time she claims her male teammates and training partners were incredibly helpful in pushing her to her limits in order to prepare her for the world championship. As an athlete with such keen tunnel vision Sarahs friends and family would frequently question the amount of time she spent at the gym and would often refer to her as ‘obsessed’ and ‘addicted’. This would happen so regularly that she would sometimes resort to lying to her mother about her whereabouts by saying she was going out to spend time with friends when she would really be going to the gym to train.
In August 2019 Sarah embarked on her first trip outside of Ireland to attend the first ever IMMAF Cadet MMA World Championships in Rome alongside 29 of her Team Ireland cadet teammates chosen from gyms all around the country. In an unfortunate turn of events Sarah was informed that her first fight of the tournament would be against her fellow Team Ireland teammate Lilian Murphy. She recalls her dismay at the matchup by stating “I was gutted to be fighting a teammate, when we’re in Ireland we’re gym vs gym but at the world championships we were one whole team of Irish fighters who wanted each other to succeed. I wasn’t sure if I could do it at first but once it’s time to make that walk out to the cage and your fighter mentality switches on it doesn’t matter who your opponent is anymore.” After three full rounds Sarah was declared the winner via unanimous decision and qualified for the final against Team Kazakhstan fighter Gulmira Azatbekova. In the final fight Sarah suffered a recurring elbow injury flare up as a result of a powerful takedown from her opponent. Wincing in pain she cried in the corner in between rounds to her coach and cornerman Gav Kelly who reassured her that it was okay to forfeit the fight. This was a critical moment in Sarah’s journey as she had to make the decision whether to throw in the towel or fight on in pain. In true warrior fashion Sarah chose to continue the fight and after three rounds was declared the first ever female featherweight youth world champion via unanimous decision from the judges. Sarah also took the opportunity to corner her teammate Sara Vasiliu Gierosu also of IMMAA gym SBG Charlestown who became the first ever female atomweight cadet MMA world champion the very next day.
Sarah stated “Attending the IMMAF championships was the single greatest experience of my life to date! I was so overwhelmed with emotion at achieving such a huge accomplishment for not only myself, but my team and my country. This was a dream I knew I wanted to achieve but I never dared to believe it would happen so soon.”
On returning to Ireland she recalls feeling exhausted in the car-ride on the way home from the airport but her mother insisted that she keep the medal around her neck and the Irish flag around her shoulders. Sarah didn’t realise why until they reached their home and she saw that all of the local residents had decorated the flats in posters and banners congratulating her on her achievement and had all come out to welcome her home in person. Seeing such huge support filled her with an overwhelming sense of pride and reinforced her belief that she was destined to be a fighter.
She was then forced to take what she describes as a torturous rehabilitation period in order to allow her elbow injury to fully recover. While she could easily bear the pain of the injury Sarah was devastated to have to take such a substantial break from her training, and although she still spent a lot of time in the gym she found it extremely difficult not to be able to participate in classes and even begged her physiotherapist to allow her to resume training.
Since recovering from her injury Sarah has been able to return to training and has been focusing on developing her grappling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu skills, she works in the gym as a consultant for new members and helps to coach the children’s BJJ classes. She was awarded her blue belt by coach Owen in December of 2019 and has since taken every opportunity to improve and test her abilities, including when she became the first female to enter the male division at Gama on February 9th. Having noticed that there were no females registered in her bracket she contacted the organisers of the competition who had seen Sarah’s performances at the world championships and had no hesitation in allowing her to enter the male bracket. Although she did not emerge victorious from her match-up she was very proud of her performance and the fact that she did not go down without a fight, claiming “I lost, but I learned a lot, I still pushed the pace and certainly didn’t give him an easy win”. Onlookers at the event were gripped by her performance and GAMA owner and IMMAA club SBG Portarlington head coach Phil Mulpeter claimed “It’s a perfect example of what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is all about. Technique over power, when you are skilled enough, size doesn’t matter, and as we saw today, gender doesn’t matter. I think every woman in Ireland should learn BJJ so that they don’t feel intimidated by anyone, and know how to defend themselves. And if you don’t believe in it, just look at what happened today. Look what Sarah did, she’s an animal!”
Sarah says she is delighted to see a steady rise in the number of women training and competing in MMA recently as she is thrilled to have a wonderful group of women within her gym who are always on hand to help as training partners and offer their guidance and support.
In February 2020 Sarah had the opportunity to watch her SBG Charlestown teammate professional fighter Leah McCourt make history as the first ever female fighter to headline the main event at Bellator MMA. She states that “Women like Leah McCourt, Aisling Daly and Sinead Kavanagh are huge inspirations to me. They had the balls to break down the barriers and pave the way for women in MMA and even though I don’t feel that they get the recognition they deserve, I hope that someday I can inspire people the same way they have inspired me.”
When asked about her future plans Sarah stated that after completing her leaving certificate this year she is hoping to study teaching while continuing to train and pursue a career in MMA. At such an early stage into her career she has already acquired representation through fighter management company One Hit Management, who’s CEO Paul Fogarty believes she has a very bright future ahead of her and stated “She is easily the hardest worker I know and she is an extremely talented athlete but more importantly for me, in what I do, she is an extremely nice person who no matter who you are treats you with a huge amount of respect and immediate kindness – it’s a very rare quality and one which will help her grow immensely in the sport.”
Sarah expressed her desire to win three more gold medals at the IMMAF championships before advancing to the professional ranks. She keeps a training journal to record all of the information and techniques she learns during classes and sets both long and short term goals to keep her focused and motivated claiming “I have never been more organised for anything in my life, I visualise reaching my goals every single day.”
Sarah rightfully takes great pride in all that she has accomplished and has proven herself time and time again to be a formidable and ambitious competitor with a bright future in the sport. She is determined that she has found her passion in life and states “Before I found MMA I always felt average in anything I did, I was never the smartest in school or the most creative, but finding my true passion has really helped me become more confident than ever before. For the first time in my life I can honestly say that I am good at something and I can actually go really far in this sport. I’m not unrealistic about it though, I know it will take a lot of time, commitment and hard work but I am confident that I can reach all of my goals. I know I can, and I will! I have so much gratitude for each and every person who helped me along the way, especially my coaches, training partners and my Mam, who is an absolute legend of a woman and does everything she possibly can to support me.”
We here at the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association are incredibly proud of Sarah’s accomplishments within the sport, with such a burning passion and determination to succeed we are absolutely certain that she will continue to be a role model for young athletes and a key contributor to Irish MMA for many years to come.