The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association featured fighter of the week is professional MMA fighter, coach and co-owner of IMMAA club Pankration Kickboxing and MMA, Catherine ‘The Alpha Female’ Costigan. As a true pioneer of Irish MMA Catherine has been a key contributor to the sport since it’s introduction to Ireland and became the first woman in mixed martial arts history to return to the cage after undergoing neck fusion surgery. She graciously agreed to speak with us to give us an insight into her experiences within Irish MMA, the highs and lows of her career and her plans for the future.
Catherine first became interested in martial arts as a young child from watching Bruce Lee movies with her father, intrigued by the notion that a smaller opponent could beat larger or multiple assailants by implementing effective combat techniques. As a shy 14 year old Catherine coaxed a friend into joining her in trying a freestyle karate/kickboxing class at a local gym called Black Sun run by head coach Dermot McGrath, which shortly after was renamed to Pankration. The name Pankration refers to the ancient greek full contact sport which included a mixture of striking and grappling techniques, it was the primary combat training for Spartan warriors and was introduced to the Olympic games in 648 BC.
Being the only two girls in a class full of men, her friend decided not to return while Catherine loved the new challenge it presented and instantly fell in love with the sport claiming “I was hooked from that very first class, something just clicked in me that day and I knew this was a sport I wanted to pursue.” When the opportunity arose to compete for the first time she received great support from her coach and family claiming “Dermot was hugely encouraging of me right from the start, he saw something in me, a potential that I had not yet realised and was always encouraging me to progress and develop my skills. He had a vast amount of experience in combat sports and had even received his black belt in kickboxing under martial arts legend Alfie Lewis so it meant a lot that he believed in me. While my father supported me in every way he could by driving me to training and competitions and cheering me on from the sidelines.” After being awarded a trophy at her first points fighting tournament Catherine devoted herself to consistently pushing forward and developing her skills in the sport and by 20 years old she had gained a considerable amount of experience in kickboxing until a new sport caught her attention. She recalls Dermot purchasing a VHS video tape of the first ever official MMA event, UFC 1 and after watching it they turned to one another and proclaimed “This is going to be huge!”. From that moment on the pair began to study the sport of mixed martial arts and its precursor sport vale tudo in further detail, having already gained an in depth ability at the standup aspect of fighting their attention was focused on the grappling portion of the sport.
While she initially felt uncertain of her abilities at jiu jitsu, Catherine soon learned the importance of technique over size and strength when she successfully tapped a male opponent twice her size with a guillotine choke in training. Dermot appointed her the nickname of ‘The Alpha Female’ as he believed she holds herself in true alpha manner by being a strong leader figure.
She then attended Ireland’s first ever MMA event in Moyross which Dermot, and IMMAA president John Kavanagh also competed at. Catherine recalls “It’s funny to think back to that event now, I remember sitting on the mats chatting to John, long before he gained such a world renowned reputation in MMA. Back then none of us could have predicted that the sport would evolve to the level it is at today. The public didn’t quite understand the concept of MMA at the time but everyone who came to watch the bouts at that event were amazed at the fights and it was such a cool and relaxed atmosphere that everyone left with a positive perception of the sport.”
Noting a severe lack of female participation in combat sports at the time Catherine became one of Ireland’s first female martial arts coaches when she began teaching womens kickboxing classes at Pankration. Although at first she was uncertain about whether there would be public demand for such a class she was thrilled to see 40 women show up for the first training session. She then began coaching the children’s classes and invested in a partnership of the gym. Dermot and Catherine then devised and implemented an initiative far ahead of it’s time – a belt grading system for MMA, an idea which The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation would implement almost 20 years later in 2018. They felt introducing a unique grading system for the sport would give students tangible milestones and goals to strive towards within the sport. Catherine stated that their sole priority as coaches has always been the progression of their students “Martial arts is so important for children, instilling discipline and a strong work ethic into their lives benefits them in so many ways and enables them to become a better version of themselves. I can honestly say that at Pankration we genuinely care for each and every one of our members equally regardless of their ability or level of experience and we follow the ethos of ‘no student is ever left behind.”
Speaking of her career in MMA Catherine recalls that there were no designated experience levels to MMA at the time when she began competing and is thrilled to see that the sport has evolved to include novice, amateur and professional divisions as appropriate ranking classifications and experience are essential for the progression of the sport and it’s athletes. Being one of very few female fighters and at such a light weight class Catherine found it extremely difficult to obtain opponents to fight against. She looked at female MMA champions such as Aisling Daly and Rosie Sexton as motivation in the sport but also believed that the defining characteristics of success were consistent among all sports and found inspiration from other athletes across a range of sports including tennis champion Martina Navratilova.
One particular aspect of the sport which Catherine thoroughly enjoyed experiencing was the universal respect, support and camaraderie shown by all of the coaches and competitors towards one another regardless of club affiliations “There was never any hostility between the gyms and coaches, we were all in it for the love of the sport and it showed. Tim Murphy even offered to help me improve my wrestling skills in the lead up to my first MMA fight and cornered me alongside Dermot. He really helped me to become a more well rounded fighter and understand the connection between the striking and grappling aspects of the fight.” Catherine won her first MMA fight against Shona Maguire in November of 2009 via unanimous decision from the judges. After having her hand raised in victory she received a standing ovation from the male competitors as she exited the cage, and referee David Jones approached her afterwards to say it was one of the best fights he had ever witnessed. Catherine proudly claimed that this was undoubtedly one of the greatest moments of her career and life stating “I felt a true sense of belonging among the MMA community that night and the respect I gained from everyone present proved that they saw me as a true fighter – not just a female fighter.” As the only female fight of the event no female changing rooms were available and Catherine recalls that she and Shona stood next to one another in the women’s bathroom afterwards, washing the blood off of themselves and congratulating each other on a fight well fought “There was never any animosity between Shona and I. I have nothing but respect for her, she’s a true veteran of the sport and an incredibly sweet and kind person.” Catherine and Shonas fight was declared fight of the night and Catherine was awarded a €50 note from Mark Leonard who ran the event. She has kept the bloodstained banknote ever since as a reminder of that monumental night and claims Mark often jokes that he should have written her a cheque instead.
She then went on to fight on two MMA shows in England and Germany before a potentially career ending injury forced her to make a very difficult decision. Experiencing severe neck pains which carried on for numerous years and were progressively worsening over time Catherine sought out medical advice from various doctors and surgeons who diagnosed her with herniated disks in her neck which would require neck fusion surgery and recommended that she retire from combat sports immediately. Opting to proceed with surgery would mean risking the possibility of paralyzation – a risk she was not willing to take until she received some sound advice from a person who’s opinion she respected greatly. In 2012 Catherine travelled to Amsterdam to train at Shooto gym alongside Marloes Coenen, a vastly experienced female mixed martial artist who she looked up to as a role model within the sport. She recalls being star struck upon first meeting Marloes and after explaining her neck injury to her, Marloes advised her to prioritise her health by undergoing surgery and choosing to follow her advice Catherine booked the operation for the following fortnight.
Opting to undergo neck fusion surgery under esteemed surgeon Dr Ashley Poynton of The Poynton SpineCare Institute in Dublin, the surgery was successful and after only 9 months post procedure Catherine returned to the cage to win her fight against Vanessa Rico at EFCC Pure Combat in Norwich via a second round rear naked choke. After sharing her experience with returning to the sport after such a serious operation online she began to receive an abundance of messages of support “I began getting messages from athletes all across the world who had been inspired by my story to finally book the procedures that they had been putting off. It was amazing to think that sharing my experience would have such an impact on people.”
Catherine has since had seven more professional fights across Ireland and Europe and has taken some time away from fighting to care for her mother who is battling cancer. “I can’t say I have any regrets other than certain setbacks in life have happened, i had no control over them but I had to take charge and deal with what life threw at me. Of course it would have been a dream of mine to win a world title belt, and still is but I have had some incredible experiences and success that I am very proud of and I feel they justify all of the sacrifices I have had to make over the years.” At 40 years old Catherine still trains daily and with no plans to retire from fighting in place she is constantly working towards improving her skills in all aspects of the sport “There is always going to be a certain risk element involved in MMA regardless of what age you are. I will continue to keep fighting as long as I feel capable. I want to progress and pursue knowledge to pass onto my students but my main goal is to be a good role model for the kids who take part in my classes.”
Expressing her delight at the vast array of opportunities available for fighters within the sport these days she claims IMMAA are setting the standard for MMA nationwide. “I am very proud to be a member of an organisation that leads by example, promoting the development and recognition of Irish MMA and I am thrilled to see that IMMAF have recently announced a new women’s commision to promote the involvement of women in mixed martial arts. There are some different challenges for women within the sport and I have no doubt that this will open up opportunities and have a positive influence on the number of females participating in MMA worldwide.”
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association are incredibly proud of Catherine’s achievements within the sport and are very grateful for the support she has shown the organisation over the years. We look forward to watching her career progress further and the careers of those fortunate enough to train under her at Pankration Gym, Limerick.
Photo credit to Alan Place Photography.