The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association featured club of the week is SBG Killarney run by Head Coach PJ Lucey and Mark O’ Brien who operate the club and coach classes on an entirely voluntary basis.
PJ’s introduction to martial arts began by enrolling in TaeKwonDo classes in his early teen years, progressing on to train in Judo at age 15 before moving to Dublin while attending college where he began training under IMMAA Vice President and Team Ryano Head Coach Andy Ryan for four consecutive years. After snapping his ACL during a Judo match PJ decided to cease competing in judo and after his knee injury had healed his brother convinced him to begin training in hishoka classes, where he first met Mark. Mark’s interest in martial arts began at a young age from watching action movies starring Jean Claude Van Damme. At age 13 he began training in traditional shotokan karate and at age 16 he had moved on to train in TaeKwonDo but after 6 months of training he lost interest and quit. After joining hishoka classes and meeting PJ, the pair struch up a close friendship based on a mutual passion and appreciation for combat sports. They would regularly use the matted area of their local gym to train and drill techniques from a variety of martial arts including judo, aikido, karate, kickboxing and krav maga. PJ recalls “MMA had really started to kick off in Ireland around 2008/2009 so we started to incorporate more wrestling, pad work and a wider variety of techniques into our training.” Mark added “Initially it was just the two of us training and trying to figure things out for ourselves, but then passers by began to pop their head in and enquire what we were doing and we would invite them to join in with us and soon we had a group of about 10 partners training consistently.”
Eager to test their abilities in a competitive scenario they decided to enter a nogi grappling tournament called ‘Grab & Pull’ in Dublin without even knowing the rules of the competition. PJ stated “We had four members competing that day and we came away with four medals – three gold and one silver. That’s what made us stop and think that we were actually pretty good and should start taking our training a bit more seriously. When we got home I typed Jiu Jitsu Ireland into google and the name John Kavanagh popped up. I sent him an email basically saying that we’re trying our best but we don’t really know what we’re doing and asking him if he could recommend some good books, websites or videos we could learn from. He replied the next day to say he would come down in two weeks to do a seminar with us.” PJ briefly ventured into competing in MMA at the Irish MMA league events run in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin but chose to cease fighting competitively in order to prioritise his career as a teacher because he felt that coming to class with black eyes and various injuries gave an unprofessional impression. Officially opening as the Killarney Grappling Club in 2010 they affiliated to the SBG brand in 2015. The club has since grown to accommodate their ever increasing amounts of members for whom they provide both Gi and Nogi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes and also offer Female only classes which have proved to be a monumental success for the club.
When asked about the highlights of their Martial Arts journeys to date Mark answered “For me it was probably watching PJ win the European championships in 2012. He had injured his back during a match attempting a flying armbar on the first day of the competition and was so badly hurt that he could barely stand up straight and needed lots of medication to cope with the pain, but he went on to win gold the next day. Another huge success for our club has been the introduction of our womens only classes last year which has grown from strength to strength. We now have dozens of women regularly and consistently training in jiu jitsu and encouraging more women to join. They’re doing an absolutely phenomenal job” PJ replied “While winning the London, European, British and Irish open competitions were all great, personally I find that the greatest achievements have come from when our team comes together to compete and support one another at tournaments. Last year at NAGA we had 16 competitors from our club and they returned home with 21 medals between them. But even those who didn’t win still got out there and gave it their all and competed at a very high standard.”
Discussing the biggest obstacles they have faced throughout their martial arts journeys the pair agreed that they found it difficult at times to help people to understand the concept jiu jitsu and to encourage people to try out a class in a town which is predominantly devoted to GAA. Mark stated “It was a struggle to get people to sign up at the start, but once new people came through the door they began to see the benefits of the sport and word spread through the town.” PJ added “The popularity of MMA and the UFC have helped people understand the importance of grappling a lot better and the SBG brand means that prospective members have an idea of what to expect when they walk through the door. As a voluntary club we’re not in it for the money, we teach classes purely for passion and I think that has translated into our classes and helped to build our reputation in the community.”
Speaking of the athletes they admire PJ declared “Marcelo Garcia would be the person I admire the most in combat sports. I like everything the man stands for, he’s dedicated and humble so he stands out as someone I took a lot of inspiration from. Some of our members have trained with him in New York and have had nothing but good things to say about him. It’s on my bucket list to hopefully one day be able to train with him myself.” Mark replied “The person who inspires me is actually one of our members here at the club. Ethan Guerin is, in my opinion, an absolute phenom. He started training with us as a young teen who was the opposite of athletic at the time but regardless, he threw himself head first into his training and has made unbelievable improvements. He has completely transformed as a person, both physically and mentally. Not only is he a fantastic young man but a huge prospect in jiu jitsu, he is so dedicated to his training and our club and I am so very proud of him.”
Keen to express their appreciation for the people who have helped their club to progress throughout the years Mark stated “Obviously we owe a great deal to John Kavanagh who has given us great guidance and support over the years. Liam-Og Griffin down in Cork has been a huge help to us too and all of the amazing people we have had the pleasure of knowing through our affiliation with SBG. We have also met many fantastic people from a wide range of gyms who we’ve become good friends with over the years such as Liam Beechinor of BJJ Cork and many other people within the Irish BJJ community.” PJ added “Since we met John 10 years ago we have gone from a club who was aimlessly blowing in the wind to a genuine formidable club with a purpose and positive reputation. He provided us with direction and purpose and took us under his wing. He’s helped us with our training, coaching, our members and has been a big part of our lives over the past decade.”
When questioned about what the future has in store for SBG Killarney Mark answered “Our main focus at the moment is keeping the doors open and getting classes back on track after the whole covid situation threw everything up in the air. Luckily there’s been a growing interest in BJJ in the area recently so we’re looking forward to welcoming in some new faces and helping our members to progress and grow.” PJ added “Outside of getting back on our feet from covid our focus will be on growing our team and helping our members to reach higher levels. In the last few years our members have travelled to France, Switzerland, Spain, Austria and Chicago so we’ll be hoping to get more of our members out there to the big competitions worldwide.”
When asked about what it is that makes SBG Killarney unique PJ stated “The SBG motto is ‘One Tribe, One Vibe’ and it’s very clear that we live by that quote in our gym. Everyone is working together as a team to help each other improve, and are all looking out for one another. One of the great things about being a voluntary club is that the members know that we are not there to make money, we do this purely for our passion for the sport and the benefit of our members and that really shines through in our coaching practices. As a full time teacher I finish work at 4pm, start coaching at 6:30pm, leave the gym at 10pm and I’m at home correcting papers until the early hours of the morning and I’ve been doing that for the past ten years. It has never been about the money, it’s all about an investment in people and that means much more to us than any money. SBG Killarney isn’t only about improving people’s jiu jitsu skills either, for some people it’s very much a social thing, an opportunity to be a part of a supportive team and it’s good for people’s mental health as well as their physical health.” Mark responded “PJ hit the nail on the head there, it’s all about creating that bond within our tribe where everyone feels welcome and a strong sense of belonging. The toughest part of our sport is walking through the door for the very first time and that first experience is very important to people’s perception of the sport. We always go out of our way to make sure everyone is greeted warmly and leaves with a smile on their face. It can be a tough world out there and it’s our job to make our classes an enjoyable experience for everyone.”
Explaining the most important lessons they have learned throughout their years studying martial arts PJ said “Nothing in jiu jitsu is easy or achieved fast so I think one of the biggest lessons you need to learn is patience. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Too many people focus on moving up a belt or winning medals, and if that’s the reason you’re there then you’re there for the wrong reasons. Just take your time and enjoy it would be the best advice I could give people.” Mark expanded “Don’t be afraid of failure, it’s all part of the learning process. As humans we all have an ego, especially when it comes to combat sports and that can take over at times. When someone gets defeated or tapped out they’ll respond in one of two ways – they’ll either rise to meet the challenge or they’ll walk out the door and never come back. You need to learn to be humble and realise that your training partners are there to help you reach your potential but you need to put the time and effort in and be open to learning.”
Speaking of the ways in which martial arts has benefitted their lives Mark replied “The number one thing for me has been the friendships I have made along the way. I’ve made friends for life. There’s been a lot of benefits to my physical health too but the friendships I’ve built within the martial arts community has been the most important thing for me.” PJ responded “I agree with everything Mark said in regards to the friendships and relationships we’ve built. The big thing for me is the feeling that I get from knowing that I’m making a positive impact on people’s lives. Jiu jitsu is a great skill for anyone to have but it’s more than that, for some people it’s an escape from reality or something to look forward to at the end of the day.”
Discussing their reasons for becoming members and supporters of the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association PJ stated “Having an association to fall back on when you find yourself in a situation where you’re not quite sure what to do can be invaluable, especially in difficult times like at the moment where new restrictions are continually being updated it’s important to have an organisation to turn to for help. They also offer fantastic opportunities for upskilling such as the coaching and officiating courses. The more representation and regulation that combat sports have results in better safety standards for the competitors so to have an organisation like IMMAA representing us gives a great sense of security.” Mark added “IMMAA really unites the martial arts clubs of Ireland together as a community. It’s good to know that there is an organisation that has our backs and is there to give us guidance as and when we need it.”
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to PJ, Mark and their members at SBG Killarney for their ongoing support. We wish them the very best of luck as they continue to grow as a club and contribute to the wider Irish martial arts community.