This week’s featured article is focusing on the journey and accomplishments of one of Ireland’s leading influencers in combat sports. Entrepreneur and martial arts enthusiast Lydia Des Dolles has kindly agreed to talk us through her experiences within the world of Irish MMA and the journey that led her to create one one of Ireland’s most prominent combat media platforms.
Lydia grew up in Waterford in a family with a great appreciation for all things combat sports related. Both her Grandfather and brother competed in boxing and her brother briefly ventured into MMA while living in Australia, so Lydia grew a great interest in fighting but claims she was not interested in training or competing in her younger years as she felt more drawn towards the music industry. At 29 years old she made the difficult decision to cease her career as the lead singer of a prosperous band and retire her music career. She recalls “That was the end of my life as I knew it. I used to jokingly wrestle the boyfriend of a friend of mine, who was a blackbelt in judo and he suggested that I should try out jiu jitsu. He offered to show me some jiu jitsu drills at his gym and I really enjoyed it. I wanted to challenge myself and he advised me on a gym to go to so I signed up for the beginners course at the East Coast Jiu Jitsu Academy and within three months I had become totally obsessed with the training and was training anywhere from 4-6 times per week, sometimes twice a day. I had become consumed with jiu jitsu and the new healthy lifestyle it came with. I spent a few years competing at a high level, I went to the IBJJF European jiu jitsu championships and competed a few times in the U.K.”
Speaking of her introduction to the media coverage side of the sport Lydia stated “I was offered a position working for MMA promotion BAMMA. I was running their social media and fighter coordinations and updating the fans on the background operations but they ceased operations when they were bought out by Bellator. Even though there were lots of people covering combat sports in the media at the time, I just felt there wasn’t anyone capturing the true element of the sport and what was going on in Ireland. Before I became involved in jiu jitsu I wasn’t aware that these events were taking place at all because it wasn’t being covered by the mainstream media, which I found very frustrating because I felt that if it was better represented then more people would start to try it out for themselves and their lives could be improved by it. At the time I felt the coverage the sport was getting was from a very technical viewpoint, so people who didn’t understand the technical aspects or the scoring couldn’t fully understand what was being discussed in the interviews. Coming from a music background with lots of experience being interviewed, I knew it could be done in a way that would appeal more to the mainstream media fans and general public. Even though I had no first hand experience working in the media industry I approached a popular combat media outlet at the time with my ideas. They turned down my ideas for fear that they wouldn’t work, they said my lack of experience would be a problem and they had just recently hired someone to take over their social media so there wasn’t a position available for me. After initially feeling disheartened I decided to try doing it on my own. I would attend local fight promotions and started snapchatting the results, walkouts, the crowds and some backstage insights. From there I naturally grew more followers from each event, and lots of messages enquiring about different fights. I set up an instagram and facebook account, and I needed to decide on a name. I wanted to steer clear of the typical aggressive names which fed into the narrative that combat sports were brutal and barbaric. I wanted to be very conscientious of the content I would be sending out and the branding of the business to be mindful of how it would be perceived. Starting out it was named MMA Connect TV because that was the main market I was in at the time. The aspect of the sport that I was so enamoured with was that it was so connected between all of the different disciplines. Whether you were involved in Muay Thai, jiu jitsu, boxing or MMA everyone had an underlying mutual respect and I wanted to use the platform as a connecting force between the athletes and the viewers so that’s where the name MMA Connect came in. We will be in business six years as of January 2021 and a couple of years ago we changed the name to Fight Connect TV as we were covering a range of combat events and not exclusive to just MMA.”
Discussing the highlights of her career to date Lydia claimed “There have been many events that were memorable along the way. The very first event I covered was Akuma in Templepatrick. In hindsight it was a big moment in the history of the business and platform because I wasn’t contracted, I literally just turned up on the day and the promoter Stephen mentioned that the media outlet which he had booked for fighter interviews hadn’t turned up so I figured I’d give it a shot. For the first year or two it was definitely a learning curve and I had to learn not only how to conduct an interview but how to mold into the community and be respectful, understanding and compassionate towards the people involved. I’ve noticed that all too often people don’t respect that this is the livelihoods of many athletes and you need to be careful in what you say and how you represent and portray them. I think being aware of these things has helped us grow to become what we are today which is a widely respected and well liked media platform. Obviously the introduction I had from working with BAMMA was key to all of this too and my experiences in jiu jitsu helped me to gain a better understanding of what it feels like to put yourself out there in a competitive setting and what the fighters go through. All of these things combined have allowed me to become a better interviewer and enabled me to portray the athletes in the way that I do even though I’ve never fought at an elite level myself. I had to work hard to establish myself in the community, there was times when I would have to convince promoters to let me have backstage access . I started to recognise the growth of the platform when I’d arrive at shows and the security at the door would start to recognise me when I would arrive at the door. When I started to get backstage passes or invites to shows it was really important for me because it showed that a relationship of trust was being built and they didn’t feel the need to look over or approve the footage because they knew my work was of a certain standard.”
When asked about the obstacles she has faced throughout her journey into developing Fight Connect TV Lydia stated “I came up against many obstacles in business and in life but there is always a way around them and an obstacle is something that can help you to change direction or change the course that you are on so I have never looked at obstacle as a cause for concern or a reason to quit. I simply looked at them as reasons to evaluate the situation and consider new pathways and opportunities. I’m a true believer that everything works out in the end and that’s something that martial arts really reinforces. It teaches you much more than just the sport that you train in, it teaches you how to deal with situations which happen in life that you didn’t plan for. It enables you to take a step back and assess the situation and figure out how to adapt and overcome.”
Expressing her appreciation for the people who have inspired and motivated Lydia throughout her career she claimed “There were lots of people who worked in media that I aspired to be like but not necessarily in sports media. I looked up to people who did honest and truthful work, who were creating content to inspire other people but for me personally I took inspiration from people who could really get to the heart of a story and above all tell the truth. It may seem simple to tell the truth but unfortunately in the media we are in a time when anything can be taken out of context or portrayed in a certain light which was not the way it was intended. So I think anyone who has a bit of honesty and integrity goes a long way in this business and that is mainly what I’m inspired by. It was definitely a landscape that was scary at times because as my following grew so did the responsibility of creating content in the right way. There were times I didn’t stay on course and may have messed up a little bit and working on my own meant that I didn’t have any peers or colleagues that I could turn to for help or advice. There’s a lot to be said for working in a team environment. There were three people in particular who always went out of their way to help me out. Andy Ryan of Team Ryano and Deano Wade of CMAC MMA, who are both heavily involved in running IMMAA, and my own coach Darragh O’ Connail of East Coast Jiu Jitsu Academy are guys who I trusted and could turn to whenever I felt stuck and needed advice or guidance.”
Lydia has achieved the prestigious accolade of the rising star in new media award at the all Ireland business summit in 2018, she presented the panel discussions with many famous fighters including Frank Mir, Stephen Wonderboy Thompson and Ben Asken at Fight Con, started her own podcast and was cast as a panelist on virgin media one’s hit programme The Elaine Show. Speaking of the unexpected twists and turns she has experienced throughout her career Lydia said “I had no clue six years ago that this would be my full time job that I could make a living off of so that in itself is something that I have a lot of gratitude for. It feels like I’ve found my life purpose in what I do. I believe that we all have a purpose in life, that there’s something out there that we can do really well and feel passionately about. Everything passes as a stepping stone, from going to shows to being able to build a business, to being interviewed by local media. Usually when there’s a big fight coming up the local radio stations will ring me and ask me to weigh in on it. I like to use my platform to support combat sports and local fighters wherever I can. My goal was never to get on TV, it wasn’t something that I applied for. To be honest I didn’t think I was the right fit for TV because I wasn’t 19 or 20, I didn’t look a certain way, I was opinionated and heavily involved in combat sports which a lot of the general public still frown upon. I knew it was a very competitive industry where many people try so hard for so many years and it can tear them apart. But the producer of The Elaine Show had seen some of my interviews, she gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in being on the show, so I did and it was a really fun day. I was so excited about it but also nervous about maybe saying the wrong thing. I wasn’t sure how I did, but then I was called back for three more shows which turned into a 3month contract followed by a 6 month and 1 year contract and I’ve been there for two and a half years now and it’s been incredible. I’ve come by a couple of other jobs along the way too like being a brand ambassador for health products and Image magazine offered me the opportunity to promote a brand they were working with called Aveeno. I did a screen test for a tv production of a sports show and I didn’t get the job but while I was there the sound producer asked for my contact info and a week later he rang me to say that he had a recording studio and asked would I consider creating a podcast. So we had a few meetings and it went really well and just yesterday we celebrated recording our 50th episode of The First Exchange Podcast. It was really exciting and we got a big hamper from Dubliner Whiskey to celebrate. Even though we do have fighters and people from the combat sports community on there we also have people from more mainstream areas and the wider community on there too so it gives me the opportunity to widen my profile. Fight Connect TV also partnered with Empire Pro Tape this year which was a huge turning point for us, not only financially but to be working with a company who works with such huge names within the sporting community such as Tyson Fury, Dillian Whyte, Terri Harper, Kell Brook, Daniel Dubois and Fabio Wardley so for us to have a link to these incredible athletes makes for a very positive and exciting future. Considering everything that’s going on in the world at the moment things are going as well as they can be.”
Although admitting that she cannot divulge many of her plans for the future right now as she is not ready to publicly announce them just yet Lydia reveals “I think the next stage, depending on where we stand in regards to covid-19 and travel, is to spend a bit more time in the U.K. and try to build up on what is happening. A move to the U.K. is probably inevitable at some point, but I’m looking at it as an opportunity to grow and build the platform but also a chance to shed more light on the Irish combat community because one of the most common responses I hear from fighters here is that they’re not being awarded the same opportunities as athletes across the water. That is something that I feel needs to change so if there is anything I can do to further that along or help the community to grow and develop then I would absolutely love to help with that.”
Explaining the greatest benefits that martial arts have brought to her life Lydia stated “Initially the physical benefits were a huge factor, I think I lost about 20kgs when I first started jiu jitsu. When you train consistently you can no longer afford the luxury of being able to regularly drink alcohol. I had to quit smoking and it made me improve my nutrition too because you begin to realise that without proper nutrition you are not physically capable of training to the best of your abilities, so the physical benefits are endless. It gave me a desire for life and made me realise what I want in life, not only from a career point of view but also on a personal level. It teaches you discipline, self respect and raises your self esteem. Not only are you using your brain but also your physical self, it challenges you on every level and makes you a stronger person overall. I always say and I truly believe that jiu jitsu saved my life because without it I wouldn’t have had a change of mindset and change of lifestyle. I wouldn’t have a healthier way of living or a healthy appetite for life. It gives you the tools and the keys needed to open up the doors within yourself and be your best self which is why, now more than every it is so important for everyone to support the gyms and coaches who are trying to get the government to overturn their decision to place a ban on gyms in the current lockdown. There’s a petition going around at the moment and we need to get it to 100,000 signatures, and then it has to be put before the Dail for our senators to at least discuss reopening the gyms because we know how important they are to not only people’s mental health but also their physical health and if we’re fighting a virus as dangerous as they say covid-19 is then doesn’t it makes sense that we would fight it at our healthiest?”
She added “We have a history of culturally important, impassioned fighters. Not only is it in our DNA but it’s in our heritage that we produce brilliant fighters and athletes. It’s time for mainstream media, business owners and big corporations to change the narrative behind combat sports and to come together to support our athletes. To give it a chance and take a risk in terms of highlighting all of the fighters, gyms and coaches. They do so much within the community for the development of children and teens. Combat sports in particular are proven to positively impact communities and families throughout Ireland, but they need to be supported so we need to get government recognition for MMA and proper funding for the sport and its athletes.” As a final note Lydia stated “I’d like to give a massive thank you to everyone who watches Fight Connect TV, who supports me and the platform because obviously without the viewers support I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.”
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to Lydia for all of the fantastic work she has done within the combat sports community over the past six years. She has played a major part in changing people’s perception of combat sports and for giving Irish fighters the recognition and appreciation which they deserve. We would like to wish her the very best of luck as she continues to grow the business and her career and we have no doubt that regardless of whichever direction she chooses to take the platform in the future she will have the full support of the Irish MMA community.