This week’s featured IMMAA fighter of the week is 2016 IMMAF light heavyweight gold medalist Matthew Sheehan of Team Ryano under Head Coach and IMMAA Vice-President Andy Ryan.
After spending many years playing hurling and gaelic football Matthew was introduced to martial arts at age 21 in 2011 when his friends encouraged him to try jiu jitsu classes at Kokoro gym in Dublin which has since closed down. He recalls “I absolutely loved it from the start. Within a week I was sparring and I had my first fight within my first six months of training so it was pretty intensive and full on but a great atmosphere to learn in. I lost my first fight via decision and then I was due to fight my current teammate Keith McCabe but I got a call up to the army so I had to pull out of that fight to pursue a career in the army. After 9 months of recruit training I was shipped down to Galway so I spent quite a few years out of training apart from a bit of boxing. When I moved back to Kildare in 2015 things at Kokoro had started to wind down so I went looking for a new club to join. A close friend of mine Paddy Neary was training in Team Ryano and I knew a few of the other lads from going to the Cage Warriors shows. I loved Redsers ground game and Seerys fighting style and I had seen a few interviews that Andy had done and he seemed like a really genuine guy. It was hard nosed training and reminded me a lot of the army mentality so it suited me well. It took me a while to get back into it, I was still physically fit from my army training but I had very little technique to back it up so I was getting smashed by smaller guys for the first year or so, and then Andy approached me to ask if I would be interested in representing Ireland at the IMMAF World MMA Championships. I was a bit hesitant at first because I was still a white belt in BJJ and 0-1 in MMA but Andy reassured me that I had the strength, the fitness and the mental toughness needed and we hatched a game plan on how best to approach the fights. I went over with the mentality that I’ve done much harder things than this in my line of work so competing on a world stage didn’t phase me at all really.”
In July of 2016 Matthew travelled to Las Vegas, USA alongside his fellow Team Ireland representatives to compete at the IMMAF World MMA Championships. Over the course of six days he competed in 5 separate fights. His first fight of the tournament was won via a first round submission, followed by three consecutive decision victories and went on to achieve gold in the final bout via a technical knockout in the third round. Reminiscing on his experience at the IMMAF’s he stated “Winning the worlds was one of my greatest achievements so far. Not just because of the medal but the opportunity to represent my country meant everything to me and the adversity I faced as the underdog going into the competition. In the quarter finals I got caught in a kimura and I remember thinking that if I could hold on and get through to the semi’s then I’d be guaranteed a medal so I let my shoulder pop out which tore my labrum but I was determined to get through to the next stage of the competition so I had to do my best to hide the injury during the pre-fight medical examinations. I’m a very proud patriotic Irish man so to have the opportunity to stand on top of the podium with the Irish flag draped across my shoulders while our national anthem played was a big moment for me. The army places a big emphasis on our national anthem and due to time constraints IMMAF don’t play the full anthem but I made sure to roar out the Irish national anthem in full at the top of my voice, even after the music had stopped playing and all the Irish supporters joined in. Something that the Irish team and coaches really don’t get enough credit for is how well we do at these competitions considering that we are a very small country with no national funding or recognition, competing against massive countries who have full government support and financial backing. Another aspect of the IMMAF’s that I really enjoyed was the lack of emphasis on image that I have seen leaking into the amateur ranks lately. There’s been times when I’ve noticed that fighters are more concerned with what they’re going to wear or what walkout song they’ll use rather than focusing on their technique whereas there’s none of that nonsense at the IMMAF’s. They’ve really adapted that amateur, olympic ethos. You put on your red or blue greenhills gear, no big walkout display, just go out and compete, just how it should be.”
Speaking of the benefits that MMA has provided him with Matthew emphasized the importance of the camaraderie he has experienced within MMA by saying “I swapped tracksuits with one of my opponents from New Zealand who has invited me to come over there to do some training with him and the last opponent I fought was from America and I met up with him for a few pints when I visited New York. I’ve cross trained with other clubs like SBG, Legends and Point Blank and have always been made to feel very welcome. Aside from that it teaches you how to problem solve while under risk and pressure which is hugely beneficial, especially in my line of work or in any job where you need to make clear decisions in intense situations. I think when a lot of people in the general public think of MMA, they see the risk of being injured, they probably recognise the physical benefits, but what they don’t see are the mental tools you learn that assist you in both your personal and professional lives. The psychological benefits, the ability to make split second decisions in the face of immediate danger and the character that it cultivates within an individual is an area that is not explored enough and MMA does not get enough recognition for. It’s a situation that is very hard to simulate and many will not have the chance to experience it outside of armed military conflict.”
Detailing the advice he would give to aspiring fighters Matthew stated “Consistently working 75-80% will get you better results than red-lining yourself and burning out. It’s a love affair, when people, and men especially, start out training in MMA they’ll go hell for leather at the beginning but after that initial honeymoon period the people who aren’t used to structure and discipline will start to drop off. Don’t train so hard that you can’t get out of bed the next day. Over time consistency will win out above all else. There’s a theory in wrestling that American wrestlers are great, but they only ever win one big tournament. Whereas Russian wrestlers experience much longer careers because they take a more playful approach to their training while the Americans will train to the extent where they damage and exhaust their bodies. Also respect and enjoy the process, but make sure you have other options outside of the sport. If you rely on fighting to pay the bills then it can put a huge pressure on you to win and might stop you from enjoying the process because so much is at stake. Whereas because I have my career in the army to rely on, the only risk I take in the fight is adding a loss to my record because at the end of the day I’ll still be able to put food on the table regardless of the outcome. While I love MMA, the army is my career, it’s what puts food on the table and pays the bills and I wouldn’t change that. Too many people get caught up in wanting to be the next Conor McGregor. I want more people to realise that you can still make great achievements and get great satisfaction from the sport without it being your main source of income. To compete at a really high level like the UFC, requires an all consuming, almost madness state of dedication. Whereas the IMMAF pathway offers a route where you can maintain a successful career outside of the sport while still achieving great success within the sport. IMMAF acts as a proving ground for those who do want to make it to the big promotions like the UFC. If you can medal at an IMMAF tournament it is a great indication of your capabilities as a fighter. When I look back on some of the people who competed at the 2016 and 2017 IMMAF tournaments there are a lot of them who are being scouted by the UFC at this stage.”
When questioned about people who have motivated him over the years he replied “I have to give huge props to Darragh Kennedy, my head coach at Kokoro for being my first coach and mentor figure. Even though I would say that 90% of my skill set was built by Team Ryano, I wouldn’t have won the worlds without my time at Kokoro. Without a shadow of a doubt Andy has had the biggest impact on my fighting career. He’s a great coach, a huge character, and one of the leading forces behind Irish MMA.” Matthew discussed the significance that sibling rivalry has had on his training, claiming. “I’m the oldest of three brothers, I have a middle brother James and youngest brother Graham. After I first joined Kokoro I went home raving about the sport and after a while James decided to join. Being the older brother and having more experience training I was smashing him up in the rounds but when I came back after being away with the army he was kicking lumps out of me. James competed at the 2016 IMMAF’s alongside me, Graham travelled over to watch us compete and when we got back to Ireland he decided to join Team Ryano too. But since I’ve some back from working overseas Graham can kick me around the place too so having my younger brothers beat me up has definitely spurred me on more than anything else.”
While Matthew has not competed in MMA since his performance on Clan Wars 27 in 2017 he insists that his MMA career is far from over and is fully intent on returning to the cage as soon as he can claiming “Since my last fight I’ve had shoulder surgery and been sent overseas for work twice, so training has had to take a back seat for a while but I made sure to keep my fitness levels up. In 2019 I focused on improving my grappling skills so I trained and competed in as many grappling tournaments as I could. I entered tournaments in Amsterdam and London and at one stage I competed every weekend for six weeks straight in both wrestling and jiu jitsu and I won gold at the Irish national wrestling championships. I was awarded my purple belt from Andy. I had planned to have at least one more amateur fight this year and possibly return to the IMMAF’s before turning pro but then coronavirus hit and delayed my plans. I cornered Graham in his last fight in Cage Warriors in Cork last year and James made his pro debut back in 2017, he has another fight coming up on Cage Warriors in London so I’ll be going over to corner him in that. I’m hoping in the future that all three of us will be able to fight on the same Cage Warriors card in Ireland.”
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association are extremely proud of Matthew’s achievements within the sport. We would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to him for the continuous support and dedication he has shown not only to the sport of MMA but also our country. We wish him and his brothers all the very best of success and skill in the future and are looking forward to witnessing them compete in the near future and continue to contribute to the success of Irish MMA.