This week’s IMMAA featured coach of the week is Tom Hogan, coach of IMMAA gym Strange Wolves MMA in Galway.
Tom’s introduction to combat sports began at age 13 when he enrolled in Taekwondo classes. After moving to Galway city at age 16 his mother noticed some men training at a local gym and encouraged Tom to give it a try. He recalls “From the way my mother described it to be I thought it was going to be a muay thai gym but it turned out to be an MMA gym called Strange Wolves run by Vinny Connolly. I began training with them and absolutely fell in love with the sport straight away. The aspects I enjoyed most about it was the aliveness and connection between the theory and practical elements. That’s really what MMA is about, pressure testing your skills against fully resisting opponents, seeing what works and discarding what doesn’t.”
Tom made his MMA debut in Cork against Waterford fighter Sam Simon in 2014. Recalling this experience he stated “I was so nervous in the lead up to the fight. While training was something I really loved and enjoyed, the competitive side of the sport isn’t something I choose to focus on so it was quite a few years after I began training that I finally took a fight. Sam was a big guy and early on in the fight he hit me harder than I had ever been hit before. The force of it knocked me down and I remember sitting on the canvas looking up at him and for a split second I thought I had already lost the fight, but then I heard Kevin Moran shout from my corner “Tom, get the f*ck up!” I ended up winning the fight by a rear naked choke but I’ll always remember that moment.”
Detailing the lessons he has learned through his MMA training Tom claimed “My mindset at the beginning of my training was that MMA could be broken down into three separate aspects – striking, wrestling and jiu jitsu. Whereas now I look at is more as one whole combined, blended sport, essentially it’s wrestling with strikes added. I believe wrestling is MMA at its core, striking and ground work only become important when your wrestling is at a good level. I’m officially a blue belt in jiu jitsu under Tim Murphy, although I choose not to focus on belts. We use a different style of grading for MMA at Strange Wolves, which was developed by Vinny Connolly, who also came from a Taekwondo background. Rather than feeding into the belt system that many other sports use, our system is based on three levels – bronze wolf, silver wolf and gold wolf. A person at bronze wolf level would be similar to a blue belt level in jiu jitsu with basic fundamental striking and wrestling skills too. Once you’ve reached silver wolf it’s a good indication that you’re ready to fight on the amateur circuit, and gold wolf level would be for someone capable of fighting at professional level. There’s no set grading event for these promotions and it doesn’t cost anything to be awarded a promotion, but it’s a good indication of where you’re at in regards to your training . It can be difficult at times because there are four coaches in the gym so we all need to be in agreement of what level we believe each member is at.
When asked what he considers to be the highlight of his MMA journey Tom responded. “I think just finding the sport was the highlight for me. From the moment I began training I fell in love with the sport, I was completely hooked and it has consumed my life ever since. Before I found MMA I had ludicrous notions about how to approach fighting and self-defense stemming from watching Steven Seagal movies until one day early on in my training, Vinny challenged me to try doing those moves on him. He swiftly vanquished those notions from my head by showing me how ineffective they were when used against a resisting opponent. He really taught me to take a more scientific and methodical approach to learning which moves were effective or not. I’ve always been inspired by my coaches. I’ve learned so much from them and over time have acquired many of their values and beliefs. Vinny is a primary school teacher and I think that’s one of the things that makes him a great coach.”
Explaining the ways in which MMA has benefitted his life Tom claimed “Probably the biggest benefits for me would be the friends aIl have met along the way, not only at my own gym but from other gyms too. We have a great community of people in Irish MMA and I think that’s very evident when you walk into a gym or go to a fight night. It was a huge social outlet for me. There are five gyms in Galway and I’ve always felt very welcomed in all of them and many members cross train across multiple gyms here without issue. I grew a lot as a person through my training and I love the continuous progression aspect of the sport. You can train in MMA all your life and never be finished learning, it’s a sport that’s constantly evolving. It gave me a huge burst of confidence to be able to get good at something rather than being a jack of all trades. Once you reach a point where you’re doing well in one thing then you start to believe that you’re capable of succeeding in other areas too.”
Discussing the obstacles he has faced throughout his MMA journey Tom answered. “I’ve been very lucky in terms of injuries compared to many other fighters. I did break my wrist in training once which meant being out of training for three months. I was going mental not being able to train, the pain of the injury didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as missing training. This whole covid-19 situation has been a difficult hurdle too. I’ve never been out of the gym this much since I’ve found the sport so I’m finding it very difficult to not be able to train.”
Identifying what makes Strange Wolves the ideal environment to grow and develop as an athlete Tom stated “Strange wolves is a non profit club and all the coaches are volunteers. I think that’s what makes it such an enjoyable place to train, because everyone there genuinely wants to be there. There are four main coaches, myself, Vinny Connolly, Marcus Fields and Jakob. Our gym is perfect for the right type of person. While we take our training very seriously, but we’re also quite laid back and always up for having the craic. The curriculum we use was developed by Vinny Connolly and is fantastic for effectively developing your technique. Because we’re a part-time club we focus on the technical aspects of the sport rather than the other areas such as cardio, flexibility and strength and conditioning. It takes a very self motivated person to be able to commit themselves to ensuring they’re working on those areas outside of scheduled class times. Galway has a fantastic community within MMA, with five gyms in the area so fair dues to Tim Murphy, Ollie Mannion, Kevin Moran, Ben Davis and their clubs and members for working hard to promote MMA in Galway. Success for any club in Galway is a success for us all. The Higgins brothers, especially are two people who stand out to me as being some of the best things to come out of Irish MMA.”
When asked what advice he would give to a young person considering beginning their journey into MMA Tom answered “Don’t wait until you’re fit, strong or whatever before you join. I hear it all the time that people want to get in shape first before starting MMA, but the training itself is what will help them to reach their fitness goals. Or some people decide to only focus on one aspect of the sport before transitioning to MMA. By all means if you want to do muay thai or jiu jitsu then join a muay thai or jiu jitsu club, but don’t join them for the sake of improving your MMA because there will be a lot of things that will be irrelevant. I have yet to see somebody use inversions or worm guard in an MMA fight. Keep your training as universal as possible, you can specialise later on in your career. I would recommend watching a video on aliveness by Matt Thornton to learn more about the way we train and the Choke documentary about Rickson Gracie as they give great insight into the sport at its core.”
Discussing his plans for the future Tom said “I wouldn’t rule out fighting again. I’ve been training consistently and kept my fitness levels up since my last fight. But my focus isn’t on competing, I much prefer the idea of being a gym rat. Someone who’s almost unknown, without a reputation preceding them but is an absolute killer on the mats. I aspire more towards improving and developing my skills than accumulating a fight record. I’m hoping to finish my masters degree in post-primary teaching and I’m considering possibly immigrating if Ireland continues to close gyms. I’m really struggling with the lack of training so if that continues to be a problem I might decide to move somewhere with less restrictions where I can continue to train consistently. While the government may consider gyms to be a non essential service, it’s something that I absolutely need and can’t live without.”
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association would like to sincerely thank Tom, and all of his fellow coaches and members at Strange Wolves MMA for their continuous support and contributions towards the progression of Irish MMA and wish them the very best of luck and skill in their future endeavours.