This week’s IMMAA featured fighter is undefeated professional mixed martial artist and silver medalist at the IMMAF MMA championships Danni Neilan of SBGI under Head Coach and IMMAA president John Kavanagh.
Danni’s sporting background was in horse-racing and all things equestrian up until the age of 25 when a run of bad luck caused her to re-evaluate her direction in life. She explains “A number of unfortunate things happened during my final year of college, two of my horses died, I fell sick and was hospitalized and my house was broken into and burgled. I wanted a clean break after everything that had happened that year, so I quit my job in the horse-racing industry, sold my horses and equipment and despite qualifying as a physiotherapist I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. After spending many years working with horses I felt like I had nothing to show for it. I was struggling with my mental health and was stuck in a rut so I did what many women do when they’re going through a tough time – I downloaded tinder to find myself a man. I swiped right on a guy who trained in SBG under John and up until meeting him I knew very little of MMA other than seeing McGregor in the news. He told me all about the sport, John and Conor and I was really intrigued by it all. It appealed to my competitive nature and although I had invested so much time and work into horse-racing I never made it to where I wanted to be so I thought MMA might be more up my street. He encouraged me to join a gym so I started in Husaria Naas a week later and threw myself straight into the training. From then on I committed myself to becoming a world champion.”
In the summer of 2015, after 6 months of MMA training Danni and her brother Alex spent some time touring the West coast of the USA, during which they attended UFC 189 to see the McGregor vs Mendes fight. “The day after Conors win we went to a pool party in Vegas where I got the chance to meet both John and Conor for the first time. I told John that day that I wanted to be an MMA fighter. I don’t think he took much notice of it at the time and probably thought I was just another drunk person with no real intentions of seeing it through. After realising I wasn’t ready to return to Ireland yet I moved straight to Canada from America with only the baggage I had brought for the holiday. I stayed with my brother in Vancouver for 7 months and trained in a gym called Checkmat MMA, mostly focusing on wrestling and striking and competed for the first time in jiu jitsu there. At the time there was huge media hype surrounding Conor McGregor and SBG and I realised that I had no reason to train MMA in Canada when there was such a world class gym in Ireland. The following January I decided it was time to come home. My mental health struggles had resurfaced and up until then Canada had been my way of running away from my problems. Within two weeks of arriving back in Ireland I applied for a job as a physio, moved in with a friend in Kildare and joined SBG. I went through quite a lot of erratic decisions in a short space of time but things settled quickly, I immersed myself in my training and things really started to look up for me from then on.”
Despite her best efforts Danni found it extremely difficult to get matched for fights in Ireland due to a lack of suitable opponents. In November of 2016 she travelled to Prague as part of the Irish international MMA team at the 2016 IMMAF European MMA open. Although she was submitted and eliminated from the tournament in her preliminary fight she still views the experience as a learning opportunity, claiming “It was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me – a real eye-opener. To travel all the way to the European championships and perform in a high pressure situation knowing that you’re representing your country and all your friends and family are supporting you. To lose in the first round was devastating. That experience taught me to focus on the fight at hand. I flew over there focused on winning a gold medal, whereas I should have been focusing on the fight ahead of me and not let myself get carried away.”
In March of 2017 Danni competed at the UK Fighting Championships in England where she was defeated by Karolina Wojcik, who went on to become the EFC world champion. She then had three successful victories in succession before returning to the IMMAFs for the 2017 World MMA Championships where she fought four times in five days. Having won her first three fights of the tournament Danni was defeated via decision in the final bout, earning a silver medal for Team Ireland. Describing her experiences at the IMMAFs Danni claimed “It’s tough, it’s seriously tough in every way imaginable. It is the hardest thing you will ever do, but if you do manage to make it through an IMMAF tournament everything after that will be easy in comparison. In a normal fight you only represent yourself whereas at the IMMAFs you’re representing your country and that’s a heavy cross to bear. All of the fighters stay in the same hotel so every time I saw a woman around my weight I was sizing her up thinking I could be fighting her in the next few days. You have to make weight every single day and you have to win every fight. If you lose even once then you’re knocked out of the tournament. If you win you have to focus on preparing yourself to make weight and fight again the very next day. Looking back now I am so proud to have had that experience. Despite how difficult it was I came out of it a better fighter at the end of it all. I think the pro ranks are a lot easier once you’ve experienced the IMMAFs. To win a silver medal at the IMMAFs was something that meant a lot to me, I received a lot of publicity from it and I felt that it reflected well on the sport as a whole to have athletes competing and medaling at such a prestigious tournament. Especially being a woman in MMA, to reduce the stigma of the sport and showcase that inclusion and equality to the Irish people.”
Addressing the gender equality issues associated with sports Danni stated “This is a topic that comes up a lot in interviews and to be honest I think people are trying to create a problem where there isn’t one. I get paid just as much, if not more than most of my teammates in Bellator and I know many other female professional fighters in the same position. If anything, it is easier to make a career as a female MMA fighter because we have much less competition to contend with. Within the MMA industry as a whole it is really irrelevant what gender you are. Perhaps I’ve been sheltered from the issue because I’m part of such a great gym but SBG has always treated men and women as the same. I can honestly advocate that I have never been treated in any way different to my male training partners. Even when it was only myself and Sinead Kavanagh training there, we never had a lack of training partners because there was always a steady supply of young lads relatively close to our size who never held back and always gave us good rounds. I’ve even found that in our own gym (Relentless Martial Arts) that we have a very even number of boys and girls of all ages and in some cases more girls than boys. The Ronda Rousey effect has caused an increase in the number of women in MMA in recent years, but I think it’s also relative to the growing success of the sport as a whole. Many other women joined the gym at the same time that I did and over time they dispersed, but I don’t think that’s any different to the dropout rate of the lads. Lots of people start this sport, but not many see it through, and that’s true regardless of gender. The girls who have stuck with it though, are the cream of the crop. They’re the ones who really want to succeed in this sport and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
When asked about who she looks to for motivation within the sport Danni made no hesitation in answering “It’s always been Conor. Since that first fight I went to in Vegas, it was just an out of this world experience. I went to his next fight against Aldo too and I will never forget seeing the arena light up with Irish flags and music, it was so surreal it could bring you to tears. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had, and to know that this person came from nothing and from such a small country that doesn’t even recognise the sport. He had no support or funding from the Irish government the way many other athletes do. He came from nothing and absolutely captivated the whole world. He’s been my greatest inspiration from the start.”
Listing the ways in which MMA has benefitted her life Danni revealed “Well the biggest one is my fiance Alan. We met through a dating website called plenty of fish and really bonded over our love for martial arts. We now own a gym together in Mullingar called Relentless Martial Arts and meeting him has changed my whole life. We’re very fortunate to have the gym and each other because it means we have been able to train with each other and use the equipment through the lockdowns. From a health perspective it has taught me how to sustain a healthy and active lifestyle and it’s given me a huge confidence boost too.”
Discussing the biggest lessons she has learned throughout her journey Danni stated “From a technical standpoint I would say do less, but do it better. At the start I would go to about three classes per day and I worked so very hard but I didn’t necessarily get much better. Going to class isn’t enough, working hard isn’t enough. I should have focused more on retaining the information I was being taught and ensuring that I could repeat the techniques that I learned today tomorrow, rather than trying to fit in as many classes as I could. That would have helped my progression a lot more. From a mental standpoint you should know why you’re doing it. Have a clear goal, and a reason for wanting to achieve that goal. Not everyone wants to fight or compete and that’s fine, but know where you want to be. At first I think I joined MMA because I wanted to be someone. I wanted status and notoriety and to be set apart from the rest. After the world championships I was heartbroken to have won silver and not gold but I realised then that I was doing it for the wrong reasons. It doesn’t matter if people know who you are. Now the reason I do this is to reach my full potential, to be a little bit better than I was yesterday. I don’t care about likes or followers on social media, attention from people or to prove anyone wrong, I’m doing this for me because it’s what I want to do.”
Speaking of the people who have helped her throughout her MMA journey Danni claimed “My brother Alex was probably my first real supporter. Even after my first jiu jitsu competition in Vancouver he told me ‘Just keep doing what you did today and you’ll be a world champion.’ and I remember thinking ‘This is a white belt jiu jitsu competition, relax!’ John has been an incredible mentor throughout everything. Even on my first day at SBG he told me that we were going to have some great times ahead of us. It meant so much that he believed in me and saw my potential even though I was so raw and didn’t know anything yet. He has helped me develop my skill in so many ways and provided me with the amazing opportunity of my Bellator contract. I would definitely not be in the position I am now without John, he has made this career a reality for me and I am hugely indebted to him for that. Then of course Alan has been amazing. He is constantly helping me improve in any way that he can. My mother has been a great support as well, more from an emotional point of view than technical as she doesn’t know much about fighting but she supports me endlessly nonetheless.”
Revealing her plans for the future Danni stated “I’ve signed a new multi fight contract for four more fights with Bellator so my plan is to win those and grow my record to 7-0. At that point we’ll be assessing our options. I’m hoping Bellator will put up a belt for the division as there’s currently no belt available at strawweight. For now I’m focusing on those four fights but ultimately I want to become a world champion, regardless of whether that will be in Bellator or another promotion, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. From the perspective of our gym, we have noticed a lack of accessible competitions for our members, so something we’ll be looking into will be creating opportunities for aspiring athletes to compete. I think it’s important for people to have these tournaments to aim towards and they need to be affordable. I think that Philip Mulpeter is doing a fantastic job with GAMA and it’s something we need more of. Our gym is attached to a boxing club and their athletes get the opportunity to compete multiple times per month because they have received formal government recognition, backing and funding from Sport Ireland, whereas that is an area that Irish MMA is sorely missing.”
The Irish MMA Association would like to sincerely thank Danni for her ongoing support and contributions to the Irish MMA community. We wish her the very best of luck and skill as she continues to strive to meet her goals and have no doubt that she will one day achieve her dream of becoming a world champion in MMA.