This week’s IMMAA featured fighter of the week is two time Team Ireland representative and bronze medallist at the IMMAF MMA championships Gary Rooney of SBG HQ under Head Coach and IMMAA President John Kavanagh.
Gary was first introduced to combat sports when he enrolled in Arbour Hill Boxing Club at age 8. He recalls “I always had an interest in fighting, but I wasn’t focused on it enough. I was always messing around. When I was around 13 my aunty did a fitness course with Paddy Holohan and she recommended to me that I should go up to SBG to try out a class. Before that I used to play the UFC games and knew the big names like Chuck Liddell and Rashad Evans but I didn’t know the difference between a guillotine and a rear naked choke. I was late for my first class at SBG so I had to rush in and apologise to Coach Roddy, I was wearing my socks on the mats like a day one beginner but I’ve never looked back since.”
Since winning his debut amateur fight via unanimous decision in May 2019 Gary has competed at both the 2019 World and European MMA Championships. Speaking of his experiences representing Ireland he claimed “It’s basically the Olympics of MMA. It’s where you’ll meet the best amateur level fighters from every part of the world. We’re all unpaid athletes raising our own funds to be able to travel and compete. It was an unbelievable experience to be a part of. I didn’t think much about it at the time because I was so focused on the fighting but looking back now it meant so much to me to be representing my country. I still have the Irish flag from the tournament hanging in my bedroom. The whole experience really united the Irish team, it was Team Ireland against the rest of the world. When I went to the Europeans in Rome I was confident in the fight. I felt I was beating him on the jab and doing just enough to win the fight. I could have finished him but I didn’t because I was playing it safe and saving my energy for the next round but I ended up losing on a split decision from the judges. It made me realise that I needed to change my plan to fight in a cold and calculated way without emotion and to get in there and execute my opponents as quick as possible.”
When asked about the biggest obstacle he has had to overcome throughout his journey Gary answered “I guess it would be surviving the flats. I was very fortunate that I found MMA at the age when people begin to turn to other influences, especially in the flats where it’s so in your face. And to have come from a family that has been directly affected by it and didn’t want me to go down that path so they sent me to SBG instead. My father used to clean the mats at the gym and I would help with the kids classes to pay for the membership. I’m very fortunate to have met John and found SBG because it helped me stay on the straight and narrow.”
Gary is one of seven youths from disadvantaged backgrounds currently featuring on the RTE programme Davy’s Toughest Team preparing to climb Mount Everest. Discussing how this opportunity came about he said “I was in Paddy Holohans gym, SBG D24 at training and he mentioned that one of his members was applying for it and that I should send in an application. After a quick chat with the producers I got selected for the spot and we began filming our backgrounds and training to prepare for Everest.”
Revealing which fighters he looked to for inspiration in combat sports Gary claimed “ When I first joined I didn’t even know who McGregor was at the time, I wasn’t following the sport much so the only fighters I knew were within my own family like my Nanny’s father William, who was a boxer. Once I started to get into the sport more it was the likes of Owen Roddy, Paddy Holohan, James Galagher and people who I saw training in the gym on a daily basis that I really looked up to. The main man I’d have to say made a huge difference to me was Richie Smullen, he’s like a brother to me. He really took me under his wing ever since I was in the teens class and got into single leg X. Richie’s a leglock expert so he would see me doing them in the teens class and say “If you’re gonna do leglocks, you may as well learn to be good at them”. There’s been times where I had no money to pay for dinner and he brought me out and bought me food. He’s an absolute gent, I’d do anything for him. He’s a real motherf*cker with no time for people who bitch and moan and he’s humble too. There’s loads of other people who’ve helped me out along the way Lee Hammond, Ste Purcell, Joey Bresnan, Nerijus, Mario, Trevor Sweeney, Jordan Whyte just to name a few and anybody who I’ve rolled with, each one of them has helped me progress.”
Discussing the ways in which MMA has benefitted his life Gary stated “It gave me a very close circle of people who I can trust and rely on. Who know what it takes to struggle and persevere. It’s made me appreciate life, not be afraid to put it all on the table and just go for it. It gave me a great respect and appreciation for the hard work that the people behind the scenes put in too, especially all the head coaches. The likes of John Kavanagh, Owen Roddy, Declan Kenna, Deano Wade, Andy Ryan, Liam-Og Griffin, Phil Mulpeter and all the rest. People don’t realise the amount of work they put in but they really do sacrifice so much for us.”
Speaking of the lessons he has learnt throughout his MMA journey Gary claimed “The main thing I’ve learned is to just keep going. It all comes down to consistency. I haven’t stopped training since the day I walked through the doors of the gym for the first time and a lot of the other lads here are in the same boat. Train smart and don’t waste your time. If you’re on the mats then use that time to train or stretch. There’s plenty of time to talk after training but use your time on the mats wisely.”
Gary is set to take on SBG Corks Dylan O’ Donovan at Ireland’s leading MMA promotion Cage Legacy MMA on April 3rd but reveals he has big plans for his future within the sport claiming “The goal is to be the amateur with the most fights in the country before turning professional. I want to really gain as much experience as I can. I know Alexander O’ Sullivan currently has 29 amateur fights, I think that’s the smart way to do it. Ciaran Clarke is another example of someone who had plenty of amateur fights behind him before turning pro. I want that for my career too. The plan at the moment is to turn professional around 25 years old, I’m 21 now so I’ll be trying to fit as many fights as I can in between now and then. Long term I want to be a UFC champion to be honest, if that’s not what you’re striving for in this game then you’re fooling yourself. After that then I’d like to open up my own academy in the gym. Turn it into a social project to bring kids in off the street, feed them, clothe them and just give back to my community with the money I’ve made through fighting.”
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association would like to express our sincerest gratitude to Gary for his ongoing support and contributions to the Irish MMA community. We wish him the very best of luck and skill in his training camp and upcoming bout, and look forward to seeing him in action once again.