Q. How did your MMA journey begin?
I started in MMA around 2016. I was in a teaching job down in Waterford. I was fed up with playing football and there was an MMA club nearby called Waterford MMA so I just rocked up one day and gave it a go. I loved it right away, I was obsessed with wanting to learn the ways these people were able to tap me out. I fell in love with jiu jitsu straight away and the ground game was something that I picked up a lot quicker. I ended up getting a job teaching in Dubai in 2017. After I moved out here I fell into a bad lifestyle of drinking and even though I kept threatening to get back into MMA, I didn’t get back into it for quite a while. Around the end of 2017 I started training again in Team Nogueira out here and went back to Ireland in the summer of 2018. I didn’t have much training other than a couple of months in Ireland and a couple of months in Dubai but I wanted to challenge myself so I rocked up to one of the novice MMA open competitions at SBG Portarlington. I had no coach or cornermen, I just rocked up on my own and fought a guy from CMAC. The first kick he threw went straight over my head and I remember thinking “Jesus, what have I gotten myself into here?” We won a round each and it went to a third, he got the decision in the end but Philip Mulpeter approached me afterwards and asked what my story was, so I told him about my bit of training in Ireland and Dubai and he said “Fair play to you, you put on a good fight there. Stick at it.” That August I flew back to Dubai for the teaching term and quite randomly through instagram found out that Merv Mulholland was coaching out here. He’s from Belfast and used to fight on Cage Warriors and would have fought on the same cards as Conor McGregor and the lads back in the day. I got in contact with him and he told me to come down to the class. I started taking it seriously from then on. He could see that I had something in my ground game but was fairly poor at the striking. He worked on my striking and got me my first amateur fight in December 2018 on the TK MMA Muscle show out here. I won that and in March 2019 there was an event being held out here called Reign MMA where John Kavanagh brought an Irish team out to fight against a Polish team. I fought on the undercard of that, it was the first fight of the night and I put the guy to sleep with a guillotine in 26 seconds. Funnily enough John Kavanagh said he was sitting in the front row explaining the rules of MMA to one of the sheikhs and when I met John later that night he joked that I had finished it too fast so he had to sit through the second fight with him also. Looking back now that was probably one of the most important fights that I had. It was a fairly big event and I got to meet the other Irish guys like John, Ryan Spillane, Colin Meagher and all the rest. I went on to have my third fight on UAE Warriors on the amateur undercard of a pro event. I went 3-0 as an amateur and came back to Ireland for the Summer.
Q. How did you get onto the Irish International MMA team?
When I was home for the summer I went down training with Colin Meagher, he mentioned that the squad sessions for the Irish team were coming up and I should go for it because the Worlds were being held not far from me in Bahrain so it would be handy enough to get there. I entered at my walk around weight as a featherweight and ended up going with a lot of the bigger guys in there and there’s some very good guys in that weight class. Liam-Og, who I had met at the Reign event contacted me a couple of days later and said “I think you went in at the wrong weight class but we have a spot for you at bantamweight if you’re interested in that?” I accepted the spot and came back to Dubai. I had a fight lined up at the time with UAE Warriors in October and three weeks after that flew out to Bahrain to compete at the IMMAFs.
Q. What was it like to compete at the IMMAFs?
The actual experience of the IMMAFs was life changing for me really. I hadn’t been training for that long compared to some of the other guys but I was just obsessed with it and training as hard as I could. I had racked up 4 amateur fights in less than a year. I was very green going out there, I knew nothing about my potential opponents.. Paddy Holohan was cornering me, which was a bit surreal because I had followed his UFC career. I walked out to the fight and my opponent was wearing a gold jersey, I didn’t even know what that meant, of course afterwards I learned that was because he was the current champion. He was a great fighter from Kazakhstan with a record of 21-1 at the time so there was a big gap in experience levels. I stuck it out for three rounds and he won on decision. A lot of my training went out the window when I was in that position and I was out wrestled and not sure what to do. It was one of the best things that I’ve ever done in the way that it gave me confidence because that guy was one of the best guys around at that division and he didn’t put me away. I was obviously devastated at the time. I felt like I had let the team down. You never want to lose a fight, especially when you’re representing your country but I really enjoyed the rest of the week. I made some great friends on the team, they made me feel so welcome which I was very grateful for because I wouldn’t have known a lot of the guys on the MMA scene in Ireland because I was never really on the Irish MMA scene.
Q. How has your career progressed since the IMMAFs?
I spent some time training in Thailand after the IMMAFs, I didn’t take my foot off the pedal at all. I had another fight in Dubai in early 2020 just before the coronavirus hit and the week before the fight I watched back over my fight from the IMMAF’s. I took a lot of confidence from my defensive display and was confident this guy wouldn’t finish me, so I just needed to go finish him. I ended up finishing the fight in the second round with a rear naked choke. After nothing really happened for a few months with the corona-virus. I was lucky enough that I was able to keep training in small group sessions through the lockdown and was able to keep improving on my skills the whole time. I went home for the summer, did some training with Brian Moore and got the call for a pro fight on UAE Warriors in September which I was very excited for but my opponent pulled out the day before weigh ins. I kept up the training and a new organisation called HFC set up out here and offered me a pro fight in November. I only had about two weeks notice but I knew something would come up so I had stayed ready. My opponent had previously fought one of my training partners and had something like 30 amater fights with over 20 wins and had a pro record of 1-1. I knew it would be a tough fight but I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity. It was a great scrap for three rounds, I nearly had him out on the buzzer of the first two but it went the distance and I won the fight on decision. It’s been a crazy whirlwind journey to go from taking it up as a hobby to fighting professionally three years later.
Q. What has been the highlight of your MMA journey so far?
I have two that come to mind, a high and a low and they’re equally important. The Reign MMA event was a massive fight, to open the show and put the guy to sleep in 26 seconds and celebrate with all the guys afterwards. The guy who ran the event, Karl Keller is now the head of MTK and after that event he got in touch with me and got me on the HFC card for my pro debut so that night really led to a lot of things in my career. Then the IMMAFs themselves, even though I lost, I would pinpoint that as a massive point in my career because it gave me such a great experience. When I came back from it I was more determined than ever that I was going to take this really seriously. Even at that point I didn’t plan on turning pro, I just wanted to test myself, but I just kept on doing what I was doing and the opportunity came.
Q. What are the biggest benefits that MMA has had on your life?
It’s given me focus. I have struggled with depression in the past and since taking up MMA my mental health has never been better. I am free of medication and MMA keeps me grounded and focused. I became obsessed with it. Jiu jitsu especially is the one aspect of it that I focused on the most and I can never give up. It’s made me much more disciplined. I know some people can view it as a violent sport but personally it has grounded me so much. When I came out here first I was caught up in the partying lifestyle whereas now I don’t really drink at all anymore. The MMA community is unbelievable. Even though it’s two people going in to fight each other the people are so sound. I’ve been to Australia, Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, Vietnam and obviously Ireland and Dubai and in all of these places I’ve rocked up to gyms and always been welcomed in. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that no matter where you are in the world you can walk into an MMA gym, be welcomed in, train with new people, learn from each other and always leave with a friend. I haven’t really talked about it much but I would really like to stress the role MMA has played with my mental health and hope that even one person who hears this walks into a martial arts gym and asks for help when they feel lost. I know they will never look back if they do.
Q. Who have been the main people who have guided and supported you through your MMA journey?
Going back to the very start, even though I wasn’t in the country for very long Anthony O’ Brien of Waterford MMA was the person who introduced me to the sport and that’s something I’ll be forever grateful for. He lives and dies by martial arts and he passed that onto me. When I moved to Dubai Merv Mulholland took me under his wing and became much more than a coach to me, he’s a good friend now. I owe a lot to the guys on the Irish team for welcoming me in the way they did, Ryan Spillane, Colin Meagher, Liam-Og Griffin and all the team. Paddy Holohan was great to me as a corner man and after the fight. He really made me feel proud to have represented my country.. Like I mentioned earlier that’s been my experience with the whole MMA community worldwide. The coaching staff at the IMMAFs were great both before and after my fight. When I visited Thailand after the IMMAFs I picked up what I thought was a groin injury that wouldn’t go away. I had to get an MRI and it turned out that I had a hip impingement. I never had great flexibility or range with my kicks. The doctors recommended surgery but after researching the surgery I decided against it and, again, through instagram I stumbled across Shane Flynn who had helped some county football players with the same problem. The pain had gotten so bad that I couldn’t sleep at night so I contacted him. He worked with me online until I was able to get back to Ireland to see him last year and he has me pain free by completely re-educating me on my S+C and breaking down scar tissue in my abductors and shoulder. Even though my hip shape has obviously never changed he was able to see that the issue was coming from my shoulder and was able to cure it to the point where I’m not in constant pain anymore. I spent so much money seeing so many people and he was the only one who was able to get to the bottom of it and I’ve been working with him ever since. When I made the Irish team I started working with Tristan Kennedy for my nutrition to make sure I made weight. The guy is a genie and I am constantly upskilling myself with him now. I make 61kg so easy now and could do 57 with his help if the right opportunity came. Over the last year I have started training with Brian Moore whenever I am back in the sunny south-east and it has been great. He is a high level guy and had been passing me mountains of knowledge. It is great to have this on my doorstep when I visit my hometown.
Q. What are your plans for the future?
I went about things a little bit differently than a lot of people. I got my education and career sorted first before I found MMA so there’s no pressure on me to rely on fighting for a living. I have goals in the way that I want to win a belt. My goal in the immediate future is to become bantamweight champion in HFC and I fully expect to achieve that. After that – I don’t know, we’ll have to see. I never set out with the goal of getting to the UFC. It’s not about money for me. As a teacher I’m enjoying getting more into the coaching side of things too and definitely as I get older that is something I’ll be doing more of. I have recently launched an online S+C academy and it could possibly be my full time income when I get to my late 30’s or early 40’s. I’m 29 now and never felt better. I look at guys like Brian Moore who has a couple of years on me but has never looked sharper, I fully expect him to win a Bellator title very soon. I have a few good years left of fighting in me yet so I plan to just keep improving and see where it goes.