Last week we had the opportunity to chat with Blaine O’Driscoll as he edges towards a BAMMA flyweight title-shot and in this, the second edition of Exploring Irish MMA, we spoke to unbeaten lightweight Richie Smullen ahead of his UFC debut in Las Vegas on July 6.
This series is intended as a means of shining a spotlight on the current crop of Irish mixed martial artists as they attempt to break through and make a name for themselves globally. Even in the last few weeks and months, you can feel that there is something special brewing on the national scene and with our featured fighter this week – we speak to the man who could well be spearheading another Irish takeover.
Richie Smullen was selected among the eight lightweights who joined eight other featherweights as part of the twenty-seventh series of The Ultimate Fighter. This season, in particular, was pegged as one of the most competitive to date, with an unbeaten professional record a requirement upon application. After successfully trying out, he made it through and stood as captain Daniel Cormier’s third pick when it came to selecting teams.
A spot on The Ultimate Fighter alone is by no means a ticket to the world’s premier MMA promotion, but even early on, Smullen exuded a quiet confidence not only about his ability to win – but also to finish.
This complete Mixed Martial Artist is not looking for any decision win, just finishes. Meet undefeated Richie Smullen. pic.twitter.com/swg0ngonly
— The Ultimate Fighter (@UltimateFighter) May 30, 2018
A young, confident and above all else, dangerous Irishman finally getting his shot at the big-time. It seemed as though the bright-lights of the UFC were within his grasp but after being pegged to take on Allan Zuniga (13-0) in his opening matchup – disaster struck.
Speaking to us here at Pundit Arena, Smullen detailed the hours that preceded his originally scheduled bout with Zuniga.
“I got rhabdomyolysis. My muscles broke down and the CK protein went into my bloodstream which then travelled to my kidneys.
“So what you saw on TV was my body completely shutting down. It’s not really common in MMA. I woke up fight-day feeling wretched. I didn’t know what it was. I had cramp in my legs.
“So I went to the venue to get my legs massaged – which I’ve since found out was the worst thing I could have done. That made it ten-times worse.”
Of course, the fight was scrapped and Zuniga was given a free-pass to the reality show’s second-round but for Richie Smullen and those close to him, the excitement that came with getting such a huge break was replaced with disappointment and above all else, uncertainty about what the future held in store.
“Initially, I was really annoyed with myself. Everything can be avoided. What happened to me was from training too hard. I still believed that I would be in the UFC one day so if they didn’t give me the chance it would have been back to the European scene.
“It is what it is, you can’t change the past. There’s no point sitting at home and feeling sorry for yourself.
“All the guys were pretty positive for me but as the weeks ticked by I was kind of thinking that I maybe wouldn’t get it. DC was telling me that he was trying for me, trying his hardest for me and my team were trying for me but I still didn’t hear from the UFC.
“So then I went to LA with Artem [Lobov]. I was eight or nine weeks out and I still didn’t know what was happening. I was kind of on the fence and just in case, tried to get a fight ready for the week after [the TUF finale] because the contract says you can’t fight until the week is over.”
These things do happen in life. A spot on TUF was, of course, the most convenient route to an eventual UFC debut, but with a sense of confidence engrained in him as a result of proven pedigree – morale did not dip too low.
A return to the European circuit was not required, however.
“So after training one night I went home and I woke up to a text on my phone from John [Kavanagh] saying, ‘Luis Pena, July 6th’.
“I landed back in Ireland around March 3rd. I didn’t get back training properly until the start of April. But I’m never out of the gym. I enjoy training, I enjoy teaching people, that’s how I make my living as well. The big thing for me was getting my legs working again, they were so badly damaged.
“The time hasn’t been wasted. I feel like I’ve grown as a fighter, added so much skill. So when I come back I feel as though I will be a much more dangerous fighter and I’m hoping you will all see that on July 6.
“I’m probably in the best shape of my life so I am looking forward to this.”
It was by no means a charitable offer from the UFC. If Smullen wasn’t the fighter he was, he’d probably be forced to deal with his unfortunate setback and continue on his grind. With a proven record as a highly dangerous finisher though, he fits the UFC mould enough to warrant a debut shot against the man who could well hold the finest nickname in MMA, Luis Pena.
‘Violent Bob Ross’ is no slouch by any means. At 6’3″, he towers just about as high as a 155lb-r will ever manage and for Smullen, he stands as the tallest fighter to ever share the cage with him. Confidence is one thing but Richie was under no illusions about the quality Pena or any of his future UFC opponents will bring to the table.
“He [Pena] is legit. I mean anyone in the UFC is pretty legit. Even in amateur, I’ve always fought the best guys. Pena, he’s good.
“He’s got good wrestling, good jiu-jitsu, good striking. But I believe that I have all of those things too. Anyone in the UFC if they start grappling with me are in for a long night. I believe in my skillset so much on the ground.
“He’s a hard fight – probably one of the hardest fights I could have gotten in the house but I’m looking for those big, hard fights. So I’m happy I got him, he’s a cool guy – we’ll have a beer after.”
The importance of being an Irish fighter in the UFC is not lost on Smullen either. For years, the sport was meandering around in a state of obscurity in this country and, of course, the phenomenon that came as a result of the rise of Conor McGregor among others saw the national scene gain some serious momentum.
Now, there’s another wave of talent who are knocking on the door of the global stage.
“It feels great, it has been actually been crazy. I can’t even explain it. I woke up one day and saw the poster. The UFC had tagged me in a post with Pena. That was crazy. I watch the UFC whenever it’s on and just to see myself on it is like a dream come true. How many people get to say they’ve walked out and fought in Las Vegas? Not a lot!
“I’ve got all my family flying over, my girlfriend, my friends. It’s going to be something to remember, something I’ll never forget.
“It won’t be the last time either.”
Pressure fighting is something that is becoming more and more synonymous with the good folks at SBG Ireland and in Richie Smullen, they have a fighter who embodies that style as much as anyone. And while he wouldn’t narrow things down into a prediction, he let us know that he’ll be coming out with that high-pace from the off.
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. My hands will be high. I’m going to come forward, put a lot of pressure on him. I’ll be looking to take him down and submit him. But wherever the fight goes I’ll be ready. I’m going to go out and make this a really rough night for the guy.”
With only a handful of fighters representing this country inside the UFC octagon at present, July 6 will stand as a significant event in the Irish sporting calendar as one of our finest prospects gets his opportunity to show the world exactly how good he is.
It wasn’t a road he walked without his fair share of adversity but with a bout on the Friday of International Fight Week to look forward to, the seeds have been planted for another star to emerge and lead the next stage of the charge.
Each entry to the series will become available to read below as it goes live.
Part I – Blaine O’Driscoll – 125/135lbs – (6-2)
Part III – Will Fleury – 185lbs – (4-0)
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena