In this edition of Exploring Irish MMA, we focus on the man who could well stand as the country of Ireland’s brightest prospect, James ‘The Strabanimal’ Gallagher.
Nurturing a promising youngster in a game as ruthless as mixed martial arts can be a delicate process. If there is, in fact, an invisible line that separates the prospect and the genuine contender you can be damn sure that if you cross it, there is no going back.
Some guys are held for too long and end up wasting opportunities to gain invaluable experience due to concerns over potentially exposing them to too much too soon.
Others are thrown straight into that deep-end, a place where they soon realise how difficult it is to swim amongst the fully-developed inhabitants of their division’s upper-echelons.
For the unbeaten Irishman James Gallagher, it really does seem as though the time is perfect for him to fully shake off the ‘prospect’ label and establish himself as a genuine force in the lighter weight-classes of Bellator MMA.
You can’t exactly call someone an up-and-comer if they’re fighting the reigning champ in one of the sport’s biggest promotions for a world championship belt. With a win on Friday night, ‘The Strabanimal’ could well be headed straight towards bantamweight gold.
Facing promotional newcomer Ricky Bandejas, many have pointed to this contest as the biggest test of his career – both in terms of the danger posed by his opponent as well as the added pressure of returning after such a long layoff.
Speaking to us here at Pundit Arena, Gallagher voiced his respect for his opponent’s drive and hunger, despite still declaring his confidence in his own ability to get the job done in emphatic fashion.
“I feel as though I’m always on the rise. Everyone gives you different challenges. He’s a dangerous man. That’s a dangerous, dangerous man in front of me. He’s got the shot, the opportunity to wipe everything out. He’s hungry for that.
“I’m expecting a tough fight. I’m expecting him to come out hungry – with a desire in him that maybe some other people I’ve fought previously don’t have. When somebody wants something that bad – whether they’re technically good or not – they’re dangerous.
“I respect that so I’m coming here fully prepared for a tough fight.”
At Bellator 204, both Gallagher and the 135lb champion Darrion Caldwell are featured on the main-card. And while nothing has yet been confirmed, each of these guys have been trading jabs in the media – with Caldwell voicing his doubts over Gallagher’s ability to win his next matchup.
James made it clear that he intends on bringing the show back to Dublin’s 3Arena in December with a bantamweight title showdown sitting in the card’s top-billed slot.
“100%. That is a fact. Fighting for the bantamweight title – whether Darrion Caldwell shows up or not – and I’m going to be fighting for it in Dublin in December.
“I think he’s scared. He’s saying what he wants to happen not what he thinks is going to happen. He doesn’t want to fight me.
“He’s made fifteen different excuses already. If he doesn’t come to Ireland and fight me after I beat this guy, he’s gone. He has got no choice.”
Last November, at 20-years-old, that dream of headlining a show in his home-country was one that was within touching distance.
Fresh off of his dominant first-round stoppage of Chinzo Machida, Gallagher had done enough to earn himself the top spot on Bellator 187 – a card that would be co-promoted with BAMMA, featuring a host of the country’s top talents.
Things, as they often do, though, didn’t pan out exactly as we would have hoped, however.
In October, just a few weeks before the show, James was forced to withdraw due to a knee injury. After overcoming that setback and scheduling a fight for Bellator 196 in April, he then suffered a hand fracture.
When he steps into the cage on Friday, it will have been close to fourteen months since we’ve seen him in action.
“It has been tough not being in there fighting. That’s all I do, I love to fight. When I got injured I couldn’t put on my own socks. I had to get my girlfriend to help me into the bath to wash myself. I couldn’t walk. I could do f**k all.
“I had to get my Mam to dress me. I had to get my Dad to make me my food.
“As a young 20-year-old man that’s not a nice feeling at all. It’s embarrassing.
“I kept my head, I kept focused and I surrounded myself with good people and I kept positive all the way through and I’ve climbed my way back to the top and here I am.
“I’m back. I’m back and I’m coming for everyone.”
Not every prospect, or even every 21-year-old for that matter, will be able to move into their twenties with the type of experience this young man has been able to acquire so far.
Being forced to build yourself from the ground up and dealing with those moments of doubt and insecurity can often define your ability to achieve to your fullest.
People are quick to make comparisons between Gallagher and his training partner Conor McGregor for reasons that are understandable, given the fact that they’ve known each other for so long.
In watching this young man deal with a lengthy absence from contention, it’s easy to see the parallels between his own journey and the one taken by the UFC’s biggest star – who had his ascent in the promotion halted by a torn ACL sustained while facing off against the future-champion Max Holloway in his second outing.
Time spent on the sidelines like that is often time spent in reflection and for James Gallagher, his ability to appreciate that opportunity to grow is evidence of a winning mentality.
“If I didn’t have those injuries I would be world champion. But that wasn’t the case, I did have those injuries and they made me a better person, made me overcome stuff I have never had to overcome.
“So when I have little problems in training camp now, it’s nothing to me, it’s easy. I know what I’ve come back from before. I know how to work around it. I know so much about myself and about training.
“It was a long year off and I feel like I have improved so much. I’d nearly say I was lucky to have those injuries because of what I have learnt.
“An injury is not a setback, it’s a progression of discovery. It’s not a setback, it’s an obstacle to teach you about stuff you haven’t experienced before.”
It’s a positive attitude brought about by a level of experience you just can’t teach.
Gallagher could still be five or six years short of his athletic prime but even still, the ability he has displayed so far has been unquestionable.
It’s tough to come up in a world where the ‘Conor McGregor-comparison’ is inevitable. And while there are many holes to be found in that claim, I’m sure the former double-champ’s rise from his own unfortunate injury has set the precedent for a strong recovery mindset in SBG Ireland.
With his own struggle now in the rearviewmirror, James Gallagher is showing all the signs of a man ready to bounce back and make a serious statement.
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 II – Richie Smullen – 155lbs – (3-1-0)
Part III – Will Fleury – 185lbs – (4-1)
Part IV – Richard Kiely – 170lbs – (2-1)
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena