In this, the eighth entry to the series Exploring Irish MMA, I had the opportunity to speak to one of this country’s most promising prospects, Sam Slater.
Those who have been close to the Irish mixed martial arts scene and its growth were no doubt delighted by February’s Bellator Dublin and the manner in which it played out.
A card stacked from top to bottom with our veterans, prospects, and budding superstars, when all was said and done in the 3Arena on the night, there was a sense that the Irish contingent had truly arrived on the scene.
In many ways, that was likely the intended purpose for the show as far as Scott Coker’s plans for the European circuit are concerned.
And from the first fight to the last, each and every athlete who made the walk with the tricolour stepped in there with a real sense of purpose, fighting with an intensity that was only furthered by that hugely energetic Dublin crowd.
In perhaps the most electric fight of the night, Clare’s Sam Slater went shot-for-shot with Scotland’s Chris Taylor, who turned in a powerful performance in his own right – one that led to him winning by TKO in the first-round.
It was by no means a devastating loss in terms of any gulf in class between both men on the night, but as we all know, the margin for error in MMA is minuscule and when those cage doors closed on February 23, it was the Scot who came through with the victory.
For those in the know, Sam is among the finest prospects in the country. A two-time competitor in the IMMAF’s as an amateur and with a wealth of experience in his locker before turning pro, Slater has that look in there – a look that is indicative of an ability to compete at the highest levels of this sport.
In the past, I’ve called it a ‘calmness within the chaos’ and I still stand by it.
When watching up-and-comers and relatively green fighters, there’s a knack for remaining cerebral in certain moments that you often look for, an intelligence that goes beyond years spent in the cage.
With Sam now set to return to the Bellator cage for a showdown in Birmingham on Saturday, I’d be willing to bet that the best is still to come.
Speaking to us here at Pundit Arena, Slater explained to me his immediate reaction just after losing out in his Bellator debut in February.
“I have never wanted to fight so much in the world.
“It’s funny, I didn’t know how much I wanted to get back in there until John [Kavanagh] offered me the fight. I had this plan in my head. I’m going to take care of my injury – technically I was diagnosed with a concussion so I couldn’t do any training at all. The only thing I could do was yoga. I couldn’t even lift weights. It’s just the rigorous protocol you go through now when you suffer a concussion like that.
“So my plan was that I would recover from that, ease back into training, heal up my injury, and I’d fight in September. The day that I was cleared to go back into training by the guys who were looking after my concussion, John texted me and offered me the fight and it was just a switch in my mindset.
“That was four weeks ago. I took the fight on four-and-a-half week’s notice.
Slater is no stranger to competing on the big stage, although the spotlight that he stood under on that night was one that came with an added level of significance.
Backed up by a small army of his friends and family who were occupying a rather sizeable portion of the crowd that night, the walk he made to the cage that night was an unfamiliar one in many ways.
“I’d never walked out in front of that many people that I know so closely, you know. One hundred and fifty people travelling up from Clare and family so that was different. I’ve always had friends and teammates – the people that are always there, but it was a different ball-game.
“I thought I was literally unbreakable and that my mindset was the same no matter what outside influences there were. But after watching the fight, it might have [affected me] – I did look a bit overexcited. I’m not usually like that, I’m usually really reserved.
“It’s not glaringly obvious that it affected me, but I do think it’s possible.”
In fighting, perhaps more than anywhere else, a healthy attitude towards defeat is paramount. Where footballers have the luxury of a quick turnaround between matches, weeks and month can pass before a fighter has their opportunity to right a wrong.
In a game where momentary lapses and tiny miscalculations can have devastating consequences, lingering on a defeat can be a competitor’s undoing.
There’s no doubt that there is a certain level of frustration that must come with that but in his mind, Slater already remembers the entire Bellator Dublin experience fondly.
“Aw man, I’ll always remember it. Not only was it my Bellator debut but also the first fight where I had so many people coming to support me. It was the first time that a lot of my closest people had seen me fight – my parents, a few of my best friends.
“I hold that memory dearly and the loss, to be honest, doesn’t put too much of a downer on it. After, I went out to the crowd, saw everyone and everyone was like ‘we don’t care, we’ll be at the next one’. Everyone just seemed so proud of me.
“Overall, it was a positive thing. I mean who knows, maybe my life would be ten times better now if I had won but it certainly wasn’t the end of the world.
Bellator Birmingham on Saturday night will see Sam take on a familiar face, Akonne Wanliss, another highly-touted rising force who will make his own Bellator debut this time.
Wanliss has his own history with SBG Dublin, having trained there in the past with Slater, and given that Birmingham is his hometown – there is already a very interesting dynamic in play between the two.
I asked Sam if a quick and emphatic statement victory would satisfy him enough to see him through the summer months and, of course, with a laugh, he made it clear that he’s coming to throw down.
“Ah, I’d love a war man. I’d love something that brings a bit of attention – especially in Akonne’s hometown. It would be such a story.
“And I think it’s likely, to be honest.
“I think it’s going to be fun in terms of the styles we both bring – two different styles. In the stand-up, he’s very rangy and flashy and I’m a bit unorthodox too.
“I’ve trained with him at SBG, I’ve spent time with him, I consider him a friend like. He has done camps here so it’s interesting. It adds another layer to it – another experience to add to my list.”
And while he did admit that the two-and-a-half month turnaround since his last fight was one brought about by an intense drive to get back in there, there was still an ulterior motive to be found.
During February’s trip to the 3Arena, Bellator announced their intention to return to the Dublin once again in September. In taking this matchup with Wanliss on May 4, Sam is placing himself in a prime position for a spot on that card – which one would have to imagine will once again be brimming with Irish talent.
Although February’s promotional debut will live long in his memory for many varying reasons, September, to Slater, represents an opportunity to run that one back.
“One hundred per cent, one hundred per cent. My pro-debut was there and I put on a performance that I was very proud of but my people weren’t there to see it you know. And then the same thing in Belfast. I had a really good fight against Tokarski and my people weren’t there to see it.
“You know, I can almost feel it, I can almost feel what it’s like. So that is for sure something that I’m motivated to repeat in front of the people that I want to be there.”
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena
Part I – Blaine O’Driscoll – 125/135lbs – (7-2)
Part II – Richie Smullen – 155lbs – (4-1-0)
Part III – Will Fleury – 185lbs – (5-1)
Part IV – Richard Kiely – 170lbs – (3-1)
Part V – James Gallagher – 135lbs – (8-1)
Part VI – Declan Kenna – Cage Legacy Promoter/Boxer/Full Power MMA
Part VII – Brian Moore – 145lbs – (11-7)