One of the very first things you notice when you talk to James Gallagher is that he is definitely not your average 20-year-old.
The SBG Featherweight looks, dresses and talks the part of a guy who is widely tipped as Irish MMA’s brightest prospect, but when you dig a little deeper and look beyond the fight talk, you’ll find an athlete and a man that has catered every part of his life towards becoming one of the best fighters in the world.
“I am not talented, I am obsessed” reads a slogan plastered across a Conor McGregor poster that hangs just above the cage at SBG Concorde, the headquarters for SBG Ireland and the primary training centre for the gym’s professional fight team. McGregor, of course, is the gym’s poster boy.
He’s the UFC Featherweight champion, the richest fighter in mixed martial arts and the most successful fighter in the history of Irish MMA. His banner hangs outside the front of the gym beside its entrance, he has his own cardboard cut-out attached to the gym’s fight store, and his presence and image is felt throughout the gym, seemingly everywhere you look.
His path is the road that many fighters at SBG wish to emulate, and while there may be significant differences between the Crumlin native’s bank account and the figures that his teammates demand, their goal and attitude is ultimately the same; to be the best. An obsessive, unrelenting, determined desire to be the best.
“I remember the first MMA fight I ever saw was in a ring in Derry and I said “that looks really cool, I want to do that,” Gallagher told Pundit Arena.
“That Christmas I got my first UFC DVD and it was Chuck Liddell vs Tito Ortiz and then I just watched that at Christmas, watched all those fights and I just thought ‘this is lethal.’
“Since then I’ve just been hooked. I just love training and love being obsessed with it. I’ve just been training all the time. Even from a young age with some of the other guys I used to do Hapkido with, and doing it the day before Christmas morning, running, always eating clean. I just used to be obsessed with it.”
Make no mistake, Gallagher is still obsessed with MMA, it’s just easier for him now. Instead of having to take the bus four hours, twice a week from Strabane down to Dublin to train, the 20-year-old now walks from his apartment which is conveniently located just two minutes away from SBG.
Instead of hiding down the back of Maths class watching Gunnar Nelson videos on his phone, he now trains with him, picking his brain on any skill or technique he may be curious about.
It’s the right environment for him. It’s the right environment for any aspiring fighter with professional ambitions, but like most fighters who want to go to the places where Gallagher is trying to get to, sacrifices have to be made in order to succeed.
“I’m the kind of guy when something is on my mind, it has to happen, no matter what. I’ll make it happen somehow.
“At the time I didn’t have a club I could fight out of at home. I was going around different clubs because the club I was at was closing down, so I was just floating around training and still coming down here [to SBG].
“Then one day I was just like ‘you know what, f**k this.’ People are talking about drinking at the weekend or doing this or that, I just noticed bar one or two, I hated everyone I was surrounded by.
“I just needed to get away from them, I didn’t feel comfortable around these kinds of people. After a while it just kept building and building and then one day I was like ‘I’m done. I’m out of here, it’s not good for me being here.’
“Now everyone I’m surrounded by is 100% with me and if they’re not, I wouldn’t be surrounded by them.
We headed along to SBG to catch up with James Gallagher, be sure to check out our exclusive with The Strabanimal later today!
Posted by The Fighting Irish – MMA on Friday, 4 November 2016
“I guess it’s a bit of a selfish thing isn’t it? But I’m in this. I’ve got my life set in stone and it’s not easy to get here so you need to put everything you’ve got into it, every last bit you’ve got and some days you’ll be like ‘f**k this, I can’t, I’m not able, I’m done.’
“But it’s not that you’re done, it just might be that particular day where you’re like ‘f**k this, I just want to put my feet up.’
“But then I go back home and my girlfriend will be like ‘nah let’s go, it’s time for you to get up, it’s time to go training.’
“You need people like that that are going to push you, and drive you, and remind you every day that this is what you love to do.”
Gallagher loves what he does for a living and so far he’s doing a pretty good job at professional fighting. He’s 4-0 in his professional MMA career, he’s built a steady base of supporters, and after a unanimous decision victory over Mike Cutting in his Bellator debut back in July, the Strabane native is now set to feature in the co-main event at Bellator 169 against Anthony Taylor at the 3 Arena in Dublin.
Although he’s not a Dubliner himself, Gallagher has been living in the Irish capital on and off for the last five years, including a couple of years spent living with his coach John Kavanagh. Gallagher currently lives with his girlfriend and likes his predicament, although like most Dubliners, he’s not too impressed with the city’s rising rent prices, a problem that extends far beyond the realm of professional fighting.
It’s a unique situation for Gallagher because most 20-year-old’s that live in Dublin don’t pay their own rent, but then again, most people Gallagher’s age aren’t professional fighters either.
“It’s a bit f**ked up when you think about it isn’t it?” Gallagher said of his rapid rise in MMA.
“I only turned 20 last week. I knew this type of thing would come, but I didn’t think it would come until I was 23 or 24, when I reached my pinnacle, but it feels right, I feel like I’m where I belong.
“Actually at the moment I feel like I should be the main event but I think I am the main event.
“There’s going to be four of five hundred people coming to the event from Strabane. The whole place is coming. Just even walking around there, every newspaper, all the kids are running around, it’s madness.
“It’s a weird thing. You might know someone’s brother, or you’re friends with their family, and they’re in awe of you. They’re looking at you in absolute awe of you and you’re just thinking ‘I just do what I love.’
“They’re in awe, and this is grown men I’m talking about, do you know what I mean? I’m just like ‘you went to school with my dad’, and now you’re taking a picture with me.
“That feeling is just unbelievable, especially for where I live.”
But it’s not just the people of Strabane that are in awe of Gallagher, it’s his own teammates as well. SBG’s popularity has surged with the rise of Conor McGregor but a lot of the gym’s core fight team have been training at the facility for years.
One of Gallagher’s teammates, Kiefer Crosbie, who is fighting at BAMMA 27 on the same night as the Tyrone native, says the northerner’s rise since he joined SBG has been remarkable, and that in his mind, it’s only a matter of time before Gallagher becomes the ‘best in the world.’
“He’s going to be the best in the world one day, I’ve said it since day one,” Crosbie told Pundit Arena.
“I remember the first day he was here putting shinpads on, it was actually my shinpads he borrowed to do the MMA class. I remember moving around with him sparring and thinking ‘he’s got a lot to learn.’
“But now I’m sparring him and I’m like ‘f**k, I better be on the ball here because he’s coming to take my head off.’
“He’s an animal, he’s just a sponge. He’s probably one of the few people I’ve ever met that just absorbs things so simply. John tells him things once and that’s it, he’ll be obsessed with it, he’ll make it great, and he’ll become better at it than most of the people at the gym.
“I see him grappling black belts and he is just effortlessly pinning them and I’m like ‘how is he doing that?’ It’s just incredible.”
Gallagher’s rise in MMA has been nothing short of meteoric but it’s a constant process of adaptation and learning.
If the people around him aren’t productive towards what he’s trying to achieve, they’re gone. If his eating habits aren’t where they should be before a fight, he changes them for the next fight.
Everything he does is tailored towards becoming a better fighter, a better athlete, and in a sport where him and his teammates have seen first-hand just how short a career, and sadly a life can be, it seems like the perfect attitude to have.