UFC Featherweight champion Conor McGregor has done an awful lot of great things for the sport of mixed martial arts in a relatively short space of time. He has set UFC records for both gate receipts and pay-per-view sales, he has redefined what is financially and commercially possible for a mixed martial artist, and he’s also paved the way for fellow Irish fighters into MMA’s premiere organisation – the UFC.
But before McGregor’s dazzling rise to the top of the UFC there was Tom Egan, the first Irishman to have fought with the promotion. Egan’s first round loss to John Hathaway at UFC 93 was the closest any Irishman had ever got to tasting success in MMA’s biggest show, and it would take another four years before any other Irish fighter was given a shot at redemption.
McGregor was the man to follow Egan into MMA’s big time and not only would he quickly avenge his former teammate’s loss with a first round stoppage of Marcus Brimmage in his UFC debut at UFC on Fuel TV 9, but he would also blaze a trail for other Irish MMA fighters into the organisation, with six more Irish fighters following the Dubliner into the UFC after his promotional debut in April 2013.
McGregor’s teammate Charlie Ward is now set to become the ninth Irish fighter to fight in the UFC when he makes his promotional debut at UFC Fight Night 102 in New York next month. Ward’s debut comes just three years after McGregor’s in Stockholm and will further solidify Ireland’s presence within the UFC, with the SBG fighter joining Aisling Daly and Conor McGregor as the only active Irish fighters signed to the promotion.
When McGregor first entered the UFC he promised to break down the door for other Irish fighters to follow, and not only did he break down the proverbial door to the big time, he smashed it, with seven more Irish fighters following him into the organisation, four of whom train out of SBG.
The Dublin-based gym has become a hub for professional fighters, both domestic and international, but it’s also become a proving ground for anyone that is seriously interested in MMA in Ireland. In professional football, talented Irish kids will be plucked into one of the many big academies that are plotted around both England and Scotland. In rugby, young Irish players are drafted into one of the four professional provincial academies and are developed through an array of both national and international competitions.
In MMA – they seem to come here – to SBG. The growth of MMA worldwide over the last two decades is staggering. According to a 2015 Sports, Fitness, and Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report, MMA is second only to adventure racing when it comes to growing participation, recording a 19.5% increase since 2013.
Consequently, MMA gyms are popping up all over the world to meet the soaring demand in interest but in Ireland burgeoning fighters are generally flocking to SBG.
“It’s like kids wanting to wear the Manchester United jersey,” Andy Ryan of Team Ryano told Pundit Arena.
“They watch football on tv, they want to go off and buy the jerseys, because they want to feel like they’re apart of it, it’s the same thing with Conor at SBG.”
Ryan has a point. SBG Concorde is covered in the image of Conor McGregor. His banner is hanging outside the front of the gym, his posters are hanging on the wall, he has a cardboard cut-out of his image beside the gym’s official fight store – ‘the shoptagon’.
If you want the full immersive Conor McGregor experience this is certainly the place to be, and while the gym definitely does have a sub-section of members who are there to essentially train at the same gym as Ireland’s greatest mixed martial artist, they also have a core fight team of promising athletes who are driven by success. A desire to become the best.
“I’ve seen so many people come into this gym and tell me they’re going to be in the UFC, that they’re going to be the next big thing, and then give it a month or two and then they’re not showing to class anymore, or they’re not sparring anymore, or maybe they lose a fight and that’s it,” Kiefer Crosbie, a member of SBG’s pro fight team, told Pundit Arena.
“I’ve lost loads of fights but I’m still here everyday. I come down to the gym every Monday and I’m learning.
“I’m at a stage where I’m grappling black belts every day. I’m grappling high level guys every day. I don’t know what it feels like to grapple a beginner. I don’t know what it feels like to spar a guy that is kind of okay.
“I’m sparring Conor, I’m sparring James [Gallagher], high level guys so that’s me now, I’m a high level guy. I know what it’s like to lose but you have to show up every day. The reason why I like fighting is because you can’t lie.
“You can lie about a lot of sports but when that cage door is locked, and you’re standing in front of a man that knows how to fight, if you haven’t prepared you’re going to find out the hard way.”
Preparation is key in professional MMA as ‘off days’ or ‘no shows’ usually result in fighters visiting the hospital instead of the after party. With a fight team of around 50 professional fighters there are always upcoming fights to prepare for at SBG.
While McGregor and Ward will be fighting in Belfast over the course of the next month, on the home front, seven of SBG’s fighters are preparing for BAMMA and Bellator’s cross-promotional card in December.
The event will be the biggest non-UFC show to ever come to Irish shores, and while Irish fighters will largely relish the increased exposure and spotlight that an organisation like Bellator will naturally bring to Irish MMA, their attitude and mindset largely remains the same.
“The shows are great, and it’s a great platform, there will be 10,000 people here, there’s cameras on, it’s a big thing, but I don’t give a f**k if it’s in a basketball hall with 200 people,” added Crosbie.
“I’m still going to try and go in there and knock a guy clean out. It’s just the way I am. I just love to fight.”
For most of SBG’s pro fighters, fighting is not something they want to do so they can give it a shot or dabble in it, it’s not even something they want to try and do to challenge or push themselves, for most of the gym’s fighters it’s an obsession, something they can’t turn off despite their best intentions.
“People who start getting into MMA for whatever reason, it starts to become an obsession fairly early on,” Kavanagh said at the One-Zero Conference in Dublin last month.
“I was really obsessed with what I was doing. I wasn’t sure if it was going to turn into a career, but I knew I had to do it every day. It’s sort of by accident that things worked out. You just keep going. You get knocked back. You’re losing, you’re failing, you try to learn from your experiences and you just move forward.
“You get very narrow-minded about what you find interesting. I find it hard to watch a full movie without taking my phone out and watching something about technique or something in the MMA world.
“It’s not 9 to 5. I’m in the gym pretty much all day. I wake up early. The first few hours are spent catching a bunch of emails and messages sent during the night. You get home at 10 o’clock and the next two or three hours are doing the same thing. If you’re going to do something like this it’s almost a vocation.
“It’s all I want to do as well. It’s not something I endure, I really enjoy it. You have to be all in.”
Like all successful organisations there is consistency across the board from the very top, in this instance Kavanagh, right down to a guy like Crosbie who has only had one professional fight.
The differences in knowledge and experience between Kavanagh and Crosbie concerning MMA may be noticeably significant, but their mentality is ultimately the same; they don’t stop thinking about MMA and its finer intricacies.
“I just can’t sit still,” added Crosbie.
“I’m always just watching fights on my phone. I’m always asking friends about techniques. I went for a coffee last week with James and I was like here ‘I just want to try this technique for a second’ because it was wrecking my head.
“People are maybe looking at us weird but it’s just the only way we know. It is a sport at the end of the day but it is an obsession.”
Gallagher is SBG’s brightest young prospect and he typifies this obsessive need to learn. ‘The Strabanimal’ had his first amateur MMA fight at 13 and he’s been quickly rising through the sport ever since.
The 20-year-old has quickly strung together an impressive four-fight win streak since turning pro last year and Crosbie envisions him being the best in the world one day.
The Strabane native has not lost a fight since he was 14 but insists that he still has so much to learn about the sport but that the environment at SBG really caters towards fighters becoming successful.
“I just love training and love being obsessed with it,” said Gallagher.
“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 love being obsessed with it.
“But now I’m like more clued in about cardiovascular training. I’ve got my cardiovascular coach Sean Kinane at health matters and he helps me out with that so I’ve got my cardio going through the roof.
“I’ve got John who is obviously the best martial arts coach in the world. I’ve got the best training partners in the world. I’ve got good nutritionists down at the Irish Strength Institute; now I feel like I’m just smart.”
Intelligence and obsession is a pretty potent combination in the world of professional sport and it seemingly seeps out of the walls at SBG. They train wisely, they employ the best in sports science to maximise their physical performance and they grow through internal and external competition.
Irish MMA is experiencing a period of unprecedented growth in large part to the success of Conor McGregor, and while McGregor is in New York headlining the biggest event in UFC history this weekend, the rest of his teammates are back in Dublin, training, improving and obsessing.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena