As week one of 2018 draws to a close, we present a list of the most promising Irish professional MMA talents you should be keeping an eye out for over the next fifty-one and beyond.
Note: The list below is one of the country’s best prospects, so the likes of James Gallagher, who has already established himself as a legitimate contender in one of the world’s premier promotions, and Cage Warriors light-heavyweight champion Karl Moore are not included.
Will Fleury (3-0)
2015 and 2016 were both terribly frustrating years for Will ‘Fuckin’ Fleury, with a host of fight-cancellations hindering his momentum. But in 2017 the Tipperary middleweight finally started to gain the recognition he has long deserved, as one of Ireland’s premier prospects.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Fleury over the last twelve months of course. After scoring an eye-catching TKO win over Kyle McClurkin at BAMMA 28 in Belfast on February 24th to move to 2-0 in the paid ranks…
— caposa (@Grabaka_Hitman) February 24, 2017
…the SBG fighter found himself staring at further roadblocks. A couple of scheduled fights fell by the wayside before he was handed a huge opportunity on The Fighter, a reality show in the same vein as The Ultimate Fighter and run by South African promotion EFC.
Fleury cruised through his opening exhibition bout on the show, submitting Mike DiOrio in the first round, before his charge was ended in controversial fashion.
As he attempted a takedown against the fence during the first round of a subsequent clash with unbeaten Australian Shaw Dean, Fleury was hit with a vicious but completely illegal series of elbow-strikes to the back of the head. Somehow the referee allowed him to take roughly ten elbows before intervening.
Bizarrely, the fight was declared a No Contest rather than a Disqualification, and Fleury was told he could no longer compete on the show because he had suffered a concussion – something he says was never medically proven.
When Fleury later released footage of the final seconds of the fight to social media, SBG Ireland founder and head coach John Kavanagh declared it “The worst refereeing I’ve seen in 20 yrs.”
Fleury, who is certain that he would have gone on to win the show were it not for this incident, returned to action at EFC Worldwide 66 in Pretoria earlier this month, however, and scored another spectacular stoppage win over local veteran Gordon Roodman. The win was Fleury’s tenth straight if you count his flawless 7-0 run in the amateurs.
— caposa (@Grabaka_Hitman) December 16, 2017
In the end, the ludicrous sequence of events that unfolded on The Fighter seems only to have aided Fleury, who has since garnered significantly more attention in Ireland and elsewhere due to the online furore created by the release of the footage. While his fighting skills and eccentric charisma already seem to have made him something of a star in South Africa.
Richie Smullen (3-0-1)
Wicklow native Richie Smullen is one of the most talented and aggressive grapplers in Irish MMA. An experienced amateur, who boasts wins over the likes of Nathan Kelly and Paul Hughes in the unpaid ranks, Smullen turned pro in July of 2016, scoring a submission victory over Jay Moogan with a heel-hook at Shinobi War 8. He followed that up by heel-hooking Andrew Murphy at BAMMA 26 just weeks later.
Smullen began his 2017 campaign in February, bludgeoning Jonny Saville to a first-round TKO defeat with some brutal ground and pound at Shinobi War 10. After the fight, UFC featherweight Artem Lobov, who is Smullen’s teammate at SBG Ireland, congratulated the 155-pounder on Twitter and branded him the “hardest worker in the gym.”
Great Win for @richie_smullen !!! Hardest worker in the gym!!! Big future for this guy!!! 8 quid well spent on ppv 🙂
— Artem Lobov (@RusHammerMMA) February 25, 2017
In July, Smullen bravely took a big step up in class, to do battle with Northern Ireland’s Rhys McKee at BAMMA 30. McKee was coming off of a devastating loss to Tim Barnett a few months earlier, but prior to that, he was widely considered the hottest prospect on the entire island.
Over the course of three sensational rounds, the pair went back on forth, Smullen getting the better of things in the clinch and on the ground, and McKee looking superior on the feet for the most part.
In the end, the result was a majority draw that only enhanced the reputations of both men.
Smullen was subsequently scheduled to face McKee’s conqueror, Barnett, at BAMMA 32 in early November but had to withdraw through injury. Luckily, he was healthy in time to try out for The Ultimate Fighter season 27 in Las Vegas last month. Though the official line-up for the show has not yet been revealed, Smullen’s teammate Conor McGregor suggested in a social media post on Friday that the unbeaten 26-year-old will feature on the show.
Kiefer Crosbie (3-0)
The man they call ‘Big Daddy’, Kiefer Crosbie has looked sensational since turning professional back in April of 2016. In his maiden outing in the paid ranks, the SBG Ireland welterweight gained a measure of revenge over Keith McCabe for an amateur defeat the previous year, finishing him in the first round of a clash at Battlezone Fighting Championships 15 at the Trinity Sports Centre in Donaghmede.
Eight months later, Crosbie made it two for two on an altogether grander stage, when he finished Conor Riordan at BAMMA 27 inside Dublin’s 3Arena. The win showed how well-rounded Crosbie had become. He looked the far better striker throughout, yet he wasn’t afraid to go to the floor and mix it up with Riordan, who appeared to have a dangerous submission game. And it was on the ground that Crosbie scored the finish, the combination of a triangle choke and some vicious elbows rendering Riordan briefly unconscious in the second round.
In July of this year, Crosbie moved to 3-0 with a finish that was eerily reminiscent of one of Conor McGregor’s most famous pre-UFC stoppages. Like his ‘Notorious’ teammate did to Steve O’Keefe in 2012, Crosbie bombarded Waldemar Cichy with elbows as the Pole attempted a takedown along the fence. The barrage dropped Cichy to his knees, prompting the referee to jump in a call a halt to the contest.
The 27-year-old Crosbie was initially expected to feature at BAMMA 32 in November, but he was ruled out after suffering a ruptured disc in his back.
In October, when news of Crosbie’s injury first emerged, his recovery time was being forecasted at six or seven weeks and a December return to action was being predicted(via FightStoreMedia). That’s not how things transpired, but hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long into the New Year before we see the Dubliner back in the cage.
A New Year’s Eve Facebook post suggested that we won’t. Hitting various bags and the pads, Crosbie looked back to full fitness and raring to go.
Joe McColgan (4-1)
Belfast lightweight Joe McColgan is the owner of the most significant win attributable to anyone on this list and has fought the highest level of opposition overall.
At BAMMA 26 in September of 2016, with just a single pro victory to his name, McColgan took on teak-tough, highly-regarded, well-travelled SBG Ireland stalwart Peter Queally, who was 8-2 at that time and seemingly on the cusp of a UFC call-up. Despite the gulf in experience, McColgan entered a phenomenal and ultra-confident performance in the welterweight bout to take a split-decision win.
Unfortunately, McColgan couldn’t build upon the momentum he gained with that victory, as he lost a split decision to Frenchman Arnold Quero in his next fight back down at lightweight in March of 2017. Quero, however, had come into the fight at Cage Warriors 81 with 19 professional fights to his name, 13 of which ended in victory, and he had gone 8-1 with 1 No Contest in his previous 10.
McColgan has since rebounded, winning two in a row. The Fight Academy Ireland representative submitted previously unbeaten Welshman Richard Williams in the third round at Cage Warriors 83 just two months after the Quero setback and subsequently earned a split decision win over 12-5 Brit Sean Carter at Cage Warriors 86 in September.
This guy is a quality, well-rounded operator, who is willing to take big risks to get ahead.
Dylan Tuke (4-1)
In 2016, Dylan ‘The Nuke’ Tuke was one of the most talked about young prospects in the country, a powerful striker with great submission skills and a mouth for selling fights and himself.
However, in December of that year, Tuke suffered a major setback against England’s Cameron Else at Bellator 169 in Dublin. There had been signs during Tuke’s dramatic previous outing that he was defensively vulnerable on the feet, as he was tagged at will by Adam Ventre in the opening round of their main event clash at Shinobi War 8. He showed tremendous heart just to survive the stanza, and even more to score a remarkable submission win in the session that followed. Against Else, however, those defensive problems were once again apparent and this time Tuke’s heart couldn’t bail him out, as he was finished by a savage salvo of shots that concluded with a big left-hook just 20 seconds into the first round.
Unsurprisingly, considering he comes from the famed SBG Ireland gym where the phrase ‘Win or Learn’ has become a mantra, Tuke returned to action in November 2017 an improved fighter. He looked more mature, calm, composed, patient and defensively responsible against the previously undefeated David Khalsa at BAMMA 32, while he retained the offensive arsenal and killer instinct that makes him so exciting. The 21-year-old Tuke scored the finish with a head-kick and some extras a little over a minute into the second round to move to 4-1 as a pro.
That loss to Else may prove to be the best thing that ever happened to Tuke.
Newry’s Declan ‘Decky’ McAleenan(3-1) didn’t get off to an ideal start in the pro ranks, as he was choked into submission inside a round on his maiden outing. But the quality of his performances ever since, as well as those of his debut opponent, have been so high that few will look upon that defeat with a particularly critical eye.
Since defeating McAleenan to go 2-0 back in December of 2015, James Gallagher has gone on to score five further wins without suffering a defeat and has established himself as a legitimate contender in the Bellator MMA featherweight division. While McAleenan himself has gone on a three-fight winning streak.
After a frustrating 2016, in which he didn’t compete once, McAleenan returned in February to submit the 1-0 Thomas Terdjman at Cage Warriors 80. The Team Torres fighter followed that up with a stoppage win over 2-1 Scot Alex Davidson at Headhunters FC in September before returning home to Newry and drilling 3-1 Pole Adam Gustab with a flying-knee at Cage Legacy Fighting Championship 5 in December.
Blaine O’Driscoll(5-2) scored two cracking wins over Darren O’Gorman and Harry Hardwick in 2017 but finished the year with a third-round KO defeat to talented Brit Dominique Wooding at BAMMA 32 in November. O’Driscoll has always looked a little undersized for a bantamweight. Though he picked apart and beautifully finished O’Gorman, he looked so much smaller than the Cork fighter. That was also the case against Hardwick and Wooding.
O’Driscoll, another SBG Ireland fighter, has talked in the past about making the move to flyweight. Now seems like the perfect time for the 26-year-old to do so and we have absolutely no doubt that he would be a real force down at 125lbs.
Ryan ‘Chaos’ Curtis(4-1) only fought once in 2017 and that outing ended in a defeat. However, that defeat came via decision to the more experienced and very talented Daniel Barez, who went on to beat the highly-regarded Andy Young for the BAMMA flyweight title just a few months later. Before that, the Owen Roddy-trained Curtis had won four in a row.
He can bounce back in 2018.
Cork bantamweight Arann Maguire(3-1) scored wins over Nathan Kelly and even the aforementioned Richie Smullen in the amateurs, while he also suffered a decision defeat to Tuke. In the pro ranks, he got off to a poor start, dropping a unanimous decision to Neil Ward, who is an underrated fighter and far better than his spotty record suggests. Since then, however, Maguire has scored stoppage wins over Hughie O’Rourke and Dylan Logan, as well as a decision win over Panicos Yusuf in November.
The aforementioned Rhys McKee(6-1-1) won five straight to begin his career and established himself as the premier prospect on the island before being stopped by the unbeaten Tim Barnett at BAMMA 28 in February of 2017. The titanic draw with Smullen followed. Then, in December, McKee finally got back to winning ways by submitting Kams Ekpo at BAMMA 33 in Newcastle.
‘Skeletor’ is still one to watch out for.
After he won the IMMAF Worlds in 2015, big things were expected of Frans Mlambo(4-2). His pro debut only heightened expectations, as he blew Darren O’Gorman away inside a round at BAMMA 22. But two losses in his next three changed perceptions somewhat, and Mlambo hasn’t been talked about with quite the same level of enthusiasm in recent times. ‘The Black Mamba’ has, however, quietly won two fights in a row in the tough Brave CF promotion and still looks to have a very bright future ahead of him.
At just 19, Paul Hughes(1-0) made one of the most impressive and exciting professional debuts of 2017 in February, blowing previously unbeaten Pole Adam Gustab away in just 92 seconds at BAMMA 28, but he hasn’t fought since. We are hoping to see a great deal more of the youngster, who had a lengthy amateur career, in 2018.