UFC Welterweight Cathal Pendred extended his record to 4-0 inside the octagon at UFC 188 this past weekend, when the proud Dubliner defeated Augusto Montano on Sunday morning in Mexico City.
Pendred is just one of many Irish fighters to climb the UFC ranks in recent times, and proudly represents Ireland’s most prominent MMA gym SBG, where he joins the likes of Conor McGregor, Paddy Holohan, Gunnar Nelson and Aisling Daly as the gym’s rostered UFC fighters.
Straight Blast Gym, more commonly known as SBG, was started a little over ten years ago by MMA coach John Kavanagh, who is a proud owner of one of the most professional martial arts schools in the country. SBG boasts an onsite physio, masseurs, sport psychologists as well as strength and conditioning coaches that ensure SBG’s top level fighters are as prepared as they possibly can be before fights. With the surging popularity of Conor McGregor and the exposure the gym has received on RTE’s acclaimed ‘Notorious’ documentary, SBG have been able to bring in a lot of external professionals into the club and new members that a lot of other gyms simply don’t have.
“After the UFC Fight Night in July in the o2, there was definitely a lot more enquiries but what you find is a lot of the time people think that it’s a fast track to the UFC and getting the 60 G’s,” said Ann Mulligan, gym manager at SBG.
“When people realise how tough it is they might not be as enthusiastic, but we’ve definitely have got a lot more enquiries. We invite people down here and give them a short free lesson but the numbers have definitely gone up.”
While SBG have been fortunate to produce such a strong stable of high calibre fighters, other gyms around the country have not benefited as much from the increased exposure, citing an increase in interest as opposed to participation.
“What I’ve noticed is more than participation is interest,” said Barry Oglesby, founder of Kyuzo MMA in Ballyboggan, Dublin.
“Everybody knows what it is now whereas before it took quite a bit of explanation to say what it was you were actually participating in.
“In terms of participation there’s a kind of a different crowd coming to the gym, it takes a certain kind of person to come to the gym when you know there’s a combat sport involved. It takes a certain type of person to show up, so we haven’t really noticed a huge spike in participation but what it has done is we don’t have to explain what we’re doing anymore when we try to get people in and advertise classes.”
Oglesby admitted that he really started to see people take notice of MMA in Ireland after the Brandao-McGregor fight in Dublin last year, but states there is a significant difference between interest and following and participating in the sport.
“I still think there’s a lot of people out there who might know McGregor’s name and about the UFC, but have never actually sat down and watched a full fight. They might see McGregor on the Late Late Show and where a lot of people might have known Barry McGuigan, but never actually enjoyed boxing, they’re happy to see Irish people do well.”
Oglesby’s thoughts on the increased exposure Irish MMA has received are very similar to Point Blank MMA Galway’s owner Tim Murphy, who isn’t sure the sport’s increased following has directly translated to increased participation.
“Conor has had a huge effect of the amount of casual fans following the UFC but I’m not sure how big an impact that has had on participation rates in the sport throughout the country,” said Murphy.
“I have been training in MMA since 2003 and I started competing in 2004. The sport has been growing in Ireland ever since then but there has been an increase in awareness of MMA in the past few years. A lot more people watch MMA on TV than say five years ago, but they wouldn’t have any involvement or knowledge of the Irish MMA scene.”
While Irish fighters in the UFC are flourishing, Oglesby feels that the local scene may have suffered as a result.
“I think the celebrity element of Conor has really helped it along but I think the sport was a little better attended to a few years ago at a local level. I think there was more of a hardcore element to people who came along. You were like a tribe, a group of people who went along where nobody else really knew your sport and to be along at the old Ring of Truths, the old BAMMA events were almost like a badge of honour.”
“I think in terms of the local MMA shows, they certainly seemed to be a bit easier to sell a couple of years ago but that could be for a number of reasons. It could be because there’s a glut of MMA shows, or it could be that the UFC is very popular now and very accessible on television that there’s no need to attend the local shows.”
While the three gyms very much differ in nature, with Kyuzo and Point Blank dealing mostly on a local level, all three agree that the standard of fighters has been improving consistently over the last couple of years.
“There’s certainly a huge amount of talent in Ireland,” said Mulligan.
“I’ve been going to shows for years now. There are some good shows out there, Cage Warriors and Clan Wars but fighters are also starting to up their game.
“People are starting to realise that you might be the best jiu-jitsu player in the world, but maybe you need to throw in a bit of yoga for flexibility. Or you could be the best boxer but need to increase your cardio so you can last the distance. Everyone’s implementing more stuff into their game now.”
The talent, interest and professionalism is certainly there, and while certain gyms such as SBG may reap the immediate benefits of MMA’s surging popularity in Ireland, it seems like they all have benefited in at least some way or another, even if that just means Irish people know what it is now.