In the first of a new feature, Battle Zone’s Head of Operations, Stewart Dollery, will provide an insight into life inside and outside the octagon. Stewart will examine all angles of mixed martial arts, while also discussing the burning issues in Ireland’s fastest-growing sport.
I have been involved in Irish MMA for less than four years, a ‘blow-in’ by all accounts. Yet in those four short years, I have seen MMA in Ireland evolve beyond all recognition. The evolution has taken place in many facets of the sport; how promotions are run, the safety aspect of MMA and of course, the standard.
When I first became involved, I had little idea of how it all worked. Match making was alien to me and in those first few months I embarked on an intensive learning process where I made many mistakes but learnt fast. At the time, most amateur fighters were usually good at striking but were not great wrestlers or possessed a high-level of grappling and were also not so great stand up (with exceptions of course). Grapplers were the dominant force at the time as most strikers did not have the defensive skills or experience to keep a fight on its feet and most fights eventually hit the ground suiting the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) practitioner.
At that time amateur rules also forbid head shots whilst grounded which led to some pretty tame affairs on the deck. The level of Irish wrestling left a lot to be desired. Fast forward four years and the level of Irish amateur MMA is now, in my opinion, as good as the professionals were four years ago. Take a look at the stacked Welter Weight division for instance; Ciaran Daly, Ayo Daly, Thomas Hogan, Anzor Atsaev, Stephen Owens, Paul Lawerence, James Brennan. The list goes on and on and these guys have it all. They are the quintessential MMA fighter. All have great stand up, all can wrestle and all are good grapplers.
I was blown away by the standard of the bantamweight division. In November I watched Darren O Gorman and Keith Coady battle for the second time in 2013. Such was the standard of these two young prospects that I’d happily pay to watch them fight every weekend, and in fact, Keith is headed back to the pro ranks in March, soon to be followed by Darren I would imagine.
Why has the standard risen so rapidly in such a short space of time?
The answer is multi-faceted but certainly one of the biggest reasons was the rule set change instigated by John Kavanagh and backed by most clubs down south. It made the amateur game far more exciting and appealing and also served as a tool to ensure that any amateur fighter now stepping in the cage better come prepared.
Another reason for the improvement, or evolution, of standard is how the playing field has leveled out amongst clubs in the last few years. Four years ago Straight Blast Gym (SBG) ruled the roost at amateur level. SBG fighters were well rounded, well prepared and confident. It was rare to see an SBG representative lose a fight. In the last two years other clubs have changed the landscape with Rush and The MMA Clinic in particular taking over from SBG in the amateur rankings and other clubs like IFS, Waterford MMA, Ryoshin, IMMA, FAI all producing armies of extremely high quality.
What has this achieved?
Well, competition is healthy for everyone and increases the standards throughout the country. Looking at the SBG amateur team now and they certainly look a scary prospect. Whoever climbs the ladder drags the rest up with them so you can be sure that no matter what amateur team is at the top of the ladder next year, the other clubs will improve their own standards accordingly. In my opinion, I believe the SBG team are the ones to watch at amateur level for 2014, something which will keep the like of Rush and The Clinic on their toes.
Facilities are improving throughout the country and recently SBG and The MMA Clinic moved to larger facilities; the Clinic with almost 6000 sq ft and SBG a little bigger again. Team Ryano opened up a new location in Dublin and IFS, IMMA, FAI also have excellent facilities. The better our facilities become the more likely parents are to bring their kids to train at MMA clubs.
One aspect that must improve for the sport to succeed is backing from local businesses. MMA is not recognised by the Irish sporting bodies and thus unlike boxing/Thai Boxing etc. does not qualify for grants or financial assistance. Whilst the economy does not permit many companies to part with much needed funds it would certainly benefit the bigger companies that are doing well to invest in such a rapidly growing sport and one that does so much for young people in Ireland.
Cage Warriors! Where do I start?
The work CW have done for Irish MMA is immeasurable. Undoubtedly the best and most professional promotion in Europe, they have provided a platform and proven passage to the top. Run by two Irish men, Graham Boylan and Paul Dollery, they have changed the scene of professional MMA in Ireland after experiencing initial resistance. Blood testing, professional cutsmen, TV coverage, recognised titles and a show that runs like clockwork. I’m sure Conor Mcgregor would agree that they were instrumental in the UFC taking notice of his talents and potential.
Speaking of Conor McGregor………what a talent! McGregor has proven to many Irish athletes that we can compete with the best in the world. I remember the first time I saw McGregor fight. It was over three years ago on Cage Warriors in Cork against Joe Duffy. What did I see that day? Did I see a fighter destined for the UFC?
I’d be lying through my teeth if I said yes. I saw no more potential in Conor that day than in any other pro fighter on that card. He was raw, aggressive, and a powerful athlete with great self-belief but not yet possessing the skills needed to back that self-belief up. So why has he stood out from the crowd?
The answer is simple: Hard work.
There are many, many athletes in this country with talent but not so many willing to put in the hard work that Conor has in the last few years. The difference between Conor now and Conor three years ago is amazing. In fact the differences between the Conor that beat Dave Hill and the Conor that beat Buchinger are also miles apart. He is always working hard and always evolving. It is a lesson to any kid out there that if you have the talent all you need to do is put in the hard work, believe and take advice from those in the know and there is no reason why you cannot scale the heights that Conor has.
Many people and many organisations have combined to create what is currently Irish MMA but further work and co-operation is needed to keep the momentum moving forward. Clubs need to keep maintaining high standards of coaching and professionalism, coaches need to support the promotions that have been proved to run a successful show and not promotions that have failed to maintain standards that would be expected no matter the hype. The sport also needs national recognition and I know Peter Lavery and Danny Corr have made big strides up North in this department and the same must be pursued in the Republic. We need a more structured route for kids to compete and move up the ranks to amateur MMA the way amateur boxing currently works for young fighters and I hope the MMAFI will be the ones to achieve that.
All in all, the sport is moving forward at an incredible pace but I think the progress we have seen is only a fraction of what will come about after the UFC return to Dublin with a (hopefully) stacked under-card of Irish fighters and an exciting main event for Conor McGregor. I certainly look forward to it.
Pundit Arena, Stewart Dollery.
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