Ready, Steady, Fight!
Mike Sheridan enjoys a challenge – he signed up for an Ironman before he could swim – but training for a cage fight was his toughest task yet, writes Tanya Sweeney
Suffice to say that Mike Sheridan is a fan of diving headlong into hardy pursuits. After completing marathons throughout his 20s, he graduated to triathlons and ultra-marathons before taking on the ultimate endurance challenge: an Ironman contest in Germany. There was one small problem, however: the 31-year-old Dubliner didn't know how to swim.
"I learned to swim about a month before Germany, but I managed the 1.2-mile swim okay in the end," he laughs.
"I loved doing these kind of crazy challenges. Another time, I took on the Challenge 126 with Brian Maher. We had to run from Limerick without stopping – 37 hours in, I ended up in a hospital in Clane."
That fateful Clane visit aside, Mike has always been a keen fitness fan: "I played GAA in school, but once I discovered girls, I guess that kind of went out the window."
After becoming the editor of entertainment.ie in his 20s, Mike then became editor of the online lads' lifestyle magazine Joe.ie last year. And for the fitness fanatic, the role was a perfect fit.
"I've always been very ambitious and keen to see what I could do," he explains. "I love setting goals and just doing them."
Earlier this year, the idea of training in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) ended up in his crosshairs: "I've been a fan of the sport for years and always threatened to do it," he says. "My brother has a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and I'd sparred with him a bit down the years."
Yet a few playful bouts with his brother could barely have prepared him for what happened next. Always one for a challenge, Mike decided to train up to compete in a cage fight in Euro Fight Night, a championship tournament held in Dublin in mid-September. To make things a little more interesting, he decided to train up in four months instead of the nine months that were originally mooted. And then, as if the stakes weren't sufficiently high, Mike decided to chart his progress on his blog on joe.ie, as well as for a documentary on mixed martial arts for Setanta Sports.
"I went into Owen Roddy at Primal Training, who became my mentor and suggested a nine-month frame to compete at a decent amateur level," says Mike.
"I was overweight as well at the time. I'm used to running long distances and eating what I want, and I did little weights beforehand. So I was 86kg going into training and had 16pc body fat."
For the uninitiated, MMA is a contact sport that deploys striking and grappling techniques, often incorporating jiu-jitsu, wrestling, judo, karate, kickboxing and Muay Thai. It's fast-paced, aggressive, gruelling and not for the faint of heart (or indeed, the pretty of face who want to keep it that way).
"I became fascinated by the fighters," notes Mike. "There's this belief that they're barbaric or loutish. If you go to some MMA events, you see it, but not from the fighters.
'Then again, you get good and bad in football too. When I went in and met Owen and these other gentle souls, I felt nothing but utter humility.
"I'm sure there are aggro eejits in the sport, but I haven't met them, and I'm sure they'd get humbled pretty quickly by two or three gym sessions," he adds. "The guys I've encountered have all been gentlemen and I'm sure they wouldn't tolerate it.
"I was worried that people would be like 'what does this guy think he's doing, training up in four months?' but they're delighted that I'm shining a light over the sport."
Making friends in MMA circles, it would seem, is easy. But what happens when your sparring partner throws you a few heavy hits to the face?
"One of the first things Owen said was that most people have fight or flight instincts, and most people would instinctively run or cower when they're hit," explains Mike.
"Once, Owen gave out to me because I wasn't being aggressive enough! The thing with jiu-jitsu is that it's very, very technical. You're constantly getting choked and caught in arm bars. And when you're training every day, as I was, it can be mentally exhausting.
"I had a lovely black eye a week-and-a-half into training, which I'm sure looked lovely in the office."
In addition to working, Mike's pre-match training schedule was spartan: a morning jiu-jitsu session and afternoon boxing class on Monday; a training session with Owen and evening jiu-jitsu session on Tuesday, same on Wednesday; a training session and striking class on Thursday; a run on Friday and a bout of wrestling on Saturday ("that was by far the most exhausting bit"). By the time Mike arrived at his pre-match weigh-in, he had dropped to 6pc body weight, noting that he was arguably in the best shape of his life.
"When you get punched in the head enough, you stop worrying about whether or not you've a six-pack," he smiles.
'Basically though, I had no life," he adds. "With marathons, you can carb load away and run everything off. I certainly didn't drink, and when I was eating out, I'd just be having a lump of meat.
"Protein ice-cream on a Sunday became my treat. Owen also warned me that in the two weeks before the cage fight, I'd get crazy emotional, and that it just happens to everyone. There's the sense that you'll have to get in the cage and have the doors locked and you'll have to fight someone. Part of me was like, 'why didn't I just tell no one about this?' But the fact that a documentary crew were trailing me meant that I couldn't not do it."
Cometh the hour – namely, the Euro Fight Night at the Red Cow Pavilion on September 14 – and Mike's nerves were in check. "The fight itself was surreal," he recalls. "We even had walk-out music: 'The Man Comes Around' by Johnny Cash. There was no messing about."
In the first minute, opponent Alex Swan threw six or seven heavy hits, and just when it looked as though Mike was done for, he retaliated in the second round. A third round proved to be the decider, and Alex won the match by a nose.
"I thought everyone would be pretty unimpressed that I lost, but everyone backstage was really encouraging after the fight," he explains. "I thought I'd gotten my ass kicked, but that's not how it works.
"Before the fight, I wasn't thinking past that night, but I do love it now and I'd like to keep it on," he adds.
"The social aspect of it is great; one minute you're boxing the head off someone, and the next, there are no hard feelings."
Friendship aside, Mike took away much more from the gruelling experience than merely a black eye and a six pack.
"My friend Paul (Walsh, Royseven singer) had been doing a white-collar boxing event the same night as me, so we didn't get to see each other's events," he adds with a smile.
"I remember him saying afterwards, 'when you've taken a fight like that and taken a full punch to the face, you find there's not much in life to worry about'. You do end up sticking your chest out a bit more."
The documentary Barbaric Gentlemen will be showing on Setanta Sports this November.