Friday 22 September 2017

Irish MMA – ‘Perfection is a myth but I won’t stop chasing it’

16 December 2016; Kiefer Crosbie celebrates defeating Conor Riordan in their welterweight bout at BAMMA 27 in the 3 Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
16 December 2016; Kiefer Crosbie celebrates defeating Conor Riordan in their welterweight bout at BAMMA 27 in the 3 Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Jack O'Toole

As UFC Lightweight champion Conor McGregor prepares to take on undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. next month, thousands of kids across the country are flocking to MMA gyms to try and experience just a taste of what the Dubliner has achieved.

A two-weight world champion. A self-made millionaire. A businessman. An entrepreneur.

Professional sport, and particularly sports merchandising, has built an empire off of selling dreams to the masses but the sad reality is that most of these dreams are dashed at some stage or another.

Not every kid that buys a Manchester United jersey gets to go and see Old Trafford, let alone play there, but if you head to SBG Concorde in Walkinstown, Co. Dublin, you will see McGregor.

If you don’t see him in the flesh then you’ll see his poster, which is plastered on both the outside and the inside of the gym.

His footprint at SBG is largely unavoidable; it’s a shadow that lurks behind every corner. It plays its role in attracting members to the club, and to a lesser extent tourists and fans who just want to drop in for a picture or a chat, but it also serves as a reminder to the gym’s pro fight team of what is possible.

On Friday night, nine members of SBG Concorde’s fight team will fight at BAMMA 30 at the 3 Arena in Dublin.

BAMMA has been described by McGregor’s striking coach Owen Roddy as a ‘feeder-show’ to the UFC, a pathway to MMA’s preeminent promotion.

Nine fighters will be trying to use the show to springboard their way to the UFC, where only nine Irish fighters have ever fought before.

The odds suggest that only one or two fighters on Friday night may actually make it there, and if they do, how many can stay there long enough where they can actually create a sustainable career path from fighting?

But then you talk to McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh and some of his teammates and you realise very quickly that they don’t really pay too much attention to odds, after all, their most prized pupil has accepted a fight where he is roundly expected to lose but is fully confident in his ability to win.

“It’s good to see that people are getting to see the hard work that we’ve been putting in here for years,” said Kiefer Crosbie, one of the gym’s welterweights fighting on Friday.

Conor McGregor celebrates his knockout win at Cage Warriors 51 (Image: Cage Warriors / Dolly Clew)
Conor McGregor celebrates his knockout win at Cage Warriors 51 (Image: Cage Warriors / Dolly Clew)

“I’ve been training with Conor a long time. I’ve been training with Conor since before he won his first Cage Warriors belt and I knew then he was going to be a serious star in this sport.

“I was there that night in the Helix. I saw him win it and I was like ‘alright’. Then he won the second belt and I was like ‘okay’.

“Then he just progressed and got his UFC debut and I saw that as well, and I was watching all those steps and I just said ‘hold on a minute, we’re on the mat everyday together and we’re sparring, why can’t I do this?”

It’s an attitude that has permeated itself into the very walls of SBG, everything becomes about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and the ‘when’, so much so that it reaches a point where everything else starts to become an afterthought. A distraction.

“John has a very unique vibe,” added Crosbie.

“We have a saying in the gym – One Tribe One Vibe. You only really understand that when you start training here properly. We have a serious team atmosphere but he sets the tone at the gym; you leave your shoes and your ego at the door.

“There is no ego at the gym; tough is how you train and not how you act. We just come down and put the work in and bounce off each other, but we all have the same mindset, we all just want to be great. We all just want to be world champions.

“We believe each of us can be and when you’re talking like this to people on a regular basis, it becomes normal, and when I’m talking to someone who doesn’t understand it, we’re not on the same wavelength.

“If I’m talking to some random person and I’m saying I’m going to be ‘a world champion, I’m going to be rich’ that’s grand, because they don’t get it.

“But I’m surrounded by people that are in the same frame of mind as me. I’m talking to Conor and he’s talking about hundreds of millions and that’s not weird anymore.

“It was weird five years ago but it’s not anymore. That’s the frame of mind I now have with this sport.

“I’m not doing this to have a bit of craic anymore. I’m going to make serious numbers in this, rack up wins and go far.”

It sounds good in theory but then it’s quantified by the amount of training that is involved. Five to six days a week. Two to three times a day, staying in on weekends, not seeing friends, all for one fight that happens once every couple of months.

And it’s not just one person, the more fighters you speak to, the more apparent it becomes that not only are these people dedicated, but they’re obsessed.

“When you train so much it gets to a point where you have to love it so much that you hate it,” said Ryan Curtis, a flyweight fighter gunning for his fourth consecutive pro victory on Friday.

“When your training three times a day and it’s constantly on your mind, it’s like f**k sake.

“I’ll always be thinking about it where it’s like if I’m not in work, and I’m just at home, I’ll be watching fights.

“Even though I want to stay away from it I’m just always watching it. Even when I’m watching fights, I’m thinking of moves in my own head. I’ll watch boxing, kickboxing, anything.

“Even when I’m at home and I’m relaxing, there’s no escape.”

Ryan Curtis before his fight with Shamsul Haque at BAMMA 26. All images copyright (c) BAMMA/Andy Tierney 2016.
Ryan Curtis before his fight with Shamsul Haque at BAMMA 26. All images copyright (c) BAMMA/Andy Tierney 2016.

Curtis trains three times a day at SBG Charlestown when he’s not working as a barber at The Ink Factory on Wellington Quay.

On days that he does work, he trains twice a day, and even at work the conversation can quickly turn to MMA and McGregor once customers realise that he’s a professional fighter.

But why train so much? Are 15-20 training sessions per week really needed to succeed? Is that what it takes to excel in MMA?

According to Roddy, who was an accomplished fighters in his own right, fighters like Crosbie (2-0) and Curtis (3-0) are still learning their craft, and that if they wish to reach the levels that they desire - the UFC - they must commit themselves to a gruelling training regime.

“Firstly, there are so many aspects to MMA and there’s a lot to learn,” said Roddy.

“A lot of the guys that are fighting on BAMMA, especially at SBG, they’re new professionals. They’ve got a couple of professional MMA fights so they’re still learning.

“You have to put the hours in to do that. The amateur level and the early stages of your pro career, you’re still learning the craft and you’re still developing as a fighter.

“You’re still putting all the hours in with the wrestling, and all the hours in learning the jiu-jitsu and striking, so it’s got to be done.

“As you become a more accomplished professional it then becomes about maintenance. You already have all that experience and you already know all the techniques you need.

“The guys at SBG though are very hard on themselves and they’re all their own worst critics. Ryan is his worst critic, he never feels like enough is enough.

“When you get fit, especially to the level of fitness Ryan is at, nothing is enough. You can go all day.

“I remember that as well from being a fighter back in the day, when you’re fit like that, you could do 100 rounds and it’s not enough because you feel like you can do more.

“It takes the coaches to turn around and say you’ve done enough, that you don’t need to be doing anymore, that you don’t need to be killing yourself.”

If Curtis is training six or seven days a week, and his own coach is questioning whether or not he’ll ever be satisfied with the amount of time that he dedicates towards his training, then will he ever reach a point where he’s truly happy with his preparation?

When I’m speaking to him he’s on weight. It’s two days before his fight and he hasn’t ate anything or even had a drink in the last 24 hours. He’s come down to the gym to do an interview and sell whatever tickets he has left. Fasting is a necessary part of his weight cut and he’s just about where he needs to be.

He’s talkative during our interview and we chat for nearly an hour, but he has a more immediate view towards his own training than his coach, similarly to how a student might view an exam differently to a teacher who has sat through hundreds of them.

“I talk to my strength and conditioning coaches and they tell me ‘you can’t train hard all the time, you need to train smart’, but it’s just on my mind all the time.

“My mindset is if I’m not in the gym and I’m not training hard, he’s in the gym and he’s training hard. That’s where I get my confidence from because I can guarantee you that when I walk down to the cage there’s not a hope he’s after doing half the work as what I’ve done.

“I’m putting myself in bad scenarios all the time in terms of like doing just rounds upon rounds and putting myself under fatigue, so I know what that feeling is like.

“That cage is the loneliest place in the world. You don’t want to get to the fight on fight night and get to the third round and go ‘what’s happening here, this is a new feeling altogether’.

“You don’t want to find out on the night do you?”

You certainly do not. Discovering that you are out of your depth can be an uncomfortable feeling at the best of times, but when you’re lying on a mat in a complete state of exhaustion with your opponent raining elbows down on you, there’s a helplessness there that would make you feel sympathetic towards the downed fighter, if not for the fact that you know they would be doing the exact same thing if the roles were reversed.

It doesn’t make the situation any better but it’s a reality of the sport.

There can be an undeniable brutality to Mixed Martial Arts and it can often be part of its allure, but it also has provided some of its combatants with a sense that there may be something greater out there for them than what their environment has shown them.

For instance, Crosbie was raised in the Greek Street flats in the inner city. As a 12-year-old he had a knife pulled on him for walking down a path with nothing more than a training bag. His mother Anne lived in the same flat with her mother and siblings, and even in the same bed as her mother until the night before her wedding.

Crosbie is proud of his inner city roots but admits that MMA has provided him with an avenue that prevented him from going down more treacherous roads.

“My nanny had four jobs at one stage and provided with four kids on her own with no husband. That work ethic sticks in my mind every day which is why I’m here every single day and I never complain.

“She had to work her arse off just to put food on the table. She missed Christmas dinner and putting presents out so when I think of that, I think I have to get back to this gym, I don’t care how tired or moany I am. Nothing can compare to that.

“I used to live in that flat with my nanny as well and when I go back to the flats now and think of those feelings I had of not having a lot, I used to think that I’m going to change all of this one day and now I have an opportunity to do that.

“I just have to keep going and keep doing what I’m doing and it is happening; better things are coming my way. I’m getting bigger fights, I’m getting more money with the fights, I’m getting more sponsorships, documentaries are being made, interviews, these are all perks and they’ll only get bigger and better.

“I know that will come, I just have to focus on getting better and becoming a world champion and winning.”

Winning is everything to Crosbie and the dream that he and many other fighters share is predicated upon it, and while the goalposts have definitely moved thanks to his teammate Conor McGregor, there still is a harsh reality that can exist at the top level.

Former Irish UFC fighter Cathal Pendred, who fought six times in the UFC, admitted last year that there were times when he was in the UFC where he would come home and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to turn his lights on, due to a situation with his bills.

So why put all those hours and sacrifice into being a professional fighter if so few are able to reap the rewards at the top? The answer is passion according to Kavanagh.

“It’s the same for every fighter,” said Kavanagh.

“It’s the same if you want to be in a rock band, there’s going to be years of working out in a dingy basement getting nothing in return, with a very small chance of ever getting something in return.

“So the only thing that would make you do that is if you really enjoy it. No one plays guitar in their basement because you’re getting paid an hourly rate.

“You do it because you have to do it. The people who train in here, the people who do well in here, they have no choice.

“I don’t think people do this recreationally, they do this because there’s something deep inside of them.”

It’s a message that becomes apparent when you speak to the fighters. Crosbie is driven by his past. Curtis is driven by not wanting to have any regrets, on fight night, or 20 years from now where he is determined not to be ‘the auld fella’ at the pub saying he could have done this or could have done that.

They’re both driven by a passion and an obsession with a sport that they want to turn into their livelihoods. Careers that could take the next step on Friday night.

For tickets to BAMMA 30 head to www.ticketmaster.ie

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