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"As a culture w e are terrible at encouraging girls to be activ e and that is very, very sad"

This Christmas will be a good one for Irish mixed martial arts star Aisling Daly (26), not only will it be the first time in three years she will get to enjoy her Christmas dinner, she can also sit back and look forward to a financially comfortable new year, thanks to her brand new UFC contract.

"The UFC is the place to be, you are going to get paid well and be ranked with the top in the world," Aisling tells me in between training sessions at John Kavanagh's Straight Blast Gym (SBG), at the Concorde Industrial Estate on the Naas Road. "It's mainstream now and there is money to be made at it," she adds.

Since turning professional at the age of 19, Aisling, who is from Drimnagh, has fought hard to make a name for herself within the global mixed martial arts (MMA) circuit. However, it wasn't until this year that all of her hard work and determination really began to pay off.

This summer, Aisling took part in the first all-female season of the hit US TV reality series The Ultimate Fighter, which follows a group of MMA fighters living together and competing for a championship title belt. The finale episode of the series will air this Friday and Aisling has now been signed to UFC, but the experience is not something that she is eager to repeat.

"It was definitely a strange experience for me, not so much sharing the house with the girls, but more so that the cameras are on you 24/7, even if you go to the bathroom there is still a microphone on you. Living with opponents was obviously stressful as well," Aisling says.

"There were girls who brought some drama. My whole attitude going into it was to keep my head down and get the job done," she explains.

"It's been strange even coming out and having people just even comment on how you are as a person. I am happy with how I carried myself in there.

There were a lot of girls in the show who are just not nice people. So at the very least I came across as a good person. It became very intense and a lot more of a psychological battle, but I am just happy that I got the UFC contract out of it and that's all I ever went in there for."

Aisling is now back in Dublin training with the team at SBG, including her friends and training allies Conor McGregor, Cathal Pendred and Paddy Holohan.

"I will always train out of Dublin, this is my team this is my family, this is my home and they have got me this far. I know I have everything here, I don't need to go to other places," Aisling says.

"I am still doing the sport I always loved, but before I was struggling to make ends meet. Being able to do what I love and make a living now is the greatest thing and that's the biggest difference the UFC contract will make."

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Before taking part in The Ultimate Fighter, Aisling was still working as a sales assistant in Schuh on O'Connell Street and training every spare minute she had. When the opportunity arose to go to Las Vegas to take part in the UFC reality series, Aisling couldn't get the time off, so she took the chance and handed in her notice.

"Even at that point, 19 fights in, I was still not making any money, but the UFC will change that," Aisling explains. "Hopefully, over the next year, I will get a couple of pay cheques and some sponsorship and I will be able to start making a decent living. You really are living on the bread line when you are trying to get yourself up to this fighting point."

Though a powerful and intimidating force within the octagon cage, in person Aisling is warm, bubbly and refreshingly humble despite the huge waves she is making in the world of sport. She admits to finding the interest in her life outside the octagon both 'strange' and 'surprising'. She has no aspirations to become a celebrity.

"I have never been about the limelight," Aisling smiles. "That's Conor's thing. I have always been happy just to fight and win. If my fights took place behind closed doors and nobody ever knew that I won that fight except me I would be happy, but that's not going to pay your bills at the end of the day, so I am happy to do everything else, as long as I can support myself."

Aisling started karate aged 10 and then moved into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Once she had earned her blue belt, rising to the same rank as her teacher Ian Ward, he advised her to train with John Kavanagh at SBG.

"I guess I was about 16 when I discovered the UFC. The internet was becoming a bit more popular so I was able to go online and look into it a bit," Aisling says. "I already knew that there were men competing, I had UFC on the old VHS tapes and that kind of thing, but I didn't know much about women competing. But then I was able to go online and see that there were girls in the states doing it and in Europe too."

"I only got fights at the start because of John, who put the time and effort into finding girls in Europe for me to fight," Aisling tells me. "It's really crazy for me to see how much it has blown up in the last few years. To see it take off into the mainstream is amazing and it is mostly to do with Conor.

"Conor has the charisma and that engaging personality, that people are really interested in watching. I am delighted because it has given me the opportunity to be able to get sponsorship and just to be able to earn a living. Before we were all getting paid peanuts to fight."

Aisling has a unique method of approaching her fights. Despite how things may seem to spectators, she is never angry.

"I have a bit of an alter ego that I like to work with because sometimes it can be stressful coming up to a fight, so I have 'Ais the Bash' and I have Aisling Daly," Aisling explains. "If I am getting a bit stressed I will let 'Ais the Bash' go in there and do that interview, she'll talk a certain way and she is the one who shows up on fight night.

"I am a calm easy-going person most of the time anyway," Aisling laughs. "I don't get angry coming up to fights or have any personal feelings against my opponents, I am not mad at them. 'Ais the Bash' goes in and all she wants to do is win.

"The opponent is not even important. It is just a different face, same thing.

"All I am doing is using the fight as an opportunity to compete against myself because obviously I can't fight myself, but if someone puts somebody in front of me and says this girl is ranked top in the world and I beat her well then that is a good indication that I am on that level.

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"I think that Conor has a pretty similar attitude as well," Aisling explains.

"He is never angry at anybody and I think it's actually something that he does really well with his opponents is that he makes them angry at him and that puts them off their game; they are going into the fight emotional and he's not."

Aisling is passionate about encouraging women and girls to take up MMA and to also change Ireland's attitude to women in sport in general.

She believes that the Government should provide more funding to female athletes and encourage a shift in the perceptions around women who engage in sport.

"Ireland has a very poor culture of women in sport," Aisling tells me. "Girls aren't encouraged to exercise, PE is something to be skipped out of in school rather than enjoyed and I think that has filtered down into all of our sports.

"As a culture we are terrible at encouraging girls to be active and that's very, very sad. It is almost seen as being unfeminine to take part in sports and I think that needs to be resolved. Little girls have to be encouraged to play sports."

Aisling is looking forward to enjoying her first Christmas dinner in three years.

"I will actually have a Christmas this year, which will be good because the last two years in a row I have had a fight on New Year's Eve, so I had to have the very strict, tiny meals; none of the fun stuff," she tells me with a smile.

"This year I am just going to have a nice family Christmas, eating a lot of rubbish and chilling out, not running around in a freezing cold gym, while everyone else has their Christmas dinner!" Aisling laughs. "I definitely feel like I have earned it!"

Aisling will make her official UFC debut on the finale of The Ultimate Fighter TV show this Friday 12th of December. For more information on Aisling or the UFC, visit www.ufc.com


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