Thursday 26 April 2018

From cage fighter to All-Ireland finalist

Mild-mannered Kalum's journey to Croke Park has defied convention

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

NO eye-gouging. No stamping. No biting. No spitting. No pinching. No sticking fingers in cuts. No joint manipulation. No groin attacks. No attacks to windpipe. No fish-hooking. No pushing palm or elbow into nose and no swearing.

Not just a list of things you're not allowed do in the All-Ireland final there, but the surprisingly comprehensive list of things that are officially banned in the competitive sport known as 'mixed martial arts'.

MMA is the sort of hand-to-hand combat beloved of television sports producers, who liberally douse it in dry ice and sell it under the sensationalist moniker of 'cage fighting'.

Yet the most surprising thing about that list is that Down midfielder Kalum King is so well versed in it.

James McCartan's arrival as new county manager this season has rejuvenated the 25-year-old's Gaelic football career and the 6'3" Bryansford man has played a hugely underrated midfield role in the Mourne men's exciting odyssey to Croke Park next Sunday.

Yet this time three years ago, it wasn't an All-Ireland final but a cage-fighting international between Northern Ireland and America called 'Celtic Rage' -- at Belfast's legendary King's Hall -- that King was preparing for.

It's a sporting interest that seems as much at variance with his current one as his own mild-mannered persona.


Everyone you ask about King in Newcastle's picturesque Bryansford club uniformly describes him as 'a genial, gentle giant'.

The fact that it was his fingertips that deflected Rob Kelly's thunderbolt off the woodwork in the dying seconds of Down's semi-final cliffhanger with Kildare suddenly catapulted him into the national limelight.

"I intend to live off that when I'm in my 60s and have arthritis," King joked afterwards and, off-pitch, wearing glasses and with an easy, self-deprecating humour, he certainly fitted the expected image of a man who was back studying within 24 hours and sat some chartered accountancy exams just three days later.

On-field, King's commanding presence is in stark contrast, and he's been a vital new cog in Down's success, especially after the team lost midfield partner and captain Ambrose Rodgers to a cruciate injury.

Yet this is his second incarnation as a Down senior and, however unlikely it seems now, this time four years ago he was immersed in MMA, a sport that combines ju-jitsu, boxing, kick-boxing, judo, karate and wrestling.

"When people think of cage fighting, they automatically think we're a bunch of meat-heads who want to spill as much blood as we can, but that really is not the case," King stressed then.

"More or less every cage fighter has a background in one particular martial art, so we are already skilled and disciplined fighters."

A promising boxer in his teens, he firmly believed MMA to be "the purest form of fighting". But the psychology graduate from Queen's University was intelligent enough to also know the misconceptions it attracted.

"It is easy to pigeon-hole people and think of anyone involved in cage-fighting as some sort of animal, but that's just stupid," he said.

"I'm an accountant, I'm a cage fighter and I hope to do other things in the future. It would be great if people tried to understand things properly before they made a judgment on it."

This summer King is back being judged solely as a Gaelic footballer again.

He was reportedly the standout midfielder in Down club football last summer, when he helped Bryansford to a league final, and that form caught McCartan's eye. Former Down manager Pete McGrath, who took over as Bryansford boss last year, was immediately impressed by King.

"He had possibly given up football at some stage or only been playing fitfully, but he went full tilt at it last year," McGrath said. "Within six or seven weeks of training I made him team captain because of his commitment and enthusiasm; he had such a big presence on the field.

"Like a lot of big men who are physically strong and wholehearted on the pitch, he is the absolute epitome of a gentleman off it.

"He has great tackling ability and a natural sense of where to be defensively, a great man to fill in the gaps."

Eamonn Burns, part of that legendary Down team that McGrath led to All-Ireland senior glory in 1991 and '94, first coached King at underage level in the club and saw him immediately progress to the county minors.

"He was only 18 and still a minor when he played on the club senior team that won the county title in 2003," Burns explained. "Kalum played at midfield, partnering county senior Brian Burns, and didn't look out of place.

"It was clear he was good enough to play senior for the county: he was already strong in the tackle, used the ball very well and, really, you didn't need to tell Kalum a lot."

Paddy O'Rourke brought King into the Down senior panel in 2003 but, after that, in King's own words, he "took a wee time-out". In that time, cage fighting took precedence but he returned to club football in 2008.

By King's own admission he was not in inter-county shape when McCartan came calling and has slimmed down from 17 stone to close to 15 this season. "Eventually I started to get a bit of shape but it was because James persevered with me," he has admitted.

In turn he has certainly rewarded his manager's faith and, around Bryansford, they say it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Irish Independent

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