I began my martial arts training with Traditional karate in Ireland way back in 1993, my first introduction to grappling came in 1998 when I began training at the Pancrase London club under my first MMA coach Fred Rado, I had already been training in Traditional Japanese Jiujitsu for about a year at my University club but Pancrase was my first experience of real MMA style grappling. London Pancrase based out of Paragon Kickboxing Gym in eat London was probably one of the first MMA clubs in the UK and many of the top MMA fighters of that era trained with him.
I had my first amateur MMA match in late 2000. I had already been training in martial arts for over 7 years at that point. MMA was a virtually unknown sport back then especially in the UK, there was no UFC on TV, no Ultimate Fighter tryouts and there was probably only five MMA events per year being held all across Europe.
I never planned to make a career out of fighting but just like everyone else competing during this time I wanted an opportunity to put my training to the test. I had been training in Karate, Kickboxing and some grappling so it seemed the obvious choice to test myself and see if my skills and training would hold up under pressure. It's like learning swimming for years but then never getting in the water to see if you'll sink or swim.
Unfortunately for me I received a huge cut over my eye from an accidental head-butt about one minute into my first match and it was declared a no-contest.
I competed in many more amateur MMA matches over the next two years. These events had different rulesets but usually involved a mixture of striking and grappling and usually no striking to the head. I fought on events including Amateur Pancrase, KSBO and Combat Sports Trials. These events were all feeder events for bigger professional shows. I eventually won either gold or silver in my divisions at all three of these tournaments over the years.
In Mid 2002 the UFC held there first ever event in London (the first UFC to take place outside of the USA, Brazil or Japan). I was lucky enough to train alongside several of the fighters who were making their debuts on this card which saw an explosion in the popularity of MMA in the UK. Not long after that I travelled to train at Next Generation MMA in California for three months.
While training in the USA I pretty much gave up any ambitions to fight professionally. Firstly because I realised that the level in the top countries (USA, Brazil, Japan & Russia) was so far ahead of everywhere else in those days that fighters from other countries didn't really stand a chance. The situation has changed completely since then and now there is much more of an even playing field with fighters from all countries (Australia, Ireland, Poland) having won UFC titles. This is due in a big part I believe to fight coaches such as myself training in these MMA powerhouse countries and bringing back what we've learned to our students and training partners.
Another reason that I didn't want to be a professional fighter is that I didn't want to commit to that lifestyle for the next ten years in the hope that I might eventually get good enough to make it to the UFC or another big event. A career as an aspiring professional fighter was just too uncertain. Sleeping on bunk beds in the gym for three months alongside eight other sweaty training partners from different parts of the world was enough to convince me that I wanted to get back to a normal life as soon as my training trip was over.
In the UK I got back into my normal routine of working during the day to pay the bills and then training in the evening. Around this time I saw a new TV show which was following the careers of some of the early UK fighters on the Cage Rage events. Having had a decent amount of success on amateur MMA, BJJ and Grappling events, I decided that I should step up and test my skills in a pro MMA event.
I was very confident going into my first MMA fight and I remember that this was the only fight that I've ever been confident about. My opponent was quite a bit heavier than me and was an experienced kick-boxer, I was sure though that my grappling would be much better and that once we got to the ground I would be able to arm-lock or choke him. Unfortunately for me the rules of this event meant there was a thirty second time limit on the ground and and my opponent was able to hold on and get back to his feet every time I took him down. He caught me with some big punches right from the beginning and I pretty much didn't remember any of the fight after the first ten seconds. Finally I got knocked out cold in the second round.
This fight was an important learning experience for me as a fighter and a coach. Often before fights fighters will ask me about feeling nervous and the truth is that you should feel nervous because you're about to go out and do something very risky and dangerous. You might get knocked out, slammed on your head or get your arm broken.
When I hear a coach in the changing room telling his fighter not to be nervous (just go in and have fun in there bro). This shows me that the coach doesn't know what he's talking about because he's never been there himself. Nervousness is good, it helps you prepare for the danger you are about to face. If you aren't nervous then it means you don't understand the risks of what you are about to do when you step into the cage and you would be better off going home and coming back when you are ready.
Part 2 coming soon.