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Irish MMA: An Inside Look

Dwayne Crowley is a 24 year old amateur fighter / blogger from Cork, Ireland. A 3rd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do with years of experience in a variety of martial arts training and competition, having fought in countless TKD bouts as well as Thai Boxing, MMA and kickboxing. Find him on twitter @dwaynecrowley When you think of MMA in Ireland what do you think of? Conor McGregor? Cage Warriors? “Knuckle”? Irish MMA has been on a meteoric rise in the last few years but has only really come to the forefront thanks to the success that Dublin native Conor McGregor has found in the Octagon. But where did it all start? The Irish have a rich history in boxing and other combat sports, producing many stars and world champions in the ring such and on the traditional martial arts mats. When the UFC reached Ireland the country was gripped. People were fascinated with “cage fighting” and the warriors that graced the bright lights in 4 oz. gloves. Traditional martial arts were always popular in Ireland so the base was there for a fast rise to the top. All they needed was a platform! I interviewed Mark Leonard about the growth of Amateur MMA in Ireland. The former MMA fighter set up the MMA leagues, a regional tournament of no head shot MMA competition. It gives people a chance to compete safely in MMA before they step into a cage. All contests are 1 x 5 minute rounds with a guaranteed two fights in the one day. It’s fairly broken up by experience level to keep the playing field level. He gave me an insight into why they felt the need to start such a league. “We started the league in 2003 to try and bridge the gap for martial artists that wanted to step into the cage. There were a lot of traditional martial artists in Ireland that wanted to fight in MMA as well as allot of MMA gyms putting fighters into the cage when really they had no idea if they were ready for it or not” explains Leonard. “The idea of the leagues was to give coaches and fighters an idea of where they were at before they step into the cage. There was a big problem of promoters putting on shows and fighters going in to the fights unprepared and getting thrown around the cage and hurt. This wasn’t good for the sport but more importantly it wasn’t good for the fighters. We wanted to start something that could safely show coaches and fighters if they were good enough of not. Nobody really physically got hurt in the leagues, but a lot of egos were!” Mark and Conor Reilly started running the leagues in 2003 due to the high demand for MMA competition (Keep in mind this was still over a year before the first season of TUF). The leagues were held three times a year across Ireland in Dublin, Cork and Galway with a points system in place. By winning a fight in the leagues you were given points. The league leaders with the most points were then invited to fight off at the end of the year to be crowned the league champion. It started off with over 30 fighters coming to each league. It took a while to take off but in 2009 there was a major influx of fighters. “The leagues exploded around 2009 with 70 – 80 competitors per event, we put it down to the large number of new MMA clubs around Ireland and the traditional martial arts gyms that were starting to get into grappling etc. The leagues are professionally run and there has never been a serious injury so I believe that this mixed with the changing attitudes of coaches when it comes to putting fresh amateurs in the cage helped with the growth”. The leagues have become a huge success and its popularity shows no sign of fading. Amateur MMA shows are now on almost every weekend with promotions like “Battlezone”, “Clan Wars”, “Ryoshin FC” etc. giving fighters a chance to test themselves in the cage. It is difficult to distinguish the amateur bouts from the pro bouts on many cards due to the similar skill level and rule sets between the classes. Amateurs aren’t allowed to elbow to the head, however knees to the head are allowed. I asked Mark Leonard if amateurs should be allowed to knee to the head or if that should be a privilege reserved for the Pro’s. “Well we want Irish fighters to be able to compete with amateur MMA fighters from other nations. We use a universal rule set so our amateurs can stand up to a fighter from anywhere in the world. We can’t limit them so at the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the coach to ensure that their fighter is ready to step into the cage” This rule set and experience will no doubt benefit the amateur fighters that have fought their way onto an Irish team to compete at Las Vegas later this summer in the first Amateur MMA World Championships. Four fighters will be heading over after securing their place through hard fought battles on different amateur promotions throughout the year. I was at the last Battlezone event when the finals of the team selections took place. Cork lads Ciaran Daly, Lloyd Manning and Darren O’Gorman from the Boxing Clinic booked their seats on the plane through hard fought contests. The atmosphere in the arena that night portrayed what the fights meant to each of the six fighters looking for the chance to represent their country. The performances of the experienced fighters left no doubt that they will be able for the challenges that await them state side. When I asked Mark what the future holds for MMA in Ireland he was positive, however he did give an ominous warning. “The future is bright and it will continue to explode in the years to come. There does need to be a culling of shows though. Some promotions look at it from a spectator’s point of view instead of from a fighter safety point of view. I haven’t seen a serious injury due to a mismatch in a few years but I am afraid of that coming back. Coaches need to push the amateur MMA leagues before they go into the cage so they can get a clear idea of where the fighter is skill wise. Other than that I can still see massive positive growth in the future.” Marks warning about fighters getting into the cage before they’re ready needs to be heeded by more coached and promotions. I recently attended an amateur MMA show in which a 20 year old chubby welterweight got in the cage against a shredded 25 year old. The younger guy didn’t show any basic understanding of striking or the clinch and was violently stopped by knees from a position in the clinch that could have easily been reversed had that guy spent more time training in the clinch. These fights are amateur MMA’s dirty little secret that can’t be allowed to continue. In my view there needs to be more screening of amateurs before they are given a slot on a card. Even something as simple as sending training footage to the promoter when asking for a fight could potentially save someone that isn’t ready to be in there from serious injury. The future is bright for the amateur scene in Ireland. More and more gyms are springing up all over the country and much of the talent we see at amateur will no doubt grace the bright lights of the UFC’s octagon in the future.

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