I’ll Smile When I’m Rich: Inside Irish MMA

Newstalk Documentary explores how deep the roots of competitive martial arts run in Ireland - both in and out of the cage

The rise of Irish fighters in the UFC, coupled with the success of Conor McGregor, has brought mixed martial arts (MMA) into the mainstream here - but away from the glamour of these massive events, a small community of fighters have been competing for years.

Newstalk.com's first mini-doc explores how deep the roots of competitive martial arts run in Ireland - taking a snapshot of the sport, interviewing fighters about their mindset both in and out of the cage.

The Takeover

Cage Kings II took place in the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght, west-Dublin on the 8th of August 2015. It wasn't on the radar for most Irish sports fans, but the event filled the venue - drawing its largest attendance since before Ireland's economic crash.

The card showcased the cream of Ireland's Thai boxing and K1 communities, as well as up-and-coming MMA hopefuls from across the country.

Straight Blast Gym Ireland's (SBGi) 'Coach' John Kavanagh has been dubbed the Godfather of Irish MMA, having trained many of the fighters from this country who are currently competing in the UFC, including McGregor.

He spoke to Newstalk about the significance of these events for Irish athletes, and explained how high the stakes are for professional fighters:

"Once you turn pro every fight - whether it's in front of 100 people in a gym hall, or in front of 2,000 people in a stadium, or 10,000 people in a bigger stadium - every fight is as important as the next. You live and die by your record."

One of Kavanagh's young hopefuls, Bulgarian-born Nikolay Grozdev, fought in his first amateur MMA bout at the event - winning by submission with a rear naked choke in the second round.

The chokehold has become one of SBG's trademark moves, it is one of the cleaner ways to finish a fight.

"It's how I like my fighters to win, because it doesn't hurt anybody," Kavanagh reflects after the contest.

Each Irish UFC fight has sent a fresh wave of Irish kids and teenagers to SBG facilities and other martial arts gyms around the country.

At just 23-years-old, Cian Cowley already fights professionally and owns his own gym, Warriors in Dun Laoghaire. Based in south Dublin, Cowley states that he has seen the 'McGregor Effect' first-hand over the last two years.

"Every new person who comes through the door wants to be McGregor," he says, adding that the numbers hitting the mats in his gym have tripled since the Irishman made his UFC debut.

John Kavanagh is not surprised by the growth of the sport:

"It's a well known phenomenon," he says, "you can see it in all countries, with all sports. You get one person who breaks through, then that encourages the kids to join."

He cites the example of Brian O'Driscoll breaking through as an international rugby star, and the subsequent increase in the number of Irish people playing rugby during the last 15 years.

"It's not just my club. I hear this from MMA coaches from all over the country. They all got a flood of guys on the Monday after Conor's [title] fight. Maybe they actually owe me some commission on that," he (half) jokes.

All in

Cian Cowley also fought on the Cage Kings II card - winning the 70kg belt with a ferocious second round KO against Aaron Brown - a fighter who had received a lot of hype heading into the event.

Speaking in his own gym weeks after the bout, Cowley recalls the final moments:

"He was sleep walking on to the next shot - it was easy for me to land them. It was a bit gruesome - he was going down and I gave him a knee in the head. That wasn't half as bad as what I was thinking of doing in my mind.

"I was thinking sicker stuff than what I did to him."

Since that fight night, Cian has started training with John Kavanagh and his SBG team.

Having competed in Muay Thai at an elite level in his early 20s, he is now in the process of crossing-over to MMA. He aspires to reach the UFC by the time he turns 30.

Cian sits at an intersection between the old-guard of combat sports in Ireland, and the new wave - what he calls the "post-McGregor era."

Long before what some veteran fighters call the UFC "bandwagon" rolled into town, he was fighting at Muay Thai events across Ireland, competing against a small pool of athletes who trained and fought for titles with little thought of financial gain.

Cian has been competing for 10 years, since the age of 13. Growing up as a Thai boxing purist, he is open about what has motivated him to move into MMA:

"In combat sports UFC, and MMA - that's where the money is. There's no other way around it, and I have nothing else to go on.

"I can't just say I'll do fighting as my hobby and I'll just get a job or go to college. I can barely read or write, I have to fight."

Having left school at 15, Cian travelled to Thailand just after his 16th birthday for what turned into a six month stretch, fighting at events in front of small crowds in rural regions of the country.

"You're looking around and there's no foreigners, and no medics - no health and safety. You can't beat the experience of fighting over there," he reflects.

"When I think back on it now, it was a lot going over there - for that long at that age. Going halfway across the world with no education or anything.

"It was a lot, but it was worth it. That made me who I am today."

Newstalk.com will have full coverage of UFC Dublin as Paddy 'The Hooligan' Holohan squares up against Louis 'Da Last Samurai' Smolka in the 3Arena on Saturday night. The hometown fighter has been bumped up to the top billing after Donegal man Joseph Duffy was forced to pull out of his fight with Dustin Poirier after sustaining a concussion. 

Listen back to John Kavanagh's in-depth Off the Ball interview.

Over 10 years the UFC has gone from being a fringe federation to a mainstream sporting success - Newstalk.com looks at how the current owners turned the company around.