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Monday 20 August 2018

The Irish fighters hot on heels of Conor McGregor

Millions of fans across the globe saw Conor McGregor knock out his opponent in July - as promised - in the first round and millions more will tune in to his big fight in Las Vegas in the early hours of tomorrow (3am).

It is little wonder that McGregor's beloved SBG Gym, run by his trainer John Kavanagh, had to move to a new, larger premises on the Naas Road in Dublin in January. Their membership has trebled since last year.

SBG is something of a second home to Ireland's big names in mixed martial arts - Cathal Pendred, Paddy Holohan, Gunnar Nelson, Aisling Daly. But it is also a second home to a whole host of young guns, eager to taste glory.

For trainer Kavanagh, the gym is a fitting pay-off for the years of hard slogging in cold industrial units and damp school halls.

"Literally every day I walk in here and I pinch myself," John says. "It's taken 12 years to be an overnight success!"

inspired

John is humbled and delighted by the feedback the gym has received. "We have a much more diverse population in the gym now rather than just 20-year-old fighters. We have people from all walks of life, from kids to 60-year-old taxi men who have never done anything like, but got inspired by Conor McGregor."

The greatest testament to his new gym's success, John explains, is that his mother now visits.

"Before my mother never came around, now she comes every Tuesday, she bakes and we have Flapjack Tuesdays," he laughs.

The atmosphere in SBG is unique. One sign on the way in reads: 'No shoes or egos beyond this point'.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a hugely male-dominated sphere, but more women are getting involved. Sinead (28) made her MMA debut in Europe's Cage Warriors competition last March.

"The UFC would be my dream, to get that contract and start paying the bills," Sinead says.

Fellow SBG member 'Ais the Bash' Daly (26) from Drimnagh is currently starring on the hit TV series The Ultimate Fighter. She is now one of the top female MMA fighters in the world.

"It's such a tough sport that the people you are training with become more than that, they become like your family," Aisling explains. "It's one of the things that has made us so strong as a team. We respect each other for the sacrifices we make."

Aisling trains twice and sometimes three times a day, six or seven days a week at SBG. She often pairs up with flyweight fighter Paddy 'the Hooligan' Holohan.

For Paddy, who is also now signed with the UFC, his interest in MMA began at a crossroads in his life. "I was about 18 at the time. I was still in school and my girlfriend got pregnant and I just wanted to do something then," Paddy smiles.

"It just happened really, one of my friend's dads started doing it and we didn't want and old guy being able to beat us up," he laughs. "Ais bet me around the place a little bit and at that time I would have still had an ego. So after a while I just let that go and I didn't mind losing to learn, I became fascinated. It was a big puzzle and I just kept putting it together."

The undefeated Dublin fighter made his UFC debut in July.

"It is a lifestyle forever. The estate where I come from is a council estate and I can see kids out running, they're asking me where to go and train, it's crazy."

Cathal Prendred is another major UFC name in the SBG camp. "I started off as a fan when I was in school," he says. Cathal (27) took up the sport during a stay in San Diego.

mainstream

The fact that Ireland is not only very suddenly interested in MMA, but that such huge numbers of people are getting actively involved is something Cathal is very excited about.

"It is becoming more mainstream so more young people are embracing that healthy lifestyle."

Richie Smullen (23) is one such fighter hoping to turn pro.

"I'm up here from 12 every day to 10 at night. There are no distractions. I just train, eat and go home," he laughs.

Blaine O'Driscoll (22) from Inchicore is also hoping for UFC glory one day. "The training is great, but the atmosphere is different than anywhere else. There are no big egos."

Training has not just given Blaine a focus, it has also increased his self-confidence.

"You feel a lot more confident in every aspect of life. I even done better in school and now I'm finished college," he said.

hnews@herald.ie

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