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Who dares wins: The story of unbreakable Derry MMA fighter Ryan Roddy

Ryan Roddy at his Yodha Academy of Martial Arts in Magherafelt. Pic: Mal McCann
Andy Watters

“The mind quits long before the body quits…”

Ryan Roddy

A BOY and his mum in a council house on a loyalist estate and sectarian eyes soon spot the tell-tale signs that mark them out as from the other tribe.

They don’t want trouble but it doesn’t need an invite and when it arrives it is terrible and violent.

At the age of four the boy is set-upon by a gang in his front garden and his arm is broken, one night ‘UVF’ is scraped into the bonnet of their car, then their house is broken into and all their furniture burned on a bonfire, the letterbox has to be boarded up because of bomb threats...

Ryan Roddy remembers it all.

“I don’t mean to paint it like a ghetto sob story but it was fairly rough,” he says.

“My mum was a working class single parent and that’s where we were put so we didn’t have much of a choice until we could get out of it; eventually we had to leave because we just couldn’t stay there any longer.

“It’s what I grew up with. I wouldn’t want my son to grow up in the same situation but in one sense I look back and think I was quite fortunate that I had those formative experiences, it was like an inoculation. I had experiences that toughened me up but they didn’t hurt me so much that they broke me. I was lucky in that my mum was very strong and supportive and I feel that balanced it out.”

(Trained men, have tried and failed to break this fella and much more about that below).

Ryan and his mum moved to Magherafelt and left their troubles behind. After primary school he chose to go on to Rainey Endowed, principally because of his developing passion for rugby and, being an integrated school, ‘The Rainey’ was an ointment for some of the issues in his young mind.

“It was very good for me because my experience of the Protestant community up to then had been negative,” he says.

“Up to then I wanted to be the opposite of the people that I saw as my enemies – if you’re surrounded by Union Jacks you want to react against that. If I had gone to a Catholic school I would probably never have been exposed to positive experiences with the Protestant community. Although, again my family would have been very anti-sectarian, I was definitely at risk of becoming entrenched in it”.

‘The Rainey’ opened his eyes and he flourished academically. He threw himself into rugby – “I really enjoyed the combative side to it” – and played Gaelic Football for Magherafelt’s O’Donovan Rossa.

Then, at the age of 16, he stumbled upon something, something he’d always been searching for without actually knowing it and a switch flicked in his mind. In an instantaneous epiphany, he became a devotee of Mixed Martial Arts.

“Me and a friend watched UFC44 on some random TV channel and I couldn’t believe it existed,” he explains.

”At that time it was almost unheard of, it was very niche, but it was what I had been searching for.”

His mother had trained in Ju Jitsu and he’d always had an interest in combat sports so he couldn’t believe his luck when he heard there was an actual MMA club just a stone’s throw up the road from their house. There was nothing glamorous about the ‘Sudden Impact’ gym – it was lads in a garage – but it was a place to train with like-minded individuals.

“The first night I trained I just absolutely loved it and it was a real life-changer for me,” says Ryan.

“It’s almost as if there was a before-and-after that night. I couldn’t believe that what I’d watched on TV existed in my town.”

Much to the dismay of his rugby and GAA coaches he gave up his other sporting interests and never looked back.

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HE devoted his spare time to perfecting double leg takedowns, rear naked chokes and the other MMA skills but left Rainey having done well in his A-Levels and enrolled at Northumbria University to study a degree in Business Management.

After graduation he stayed on in Newcastle and began taking classes at a gym and progressed to managing the place.

One day an email came through that caught his attention. It was an invitation for applications for a television programme. He don’t know it at the time but it was the first-ever series of Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins.

“I always had an interest in Special Forces all around the world and I had read about the Troubles and about the SAS,” Ryan explains.

“The selection process for Special Forces had always intrigued me but that was the first series of the show so I hadn’t a clue what it was going to be.”

Ant Middleton, one of the formidable DS on Channel 4 series SAS: Who Dares Wins

He applied and went through an interview process followed by a series of fitness and psychological assessments. Six weeks from the start of filming, he was told he’d got a place on the show.

“I trained as hard as I could and I spoke to people who had been in the Marines and I did my best to focus on what they said.”

The producers sent him a disclaimer to sign which included the foreboding question: ‘Would you be happy to be chased by dogs?’ but as he packed his bags he hadn’t a clue what he was in for.

It was all cloak-and-dagger and he was given the address of a B&B in Wales and turned up to find a letter for him which read: ‘Be ready at 7am’. The following morning he was waiting outside when a mini-bus turned up.

“There was a load of other boys sitting in it and nobody was saying a word,” he recalls.

“They drove us to this location and the four drill sergeants (DS) were standing there. They took all our stuff off us, gave us new clothes and immediately they were on you.

“They sent us on a four-hour run with all our kit. They ran you ’til you couldn’t run and then ran you again – every minute of every day they were on your back.

“They’d point you in a direction and say ‘start running’. You’d run for hours and then you’d pull up next to a river and they’d say: ‘Everybody jump in’. I felt there was no rhyme nor reason to it but obviously they had a plan. You were always surprised, you never knew when things were going to end and you felt: ‘If I stop now, that’s me out’ so nobody wanted to stop.

“You did it for hours and hours and then you’d get back and there’d be no food, you were just sent to bed.”

There was no gun to his head. Quitting was so simple - just put your hand up and say you’ve had enough and, an hour later, you could be munching on a Big Mac.

A battle raged in his mind. Time after time he told himself: ‘I’m not doing this’ but then somehow found the energy to keep going.

The first day was 20 hours of lung-busting brutality and there was no let-up. The instructors – all former SAS soldiers including Ant Middleton and Jason Fox – woke the recruits at 3am (after two hours of sleep) and sent them out again.

Ryan felt a level of tiredness he’d never experienced before and with their bodies in bits and feet blistered and bleeding, they were put in a bus and driven to the coast where they spent six hours in and out of the water “freezing your balls off”.

“You think it will never end,” he says.

“When you got back in the bus there was no way to dry off, you just had to sit there in your sandy, wet clothes. There was no stop to it – they just wanted to break you.”

On and on it went. One day they were taken to a hill and told: “We’re not going to stop running up and down this hill until three people quit”. They ran up and down it for four hours straight until three of the recruits handed in their armbands and walked away.

One by one a group that originally numbered 30 was whittled down to single figures as men left voluntarily or because of injury. But as others faded away, Ryan began to tap into a reserve of strength he didn’t know had existed and emerged as a leader.

“A lot of it was test-based where you had to make decisions under pressure and you could easily have made the wrong decision and been cut but I fluked a lot of it,” he says modestly.

“I noticed that in the races the people who came first and the people who came last were getting all the attention so I just decided to stay in the middle of the pack. I knew I wasn’t going to put the hardest effort in until I needed to and the pack got smaller and smaller as people quit or got injured.

“You could see everyone was really struggling and I was struggling too but I felt a bit fresher than people around me. At the start I was just trying to survive but as it went on I felt like I got a bit stronger.”

The gruesome final act of the drama was an interrogation stage which went on for almost 24 hours. Bodies were broken, now the DS targeted the survivors’ minds until only Ryan and aptly-named Englishman Freddie Iron remained.

Finally the hood he’d worn for hours was removed and Middleton, smiling through that black pirate beard, told him it was all over and he’d passed the course.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done by a million miles,” says Ryan.

“You think you’re running at capacity but they’ll keep working you under the most extreme pressure and they make you realise that you’re really only going at about 30 per cent. I was ready to go home and then I was there days and days later doing the same thing so you realise you’ve a lot more in the tank than you think.

“The mind quits long before the body quits and you need to get beyond the brakes that you put on yourself. I truly believe that anyone could have done the same thing as me to be honest. There were plenty of guys on that show – guys who were running triathlons - who were way fitter than me, I just kept going.”

Since then there have been another five series of SAS: Who Dares Wins and three celebrity spin-off series. Since winning the first instalment, Ryan has kept in touch with the instructors including Middleton and Fox and Mark Billingham “the daddy amongst them” who joined the show in 2016. Billingham saw action in the North during his 22 years in the Special Forces and has gone on to work as a bodyguard for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie among others.

“I had an impression of soldiers from growing up,” says Ryan.

“But what I found from them was that they are just focussed on being the best soldiers they can be. They were made for that and it wouldn’t matter where they’d been brought up – that’s the job they’d end up doing. They’re built differently.

“I was expecting an anti-Irish sentiment from them but there was nothing. In my head, I thought I would get grief from them for being Irish but they didn’t seem to care. They’re just interested in being the absolute best at being soldiers and I don’t think politics really affects them.

“I was a lot more impressed by them after the show than I was before.”

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HIS career as a professional MMA fighter had already begun before his experiences with the SAS. By 2015 his record was 7-1 and the Channel 4 series could have been the springboard for more success. A serious back injury but the brakes on that but he returned to the octagon in 2019 and won by decision on Bellator 221 in Dublin.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought his comeback to a shuddering halt but the John Kavanagh-trained lightweight now hopes to start extending his three-fight winning sequence.

“Things are starting to open up and there’ll be some big shows in Ireland and in the UK, so hopefully I’ll be able to get myself on some of them and see where things go,” says the 31-year-old.

“I don’t plan too far ahead. I’ll keep training and I’ll see what comes along. I was fighting for Bellator, I’m not signed with them any more so I’m a free agent and I need to get on shows and win fights. “There are lots of shows around the world that you can get matches on – something always pops up, there’s always somebody looking a fight.”

A self-confessed “martial arts nerd” he’s back home and settled in Magherafelt now and splits his time between his young family, training across the country including Dublin and Belfast and developing his own team of young fighters through the Yodha Academy of Martial Arts.

His wife is Indian and Yodha, in her native tongue, means ‘warrior’. That’s what he is.

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