James Gallagher interview, part one: 'In Ireland there's Conor, and then there's me - and you're comparing me to the number one? No problem'
Like him or loathe him, most people have an opinion on James ‘The Strabanimal' Gallagher as he continues to climb the MMA ladder. Neil Loughran talks to a man who believes he is destined for the very top of his game…
AFTER clocking the main image here, a fair few people won’t have hung about for this first line. Turn the page, move on with your life; it’s okay, we’ll catch you next time. Curiosity could get the better of some, others will go in with an open mind, plenty might read on in the sole hope of having their perceptions upheld.
Welcome to the world of James Gallagher.
Back in October the 24-year-old bantamweight moved to 11-1 with a first round destruction of England’s Cal Ellenor at Bellator Milan. Earlier this week he flew out to Kansas City for the second time in a matter of months to step up preparations for his next fight, hopefully in April. Win that and Gallagher has been promised a world title shot before the end of 2021.
As success stories go, there are few Irish sportspeople currently riding the crest of such a wave. Yet there are also few who garner such extremes.
In the wake of that latest win, for example, an 80-second clip of him being interviewed was enough to send sections of social media into meltdown.
“They say it’s all talk, I’ve had my mouth shut for months and I still come in and do it,” declared Gallagher, arms wide, his voice echoing around the empty arena.
“Silence to the whole f**king division. Silence! Give me anyone, everyone and a big bag of money and I’ll fight any f**king one of them.”
Praise for a perfect performance follows, though it isn’t long before the critics are queuing up to have a pop. But Gallagher is not the first fighter to give it the big one before the cameras and he certainly won’t be the last. So what’s the problem?
Well, an overwhelming sense of déjà vu it appears.
“When you order your Conor McGregor from Wish.com,” offers one Twitter user. As you scroll further on down, a theme develops.
The Tricolor shorts, the shades, the tattoos, the occasional southside of Dublin inflection in that Strabane accent. For many, it’s an open and shut case.
The accusations of ripping off Crumlin’s most infamous son used to drive him up the wall; this notion that he was some nobody who had just rocked up, turned on the McGregor strut and tried to forge a career off the back of it, rather than the guy who left school at 15 and moved to Dublin months later in pursuit of a dream that is now within touching distance.
“At the start I’d be looking at all these messages like ‘I’m just gonna land around to his door and drag him out’, over time you learn to control that.
“But what I would say to those people is this - I’m going to be fighting for a world title this year. I’m making a f**kton of money. In Ireland there’s Conor, and then there’s me. And you’re comparing me to the number one? No problem.
“I can’t wait until I’m number one some day. And I will be. I didn’t work this hard to be anything else.”
THERE’S a picture floating about that shows James Gallagher in his GAA days, wearing a blue bib, eyes straining against the sun at a Strabane Sigerson’s competition.
That GAA career, he estimates, lasted roughly a month. Instead, from his youngest days, Gallagher found more joy with his fists than with a football.
“I’d no real interest in anything else. When I was in the street I was a little bollocks, fighting. I grew up good, my family were great, I was never in trouble or misbehaving, but I was always fighting – mostly with my friends – so that’s why I ended up starting boxing…”
He first tried his hand at the Twintowns club across the Donegal border in Stranorlar and Ben McGarrigle, a coach at the Mourne Golden Gloves club in Strabane, remembers a young James Gallagher always showing an interest in the fight game.
“He used to come down to tournaments at St Patrick’s Hall in Strabane as a wee six-year-old. He’d have sat in the front row with his granda Brendan, they never missed a tournament and they’d have sat there all day.
“James seemed to grow up very fast… from the wee boy that I remember, it wasn’t long until he was away training and on the path that he’s on.
“I’ve followed him from a distance since then. People might give him a lot of bad press or whatever, but you know what? Fair play to him. If you’re going to sell something in the shop you have to advertise it. It’s the name of the game he’s in.”
The wheels were set in motion when he took up karate and then jujitsu at Strabane fight team, with Gallagher first appearing on the radar of renowned MMA coach John Kavanagh at a show in Warrenpoint.
Kavanagh - whose Straight Blast Gym was then home to the likes of McGregor, Owen Roddy and Paddy Holohan, as well as some of the top emerging talent in Ireland - was there as guest judge.
However, he initially refused to participate after discovering that the 13-year-old Gallagher would be taking on a 21-year-old in what was only his second ever contest.
“I was just back from holiday, this little skinny kid with a vest top print from sunburn, and I was fighting at the same weight I fight at now. I didn’t even weigh-in, I was eating donuts and everything the day before.
“This guy I was fighting was like me now – a bit bigger, tattoos, a man really. John actually said to the promoter ‘I’m not judging this show, you’re going to ruin MMA in Ireland, letting this young kid go in there against a man’.
“That wouldn’t be allowed to happen any more… I f**ked it up for everyone else! I went in and got stuck into the fella and beat him on points. It was a back and forward scrap, he kneed me up the face, I gave it back, busted him, fly kneed him in the face. At the end John was going ‘hoooooly shit’.”
Kavanagh watched the young man in action at another show in Letterkenny. It was the first time Gallagher met McGregor, and the night his ‘Strabanimal’ nickname was born. More significantly, though, it was also the night Kavanagh asked him to come down and train at his gym in Inchicore.
From that point, there would be no going back – even if his growing reputation made him a target in his home town.
“I just learned to keep myself to myself because you could end up doing stuff I just wasn’t comfortable with when you’re running around with people, so I only ever had one or two real friends. That’s why I don’t feel any peer pressure now, because I took myself out of that situation back then.
“Strabane’s a great place and there’s great people there but when you were that age you’d get ‘you think you’re a tough man because you do the fighting?’ ‘No mate, but if you want to go I’m going to smash your head in so just stay away from me’.
“That’s how I always ended up getting into fights, because they’d push me until I reacted. It was the same in school too… I was just bored. I hated doing the work because I knew it would never get me anywhere; I’d have been sitting at the back of class watching jujitsu on my phone.
"One day one of the teachers told me I was going to be a failure. - a failure for trying to actually progress at something that you don’t understand? I respect what you do, but it’s not what I want to do and it never will be. What about the last year where I haven’t taken one day off training? When I haven’t skipped my diet? And you’re telling me I’m a failure?”
Eventually that relationship with Holy Cross College would reach breaking point as Gallagher finally turned his back on education altogether just a couple of months after his 15th birthday.
“That last day at school, I always remember it was snowing, the teacher said ‘have you got your work in?’ There was GCSE mocks coming up and I’d been down in Dublin training the night before. I didn’t have the work done but I was progressing myself - I wasn’t just lying in the house doing nothing, sitting on the Playstation or the Xbox. I had ambition, which was something none of the rest of them had.
“But the teacher started roaring at me, ‘get out of my room’. So I did. I told the rest of them I’ll not be back, they were all shouting ‘ahhhh, we’ll see you tomorrow’. But that was me, done.”
His mum and dad tried to talk him out of it at first but eventually had no choice but to lend their support.
“I told them I couldn’t sit in a classroom full of negative people. It was affecting my mental health, how constant it was. It was draining me, so I made a deal – if you see me slacking in training at all, take me out and put me into college, I’ll get a trade or whatever.
“But let me do this for a year and I’ll show you, I give you my word that I’ll do it. I’m going to put everything into this now.”
Within a couple of weeks he had moved from two days’ training in Dublin to three. A few months further down the line he was staying with Kavanagh every week, Monday to Friday.
“My da fired me 50 quid to get by – in Dublin 50 quid wouldn’t last you a day but I made it stretch because I had to.
“John and I got along fine. I’m quiet, I’m easy enough to get on with. I could sit here in silence, you could sit there in silence and it wouldn’t be a bother on me. Really he just left me to my own devices. He did look out for me, maybe from the background, but it wasn’t like a fatherly role or anything.”
Every day, every session, he was getting better. But this was 2011. It would be another two years before McGregor signed on the dotted line with UFC, several more before his ascent to superstardom was complete.
Mixed martial arts was, as it still is in some quarters today, viewed with scepticism. Putting all your eggs into this basket was about as risky a career move as you could make.
“No-one was signed. Gunni [Gunnar Nelson] wasn’t signed to the UFC, Conor wasn’t signed… no-one was making any money, everyone was broke. It’s like somebody coming now and saying they’re leaving school to learn rollerblading – you’d be like ‘what the f**k are you on about?’ I knew that, but I just loved it and I felt I could do something with it.
“When I was amateur I went over to Iceland, and there they paid you to teach. I was thinking that, if nothing else, I could just teach this here, back in Strabane, £15 an hour, three or four people a day, I’d get by.
“The rest of the boys were all in their mid-20s, all had part-time jobs, where I was probably the first in the gym to ever drop everything and give their life over to it. I stayed two years with John and by 17 I was a professional athlete.”
In those two years, Gallagher l hard. He might have been “the tough nordie kid”, but no quarter was given from his experienced comrades. Over time they realised they couldn’t afford to give an inch.
“I was sparring Conor, Paddy, Owen – Conor used to bust me up. They went just as normal because if they didn’t I’d have hit them back. I was decent so I could go in for those later rounds when they got tired. John would put me in to keep them sharp because I’d be going in fresh, hitting them – bup bup bup bup bup - when their reactions were a bit slower.
“I could give anyone a hard round. Even if you were better than me, I made you work and that’s how I got so good. John used to take me around the gyms with him, I was like his little pitbull, and by the time I was 17 I was a professional athlete, ready to take on the world.”
IN MONDAY’S IRISH NEWS
“I picked up my phone and as I was looking down, everyone – including all these celebrities, fighters, people I was fans of - were all just laughing at me”
A crushing defeat to Ricky Bandejas was a major stumbling block for James Gallagher’s lofty ambitions but, in part two, he explains why it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened