At Bellator 169’s initial press conference, at a venue just off Dublin’s iconic O’Connell Street, we had a chance to talk candidly with SBG’s young rising star, James Gallagher.
Hi, James! How are you doing?
Yeah, I’m good!
Have you been training today?
Yeah we trained, me and Kiefer (Crosbie) then came straight here from the gym.
So, obviously, you’re from Strabane (he corrects my mispronunciation, but forgives me due to a swift apology!) what was it like moving to Dublin at such a young age, and did it feel like a huge risk?
I was just doing what I loved to do and I want to be the best at it and I felt that was the right choice. There were no clubs, all the clubs that I was training in where I’m from closed down.
There was no one there to show me. I needed guidance and a coach so I asked myself, what’s the right guidance, what’s the right team to join so that I can be the greatest ever?
I realised that from a young age. Then, when I was fighting, I was 13 in my second amateur fight and I fought a guy who was 21. John (Kavanagh) was the judge of that show and he wouldn’t judge my fight, saying, ‘it’s ridiculous you shouldn’t be fighting a 21-year-old, that’s crazy!’I went in fighting this 21-year-old man and I beat him!
So, I got speaking to John. I was very raw, I wasn’t that great but I kept fighting and travelled to John like maybe, once a month, my dad used to drive me after school! When I got to 15 I started getting the bus by myself, my parents were like, “You’re old enough to get the bus, you can get the bus now!” So, I used to hop on the bus, travel all the way up here to Dublin. It was a 4-hour journey on the bus and it’s a trek, it killed me!
How often were you doing that, once a month?
Well then it became once a week, twice a week, regularly (laughs).
On the weekend?
No, we used to do this thing in school where we used to go out and they made us do bricklaying, tech they call it, it was just to get a trade, you know what I mean? So, I used to just miss that, come down to Dublin on the bus, train all day and wouldn’t get back home until 2am. I used to get up then, at 6am, go training, then go to school at 9am!
I was doing this for a long time. I remember one day, I was about 15, it was snowing outside and the teacher at school said, ‘Alright you have to do all this work’ and I was like ‘No one does work on a half day at school. I want to be outside throwing snowballs at cars or something, have a bit of craic (fun)!’
But then I just said, ‘Here listen, I’m done, I want to fight, I want to train, that’s all I want to do right now’, instead of listening to some teacher, who’s been told what to do, and tell me what to do. I just didn’t find that it made any sense, someone is following a curriculum and I HAVE TO do that? How about if I want to do something else?
And you were that sure, at that young age?
I was that sure. I never went around saying I was going to be this or that but I always had a belief that I could be the best.
You must have had, to take that risk!
Yeah, I did but it wasn’t even a risk. I just loved training and I hated school, it wasn’t for me, I just didn’t like it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to school or get an education because that’s false but I just realised at 15, it was no longer for me and it’s not who I am.
There was a kind of negative effect if you wanted to do something else. I was going to school after a fight and maybe had a little scuff or a mark and the teacher would say, ‘What happened to you?’ I’d say ‘I had a fight this weekend’ and they would say ‘Oh, you’re fighting? That’s a disgrace! You shouldn’t be doing this!’ I wasn’t doing my work, I was on my phone watching Gunni (Gunnar Nelson) highlight reels, because Gunni was a big name in the ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club)back then. They were saying I’m going to be nothing because I wasn’t doing school work but more that I wasn’t doing the right thing. I was like, ‘You’re not doing the right thing!You’re putting me down, why not raise me up? Why not let me go and do this? Why not let me believe I can be great?’ Do you know what I mean?
But perhaps if they hadn’t put you down, you wouldn’t have wanted to?
I would have done it anyway but it definitely added to it. It felt very weird and the people that I was surrounded by were just not as clued in as me and not as driven, or something. They were happy that ‘this is what you do in life’ and it didn’t feel right so I was like, get me out of here! I certainly understand you don’t just leave school to sit and do nothing.
You’ve got to have an idea.
Exactly, like If you want to be a journalist, you stay in school and you get your degree and learn how to do it. For me, I wanted to be and MMA fighter so I had to leave school and go to the school of MMA!
It’s like what your teammate Conor (McGregor) says, isn’t it? ‘A Masters in unarmed combat’?
Exactly! I’m not going to learn how to become the greatest MMA fighter in school, it’s just not going to happen but I am going to learn to be the greatest at SBG.
Going back to the fight against the 21-year-old when you met John, how did you win?
I won by decision.
I see. You were training Karate at the time, did you have any grappling experience at all?
Yeah, I was doing Karate and I probably knew an armbar? A take down? That’s probably it, one submission and one take down! I was doing Karate so I could do kicks off the feet. At the time, it felt right but looking back now it was so wrong, but it was right because it put me here, it’s how I’ve reached here.
OK, so with the Karate background, how much of that unorthodox striking has influenced your game at the moment?
It gives a great understanding of distance, I find Karate is all about where you place yourself but that’s a very small thing in MMA. Karate is back and forward, closing distance which is very important but you need to know how to close the distance and work while you’re inside, then get out again. That’s what Karate lacks a little bit but it was good, I learned a lot from Karate and I still use it to this day.
How long did you do it for?
I did Karate for about 3 years.
What belt or rank did you get?
I think it was like purple belt, or something, I was about 6 or 7 years old! [laughs]
Combat’s been a long-term thing with you, how interesting. Could you tell us a bit about your relationship with John Kavanagh and your experience of being trained by such a great coach?
I have a great relationship with John, he took me in when I was just 15 years old and he showed me the way and the right direction.
You lived with him for a time, didn’t you?
Yeah, I lived with John for 2 or 3 years, with him and Orlagh (his partner) and that was amazing! You know what I mean? The way he put his time into me, him and Orlagh letting me live in their home, you know? That was their home and they just invited me in, I was just a young kid who wanted to train! I’ll always be grateful to John, I’ll never really pay John back no matter how much I earn so I feel like the only way I can do that is with world titles.
Have you felt the benefit of the success of Conor and SBG?
Well, the way I see it is, the greatest fighter of all time, the greatest fighter in the world, is training at SBG, in Conor. He’s the greatest fighter so it’s like, everyone is competing with each other, in a new way, to become better. Everyone else is watching fights, they’re watching us fight to see if they can do something different – that’s what’s happening in the gym, everyday there’s something new. It’s so good to see the elevation every day, where you can just rise and rise and it’s all thanks to John and Conor and Gunni, these kind of guys.
Do you want to mirror Conor’s achievements?
I don’t want to mirror anything. Not a single thing do I want to mirror. I want to do everything, but better. I’m striving for greatness, I’m focusing so much on myself that I feel I can take that to the next level. I’ve seen all that he’s done so now I’m going to do it better. I feel I’m going to rise and become a completely different animal.
So you’re your own man in that respect?
100% I’m my own man! I’m not like anyone else. Would you want me to copy someone else and be a mediocre version of the person I’m trying to copy? I’m me and I’m going to be the greatest fighter ever and that’s just how I feel. I’m not trying to copy anyone, I’m too busy focusing on me to focus on anyone else, do you know what I mean?
That’s steely determination right there. How do you feel your fight with Anthony Taylor is going to go?
It’s going to be a clinic, that’s all it is. No matter where it goes I’m going to be calm, focused and see it for what it is.
You say a clinic, a clinic in what aspect of the game?
The whole thing. It’s just going to be so clinical and clean, calm, precise. Everyone’s jaws are just going to drop.
Sounds compelling! Do you expect to get a finish?
100% I’m going to get the finish in the first few minutes, I can just feel this energy.
Over the past few days Anthony Taylor’s been slurring his words. He doesn’t even know what he’s saying. He’s slurring just speaking beside me, just speaking! So imagine him in the match with me trying to pop a shot in his face, trying to take his head off, he’s going to get slurred up in his movement as well when it’s most important. So I’ll just remain calm and focused, while I pick my shots and pick my tactics and I’ll find a very quick way to win.
Well James, thanks for doing this insightful, exclusive interview with Kung Fu Kingdom, it’s been an eye opener. Hope it all continues to go well for you and good luck for the fight!
Thanks very much, I appreciate it!