"On Saturday night I’m going to make a statement to the rest of the division. I’m not here to mess around. I’m the first of the new wave that has broken through. I’m ready. This is where I deserve to be. On Saturday night I’ll prove that this is where I deserve to be. I’m coming for the title."
Fans of Irish MMA will be familiar with these type of words. Statements like this were the fuel which Conor McGregor used to propel himself to a world title in the UFC but this didn't come from the mouth of 'The Notorious' but rather from one of the next generation of fighters to emerge from this island, 'The Strabanimal' James Gallagher.
Aged just 19 years old and with a 3-0 professional record, Gallagher will make his Bellator debut on Saturday night when he faces Mike Cutting on the main card of Bellator 158 at The O2 in London and will be looking to take advantage of this high profile placement on a major MMA card to show exactly why he is considered to be one of the top prospects in the sport.
Fresh as a fucking daisy. I'm born for this
— james gallagher (@StrabanimalMMA) July 15, 2016
James Gallagher first came across John Kavanagh six years ago. Gallagher - who had been training in various martial arts since he was 6 years old - took a fight on the local scene. Kavanagh was judging some of the fights that day but as soon as he laid eyes on Gallagher for the first time he refused point blank to judge the fight. It wasn't fair, he said. It would be a negative for the growth of mixed martial arts in this country.
Gallagher was just 13-years-old. His opponent was 21.
Kavanagh didn't approve but stayed to watch Gallagher beat an opponent 8 years his senior and that was the start of a professional relationship which endures to this day. The SBG Ireland head coach, the man so responsible for the development of the sport in this country, invited Gallagher to Dublin to live and train with him.
Speaking to the Independent, Gallagher said:
John refused to judge the fight, but he watched me win and from then I got to know John and became good friends. He welcomed me down anytime to train and then he let me move in with him. I haven’t looked back. I love it. Training harder and getting better all because of John.
Kavanagh wouldn't allow his new student to fight for two years after joining up with SBG. Instead of proving himself in the cage right away, Gallagher would first have to excel on the mats in the gym before parlaying his skills to amateur MMA and, finally, the pros.
Last summer, Gallagher was among the favourites to win the IMMAF international amateur championships in Las Vegas. He dispatched American fighter Sam Agushi with ease in his first fight but inury cost him the opportunity to advance in the tournament. Gallagher's SBG teammate Frans Mlambo claimed gold last summer. Just last week Ireland finished top of the medals table at this summer's championships, with Team Ryano standout Matthew Sheehan finishing in the top spot in his weight class.
Gallagher made his professional debut in October of last year and his three fights to date have yielded three first round submissions and, before long, major MMA promotions began to take notice. Bellator, second only to the UFC in terms of worldwide popularity, offered a contract which, as Gallaghers puts it, will earn him far more money than he would have made in the UFC for a similar deal.
— BellatorMMA (@BellatorMMA) July 14, 2016
The future is incredibly bright for MMA in Ireland. Gallagher is perhaps the leading figure in the next generation of fighters, most of whom will be faced with the 'Next Conor McGregor' tag at one point or another, but in Gallagher's case it's easier to see a connection between him and the UFC featherweight champion -- not just in their skillsets, but rather their entire approach to the game and the voracious appetite they have for it.
Kavanagh's gym produces very technically sound fighters but another characteristic of SBG Ireland is the mental toughness instilled into its students to believe they can be the best in the world (see exhibit A: Conor McGregor). Much like his teammate, confidence is certainly one thing that Gallagher isn't deficient in.
My chauffeur asked me where do I want to go ? " im going straight to the top sir" haha off to… https://t.co/P2L87Q95jk
— james gallagher (@StrabanimalMMA) July 12, 2016
Gallagher is also in a unique position in the MMA world. Like McGregor, he fights at featherweight and has access to the invaluable experience of being able to train with the best fighter in the world in his division on a regular basis. As well as that, Gallagher is starting on the same path the McGregor began walking a decade ago and he has seen the destination that he could end up at.
Speaking to Balls.ie recently, John Kavanagh elaborated on this:
The likes of James Gallagher now and Dylan Tuke, it is a whole lot easier now when they see the success of Conor. They can see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Whereas I was looking at these guys running themselves into the ground with no real solid goal at the end, other than getting better. I really took a lot from their resilience.
Gallagher claims that within 3 or 4 fights he will be in contention for the Bellator title and aims to retire from the sport as a rich man in his mid-20's. The last SBG featherweight to make similarly lofty predictions for his future ended up being the best in the world. Who's to say the same won't happen to James Gallagher?