For a mixed martial artist, the in-cage performance is only a fraction of a whole. What you see on fight night is the total accumulation of a collective body of work. The decisions made. The hours spent in the gym. The people you surround yourself with. It all plays a role.
James Gallagher is still months away from making his professional debut, and he is already one of the most highly touted MMA prospects in the world.
As a member of SBG Ireland, he trains alongside Conor McGregor, Gunnar Nelson, and Paddy Holohan, while studying under the tutelage of head coach John Kavanagh. Generating hype in this environment is only natural, however Gallagher’s path towards future success in MMA began years before he ever entered the gym.
I lived a normal life of an Irish kid, I guess. I was made to go to school and hated it. In primary school, I never had many friends; always just pretty much on my own.
Gallagher’s interests were different from those around him. While most of his classmates gravitated towards soccer, James preferred the quiet tranquility of hunting and fishing. He spent many summer holidays on the river, where his father would sit for seven to eight hours a day, just watching him fish.
It wasn’t until secondary school that he started making friends. As an Irish kid, fighting was simply a way of life, and in James’ case, it usually came in response to some sort of injustice. He would often fight in defense of his weaker classmates who had trouble defending themselves; a recurring theme that would ultimately drive James towards a life of martial arts.
I used to love a knock in school. I got suspended on my first week. One of the older guys tried to bully a guy in my class. I thought ‘I’ll show him how it feels,’ and whooped him. Not long after, I had my first MMA fight. I was never hassled too much after that.
James found MMA when he was twelve. His infatuation with the nuances of fighting had taken hold of him from an early age, but it wasn’t until this moment that he realized how much the sport meant to him. By the time he was fourteen years old, it was all he could think about.
I was doing it twice a week for two years. When I got to be thirteen or fourteen, I realized there was nothing else I wanted to do. I gave up everything else. From then on, it became my life, and I haven’t looked back.
Often times, when someone uses a phrase like “it became my life,” they’re using hyperbole. They are exaggerating or oversimplifying a point, when in reality, they really mean, “it became important to me.”
In James’ case, the phrase is to be taken literally.
For the past three years of his life, Monday through Friday, James has been living with his coach, John Kavanagh, and training MMA full time.
It’s great. All we do is train and talk about MMA. To become the greatest fighter ever, that’s what it takes. John always tells me, all I need to do is to make it my every waking thought, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m on my way to becoming the greatest ever.
When asked about his feelings towards his longtime coach, James struggled to formulate a fitting response.
I can’t describe my relationship with John. Words don’t do justice. I’m so grateful to have him. He took me under his wing and made me the fighter and the person I am today. He’s a genius in what he does. There’s no one in this world that’s better than John.
Not only does he coach the greatest athletes in the world; he trains with us. He doesn’t tell us to do anything, he shows us. I can’t thank him enough and I’ll never be able to repay him for what he has done for me. The best thing I can do is to hang a UFC world title up on the gym wall. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
James and John seem to be in agreement on this particular point. In speaking with Coach Kavanagh, he left little room for interpretation when it came to his long term vision for James’ future in MMA.
I have no doubt he will have the UFC title. He’s going pro this year. His first fight is for September on BAMMA. He’s got the physical, and more importantly, the mental tools to go all the way.
Kavanagh has always been a huge influence on Gallagher. So when it came time to decide whether he should continue with school or drop out in pursuit of a career in MMA, James looked to his coach for guidance and support. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what Kavanagh supplied him with.
That was between him and his parents of course. I’m not his family. But I knew he was 100% set on doing this. At the end of the day, school is not for everybody. It just wasn’t suiting him. And he was showing so much progress in MMA and putting in such effort.
I figured even if the attraction wears off, he could always go back to school. But looking back now, it was the correct decision. He’s as excited about this sport now as he was then.
For James, there wasn’t much of a choice in the matter. His path was clear.
It was the easiest decision I’ve ever made in my life. It’s pretty hard living away from my parents. I miss lots of things, but they don’t mind. Their dream is to see me achieve my dreams. I’m in the process of doing that, but I’d never be able to do it without them. I don’t see it as just me. Everyone who’s with me now is helping me get there. All my teammates at SBG, my family, my coach, my girl, and my best friend Thomas. That’s everyone in my group and we are in it as a team.
We are going straight to the top and I’m making sure of that.
Being destined for greatness is a difficult burden to carry. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to do so on your own. Every decision of James’ life – since the age of thirteen – has been made with the singular focus of becoming the greatest fighter of all time.
He’s surrounded himself with the best coaches and training partners in the world. He’s eliminated all outside distractions and kept his circle small. He’s expressed more drive and determination as a teenager than most of us will express in our entire lives.
There are, however, no ‘sure things’ in life. Even less is guaranteed in the world of professional fighting. But necessity is not required for success. All you need is desire. True, unwavering desire.
Nobody understands this better than James, himself.
Nothing is a must. I don’t need anything, but I want the title. I want to be known as the greatest ever to have walked this earth. I don’t need to. It’s not a must. But I want to.
And I do what I want.
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