Foundations is a Severe MMA mini-series by Peter Carroll that aims to give Irish fans a better understanding of how mixed martial arts developed in Ireland, in the lead up to the UFC’s return on July 19th.
One of the first generation of fighters to come out of John Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym, former Ultimate Fighting Revolution champion Mick “Sissy Boy” Leonard caught up with PETER CARROLL to discuss how he got into the sport, training in ‘the shed’ and early competition.
Banking early wins against fighters who would make significant breakthroughs in the sport – Greg Loughran, Neil Seery and Phil Harris – Leonard spoke about how the landscape has changed and how he believes UFC’s Dublin return will affect the sport in Ireland.
It’s not the strangest thing to hear that someone is training in mixed martial arts these days. A variety of promotions regularly have events televised, brands like TapouT are sported by individuals not involved in the sport and Ireland’s most Google searched athlete is a product of the once illicit style of combat.
However, 13 years ago when Mick Leonard first dipped his toe into the murky unknown, “human cockfighting” was still a phrase commonly used in reference to MMA. With his only prior experience being in taekwondo, the Dubliner relayed his first steps into the world that defined his young life.
“I started in 2001 in UCD with Colm O’Reilly,” said Leonard, speaking on his lunch break from Alpha College Dublin where he teaches English. “I didn’t know anything about the sport, ground fighting or anything like that.
“I remember standing around at the start of the class with the other guys and they were telling me about BJJ and I was thinking ‘that’s exactly what I need, I think I can handle most guys standing up because I have a black tip in taekwondo’ – shows you how much I knew. I tapped a couple of people out on my first day and I was hooked after that.”
It was in UCD that Leonard first met John Kavanagh, a name that was already synonymous with the fledgling discipline in the country.
“Colm was one of John’s first students, and although he wasn’t an affiliate of SBG, John would pop in on the classes in UCD sometimes. I’d been training for a couple of months and I think I had a bit of reputation because I was tapping guys out that had been training longer than me.
“Well, John came down and it wasn’t like the sympathetic coaching approach you see today, he put a beating on me. He mounted me and then stood on me – I think it was called ‘the surfboard’ – and that just made me want to learn even more.”
With only college taking him away from his new fascination, Leonard devoted the majority of his time to training.
“I was really training hard when I was in college, twice a day six times a week, between UCD and SBG’s first gym, ‘the shed’ in Phibsborough. There were always very competitive spars, I accidently hurt a few people and I know I was hurt a few times.
“Dave Roche would tell us to go 30% and then we would knock lumps out of each other. Even today I have trouble holding back in any kind of competitive scenario, we used to hear ‘30%’ and all that translated to was ‘don’t actively try to kill one another’, to us.
“Me, Owen Roddy, Owen Drummond, Colm O’Reilly and Pearse Stokes used to meet up three times a week in the shed and we would engage in an activity we called Extreme Vale Tudo, or XVT. This was all done outside of SBG training and it was kind of like Fight Club, we would just beat the hell out of each other. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to be doing, but it didn’t stop us,” he said.
Leonard broke down the experience of competing in the early days of the Irish MMA circuit. Stripped down in comparison to a lot of the modern day amateur shows, the focus was all on the competition.
“I think it was late 2002 or early 2003 when I first competed. There were no real classes then, there was no amateur or professional and it was before there were A,B or C class fights too. Back then it was either headshots on the ground or no headshots on the ground.
“I think my first opponent’s name was Conor Collins it was up in Belfast in the most bombed European hotel outside of Beirut, the Europa I think it was called, so straight away I wasn’t just worried about some lad tearing my head off, but the possibility of the hotel being bombed was at me too.
“You never knew who you were facing until you arrived, on some occasions you’d arrive to find that there was no opponent there for you at all. I was lucky that day and I got in and out fairly quickly, I finished it with a submission.
“There was no fuss about the fighters then. There were no real records kept, obviously people wanted to win, but everybody just wanted to compete. The locations varied for the events, but there was no allocated changing room, you’d just get changed in the jacks.
“I don’t think we would even have entrance music for the most part and there was definitely no sponsorship.”
For some emerging fighters a ring alias can be of crucial importance when it comes to giving yourself a unique selling point and showcasing your individuality. There are names that are intended shock, to unnerve and petrify, a tool somewhat underutilised by “Sissy Boy” Leonard.
“I was never really a big fan of the name, but it originally played out because I was a bit of a hard case and the rest of the guys were taking the piss out of me. It was a combination of a few things though, on my first day in SBG I was made do an Ironman with all of the pre-existing members.
“After it finished I was on the ground, you know when you’re putting yourself in awkward positions that look ridiculous to everyone else but it’s the only way you feel comfortable? The lads started slagging me, ‘look at sissy boy, he couldn’t even handle an ironman on his first day’. It just stuck,” he remembered.
A personal highlight of Leonard’s from his fighting days was when popular promotion Rings came to the Emerald Isle in 2005. Although it wouldn’t be remembered as a great day for the Irish, the Dubliner’s win in front of the hometown crowd over Kamron Rana would get the biggest cheer of the night, as he explained.
“Rings – Bushido Ireland in the Point was a brilliant night for me. There was a lot wrong with the event, it was billed as Ireland vs England and that kind of attracted the wrong kind of crowd to begin with. Then the rules were messed up, there were no knees or elbows and because most of the crowd came to see brawls, and we did give them some, I think they wanted more.
“All the Irish guys lost on the night apart from me as far as I remember, and Rings was a big deal back then. There were about 4000 people in the arena that night and when I won the place went crazy. It had been given a good bit of coverage – there were ads on bus stops and it was scheduled to be televised by TV3 – so I became a minor celebrity for a few weeks. I remember being stopped in Dundrum Shopping Centre by people who were there, it was pretty cool,” he recalled.
Due to the lack of statistics and official scores being kept in the early years, Leonard verified his official record and described why keeping track of it has been difficult.
“After years of exaggeration and trying to decipher what was amateur or professional, it’s pretty hard to tell. I sat down one day and figured it was 10-2, it’s 7-2 on Sherdog, but they only started from my third fight and there’s one missing.
“I had a lot of knee issues. I’d always have a lot of pain after I trained but I’d just get a bit of physio and walk it off. About three years ago I took some time off and just never got going again after it. I went and got an MRI this year and I found that I’ve been walking around with no ACL,” said the former national champion.
Looking at Leonard’s record it is impossible to disregard the wins he has over top ranked fighters. Despite getting the best of Irish ground breaker Greg Loughran, UFC flyweight Neil Seery and former UFC fighter Phil Harris in their early years, Leonard doesn’t seem to be one to slap himself on the back when considering his former glories.
“I mean this as no offence to Neil, Greg and Phil, but they have spotty records because they were competing before they were fully formed fighters,” he said.
“People weren’t looking to protect their records back then, nowadays people only take pro fights when they think they can win.
“Put it this way, if you gave everyone that beat them guys back in the day a shot in the UFC now there’d be some pretty one sided results. I beat some big names, but we were all starting out back then, I think it was Neil’s first fight when I beat him and all he had in his arsenal was kickboxing.”
Currently teaching English as a foreign language in Dublin’s city centre, the former lightweight and featherweight competitor explained how it was MMA that led him to his new career. Leonard also described his feelings on seeing fighters from his generation get their shot on the world’s biggest MMA platform.
“I took this job originally because it was part time and it allowed me to focus on training”, he revealed. “When Neil got to the UFC it was phenomenal. It was well deserved that he got his chance, guys like him and Owen Roddy have been in nothing but tough fights since they started.
“When I see guys from my generation winning world titles and getting to the UFC it’s really cool, of course I wonder what would’ve happened had I kept at it, but it didn’t work out that way for me.”
The New Wave
With UFC’s return to Dublin set for July 19th, Leonard believes the sport is destined to reach new heights in Ireland. Although many have commented on the explosion of the sport across the nation, Leonard is confident that the number of fans will multiply after the summer event.
“To people like us, yeah UFC seems huge now, but I still think the likes of Neil Seery’s debut should’ve got a lot more coverage. Among young men of a certain age UFC is massive, but there’s still a lot more people to be converted.
“With Conor McGregor we have a bona fide celebrity from the sport and I think Cathal and Chris will follow a similar path. When I’m suckling off the success of my fighting days and people hear that I know Conor they can’t believe it. I remember when he started to train in SBG I really didn’t want to box with him, I would try my best to avoid him when we were sparring.
“Then if he did get me, I’d be delighted when we could bring kicks, elbows and knees back in because I’d stand a better chance. I can remember slagging Chris Fields when he was on the bus to his first class in SBG. He was so excited to be trying it, he couldn’t stop talking about it and I was giving him a hard time. It’s crazy to see where he is now.
“A friend of mine has a dog who suffered whatever the canine equivalent to an ACL injury is and something his mother said really highlighted how much the sport has grown. She told him, ‘that Conor McGregor lad had that injury and he said he was going to be fine on the Late Late show, so the dog is going to be grand”, he recited.
Tommy Martin’s parody video call out of Leonard wasn’t enough to see the veteran make a return and although the SBG man can only envisage a return to training, he did admit there would be one fight that could prompt a competitive comeback, albeit with his tongue firmly in his cheek.
“I’d definitely like to start training again,” said Leonard. “The only person I’d even consider fighting would be Tim Murphy – it would probably end up being like that new movie with Stallone and DeNiro. I do a great job of talking myself up and I’m quite proud of my record but as soon as anyone searches my name in Google, the first thing that comes up is a video of that little bastard beating me,” he laughed.
“I’m happy with my career when I think back on it. I can remember telling my friend Jamie McInerney that I would be a UFC champion, I didn’t quite get there but I won the Irish equivalent with Ultimate Fighting Revolution and that will have to do me I suppose,” he finished.