Interview: Jilted by Postponement, Tobin wants to welcome Gallagher to Bellator

Sean Tobin

After his bout with teenage sensation James Gallagher was booked for BAMMA 26 on June 4 in Dublin, Sean Tobin knew he had the greatest opportunity of his young career on his hands.

Gallagher has been one of the most talked about prospects in Ireland since the age of 15. His grappling pedigree, his confidence and his flair for the extravagant have made him a somewhat polarizing figure on the Irish scene, but it has also allowed him to transcend into the international market.

Tobin couldn’t believe his luck when his fight with Gallagher remained on the BAMMA card after ‘The Strabanimal’ signed on the dotted line for Bellator. Knowing that it could be an opportunity to bolster his stock significantly he stepped back from coaching at Trials in Cork, temporarily parted ways with his young family and headed over for a camp with Ryan Shultz at Trials HQ in Colorado. He knew he would lose money without the income of the gym while he was away and the fact that his purse would have to pay for his travel, but none of that mattered.

Traveling from Cork to London, where he waited six hours for his connecting flight to the US, the bad news was dropped on the Limerick man like a ton of bricks.

“I couldn’t believe the timing of it,” Tobin explained from Colorado. “I was waiting for my connecting flight from London and I was queuing up to get my boarding pass when my phone beeped. I thought it was my girlfriend, but when I checked the message it was from BAMMA saying that the event was off.

“It was soul destroying, to be honest. I didn’t care about the show. It was the opponent I wanted. It was a massive opportunity for me, but I knew when the show had been pushed back the chances of me fighting James were very slim because of his contract with BAMMA.”

BAMMA postponed their event until September 10, but Bellator were not going to wait around and allow Gallagher to compete for another promotion three months later.

It has been Gallagher’s amazing jiu-jitsu skills that have set him apart from the field in terms of technique. With three first round submission finishes in three tests as a pro, many were expecting the same to unfold if he had met Tobin in June. The Trials man, a wrestling standout in Ireland, is adamant that he would’ve kept their fight on the feet.

“I really like his ground game,” he said of Gallagher. “He’s got great control. He always looks to progress, you never see him going backward. I’m known for my wrestling too and I was pretty confident that he couldn’t get the fight to the ground if we had fought.

“When I looked at the BAMMA fight, I thought he would have to rely on me taking him down to have a chance to win the fight. I wanted to keep him standing. I wanted to bully him. I don’t think he’s experienced any of that kind of stuff as of yet. I wanted to get in his face, rough him up and block his takedowns. I wanted to grind him down, and I was very confident that I could do that.

“I know that his team were probably expecting a takedown from me because I’ve taken every single one of my opponents down. I wanted to box him up, drag him up against the cage give him a rough time. I wanted to be on him like white on rice.”

Tobin believes there are some evident flaws in Gallagher’s striking game, and because of that, he couldn’t see the fight lasting beyond the second round with the 19-year-old.

“I know I was coming up from bantamweight to take that fight but I felt like I would have been quicker, faster and stronger if we fought. I think I’m more explosive too.

“He tends to hold his hands very low when he’s striking too. I really don’t think he has the reflexes or boxing ability that McGregor has to do that. I think he relies on getting the fight to the ground and if I kept it standing I was confident that I could’ve worn him down.

“He’s from a good gym and he has great training partners. I was going to give him credit and say that he would’ve made it into the second round. By then, I think I would’ve had him broken down. He would’ve been in over his head, but I think he would’ve learned a lot from the fight.”

Having been marked out for many years because of his wrestling ability, Tobin highlighted his belief that Gallagher constantly uses the same method to get his opponents on the deck. For that reason, he expected ‘The Strabanimal’ to “change his game up” before they clashed.

He said: “It’s the exact same takedown that he uses over and over again. He gets his opponents against the fence, he uses shoulder pressure and then he uses a little outside leg reap to get them down. He must be very good at it because it’s worked on all the guys he fights, but I think he would’ve had to change his game up if he wanted to take me down.

“That’s all I’ve been doing since day one – wrestling. I think I’ve got one of the best coaches in the world in Ryan Shultz. I didn’t want to take any shortcuts for this fight so that’s why I came over here to train.”

Tobin can’t help but see Bellator allowing Gallagher to fight him before he made his debut as a bit of a slight on him. The US organization obviously wanted Gallagher to come under their banner with his unbeaten record intact, and therefore they wouldn’t have allowed Tobin to fight him if they thought Gallagher would lose.

If that was the case, Tobin believes it makes a lot of sense for him to be the man that welcomes the Irish teen sensation to the promotion when he makes his debut.

“I figured they must have been confident to allow the fight to happen. My coach was quite surprised they made that decision, he thought they either had way too high of an opinion of James or they just didn’t watch my fights at all.

“Maybe it was based on my last fight. I cut a shitload of weight and even though I was on top for a lot of it, I was very drained throughout it. I didn’t feel like myself and maybe they were looking at that. Maybe they thought I’d take him down, I’d get tired and he would submit me. I don’t know.

“If they were so confident he would win at BAMMA, let me be his first fight in Bellator. I think it makes sense. We’ve already agreed to that fight.

“Who else is going to fight him? They’re going to have to pull lads in for him to beat basically. They’re going to try and build him up, they obviously thought he would remain unbeaten after a fight with me, so let’s do it. I’ll welcome him into the promotion. The London card probably makes sense for his debut with BAMMA out of the way, which would suit me down to the ground.

“I was going to surprise everyone. I haven’t had an opportunity to show off my hands and I thought this was the fight to do it in. I don’t think he is ready for what I was going to put on him that night.

“It would be hard for me to watch somebody else hand him his first pro loss. Now that it’s been taken away from me, a fight I thought I could definitely win, it would sting a bit.”

@PetesyCarroll

Peter Carroll is Severe MMA's lead feature writer. He has been featured in many top publications and some rubbish ones too. He also writes for the Irish Daily Mirror and Vice's Fightland.