James Doolan reflects on 2017; talks Stevie Ray, Danny Henry, Joanne Calderwood

In the highlands of Britain – Glasgow, Scotland to be exact – is where you’ll find some of the most prospective talent in the United Kingdom. One team specifically being the Higher Level MMA squad, under the tutelage of veteran James Doolan (17-9).

In 2017, the team found themselves growing exponentially with both amateurs, professionals and, with another name signing on the line with the UFC, ‘Higher Level’ appears to be more than just a moniker.

“We had a really good year,” James told. “To be honest we’ve outgrown our current facilities and are looking at moving into a new, bigger gym this year. The fight team have had an extremely busy year as well as having some of our guys sign with the UFC. The numbers we’ve accumulated has been fantastic and that’s going to make it easy to find a bigger, better premises to train out of.

“We had two or three of our amateurs turn pro in 2017 and in 2018, we’ll have a steady stream of guys ready to turn professional as well as many ready to make their amateur debuts. We’ve a strong number of youthful students – a lot of them being teenagers around seventeen to eighteen years old as well as some learning the fundamentals around fourteen and fifteen.

“With the ratio like that, it’s only going to help the fight teams get better, bigger and stronger. When you look back to when I was fighting, myself and Paul McVeigh retired at the same time and the fight team never really recovered in the sense that, when two guys are competing at a high level and it suddenly stops, nothing happens for a while.

“The way our team focuses is different,” Doolan divulged. “I made a point to specialise in MMA. I tailored the gym for MMA – not other disciplines, so if someone came in looking to do jiu jitsu competitively, I’d recommend them to go to The Griphouse for instance. Our gym is fully MMA and I think it’s healthier that way.”

With the aforementioned UFC signings, Higher Level’s most pristine combatant Stevie Ray (21-7) has made quite an impression during his run in the big league thus far – until a tumultuous setback came versus Paul Felder last July.

At that current point, Stevie was in the final fight of his contract and, per his then-manager, was advised not to sign a new deal on the risky basis of beating Felder. Since that loss, Ray has not been seen back inside the Octagon, but in Doolan’s mind, the situation is not as bad as it may portray.

“In the middle of last year, Stevie went and signed with a management company,” James unwrapped. “A guy he’d never really met who kind of sweet talked him and told him all the right stuff. He advised Stevie not to sign a new contract and to wait it out on the premise of thinking that Stevie beats Felder and can renegotiate a better contract from there. If the guy actually knew the UFC, he’d know they don’t operate like that with guys in the position that Stevie was in.

“Long story short, he’d not signed a new contract and lost the Felder fight. He was coming off wins over Joe Lauzon and Ross Pearson. He was in a good position. Now, Stevie’s away from that management company, we explained the situation with Sean Shelby and he’s been in regular touch with getting Stevie a new contract. Right now, it’s seems to be more a situation of finding a fight to book him. The London card seems the nearest option, so Stevie is staying in shape and in the gym. He’s one of the best to come out of Scotland and always brings interest in when the UFC comes to Glasgow.”

“It’s a regular thing now. It’s happened to Joe Duffy and recently Cub Swanson, so it should’ve been a lesson learned for Stevie. These managers can come in saying the right stuff to young, impressionable fighters who have a family and have gone from having a very low income to a successful run, bringing in good money in a short space of time, decisions can be made a bit too quickly. Lessons have been learned and I’m pretty sure Stevie will be back in there soon.”

Another member of the Glasgow camp whom happens to be the most recent UFC signing is Danny Henry (11-2). Following an extensive but impressive stint in South Africa’s EFC, the stars aligned for ‘The Hatchet,’ stepping in on late-notice to fight and become the first man to defeat Daniel Teymur (6-1) to the eruption of the Glasgow card last July.

Since then, Henry has been sidelined with multiple injuries. However Doolan feels the time to heal will benefit the fellow Glaswegian as he moves onto his UFC return later this year.

“Danny was actually on the sidelines with injury before taking that fight and an elbow issue,” James informed. “We took the fight just to get him in and get the contract. Fortunately he’s won the fight and got himself a bonus. Afterwards his injuries were a bit worse, but he’s since has surgery on his elbow and he’s back training light. I think he’s planning on getting a good run in 2018. The first kind of goal in the UFC is to get them to that second contract and get a good few performances under your belt, so that’s our plan. Win the next few fights and get him improving.

“We knew he was close to a contract anyway, so we had the usual Twitter rally and took him to Nashville when Stevie was fighting so Sean Shelby could get a look at him, so he’s got there on merit given his record, activity level and guys he’d fought at EFC. I think it helped that it was a Glasgow card as well with it being a regional thing.”

Whilst the current Higher Level members of the UFC are finding their feet, one situation that hasn’t been openly discussed is a former teammate and the team’s first UFC signee almost four years ago, Joanne Calderwood (11-3).

Since leaving the Glaswegian team, Joanne had been training out of the Tristar gym in Canada. While under the tutelage of high calibre coaches, results haven’t gone her way on fight night the way they had been while at Higher Level. Despite that, her former coach Doolan still sees plenty of time for her to grow and put her full potential to use.

“The last time I saw her was at The Griphouse in a class we were both in,” Doolan began. “She trained away and we were just pleasant with each other. She’s out the country most of the time at Tristar. I think that’s a good thing for her as she can focus a bit more there. The level of training there is obviously very good. I think she’s still trying to find herself there, honestly. Personally, though, we’re just pleasant with each other.

“Just, it’s a difficult thing when you’ve coached somebody for so long and you put so much work into them – whether it be a fighter retiring or going to another camp – it’s a hard thing to watch them go on do stuff. We’ve a really tight team and did so when Joanne was with us. I don’t think she’s operating on the same level she was when she was training at Higher Level.

“She’d had her UFC debut and had ran through everybody in Invicta and was ranked number three in the world going into The Ultimate Fighter. You can almost draw a line at it when she’s gone to train elsewhere. It seems her performances have suffered a little bit, but Joanne has the potential to win that title in that division.

“When her head is on and she’s fully there, she’s frightening, so it’s a bit disappointing to see her not performing to her potential, but she has plenty of time and has all the tools and ability, especially as Rose Namajumas in champion now. I think Joanne could cause her problems, but I don’t think she’s done herself favours with pullouts when the UFC has been trying to give her a bit of a push.”

Last year turned out to be a strong twelve months for Scottish MMA with a roster of prospects and professionals beginning to make a name for themselves. While there are many positives to take forward into this year, Doolan feels there are other issues that need tending to in order to take Scottish MMA to a new degree.

“It’s been a pretty good year in Scottish MMA in my eyes. Another guy going into the UFC helps us. Guys like Robert Whiteford had a very good year and I think he’s not far from being called back. A fighter who I don’t think gets a lot of credit is Paull McBain who’s gone 2-0 on Cage Warriors against very good opposition. His team up in Aberdeen have done really well for themselves in 2017 especially in the pro rankings.

“The only setbacks we have is that we don’t have an involvement with the amateurs the same way others do with the IMMAF. There’s nothing up in Scotland from it. For instance when we have Irish lads come to Scotland for fights, you can see there’s an increase in levels. I think we need something to boost our levels up here. We’ve played about with the idea of setting something up up here; every few months in an interclub style but a bit more intense than an interclub format.”

“As a whole, you can see the effect its given. It definitely increases the standard of up-and-coming fighters. I think those who’ve taken part in those tournaments become better prepared amateurs and go on to become better prepared professionals.

“I do think it could be better with publicising of the trials for the UK teams etc. We’d probably be able to send guys down on that basis because we have guys who’ve beaten guys who’ve medalled in the Icelandic and Vegas tournaments and not received much credit as its gone amiss.

“They look comfortable in all aspects now, the amateurs. I think the mindset is different, too. They see an amateur fight for it is; getting experience rather than worrying about careers and banners and t-shirts. It’s the learning stage and you want to soak in as much experience as you can before making that step up.

“2017 was a very good year. We’ve developed many strong techniques and improved our team massively. Everybody is hitting higher levels where decisions are going to be made to whether they want to take it a bit more seriously which will help with our new facility that we’re looking at that could have dorms etc to help them with fees when travelling over to make the most of their time here.

“It’s a non-stop game and the calibre continues to rise. I’m excited to see how our 2018 goes.”