James Doolan And The Story Of Higher Level Martial Arts

Coach James Doolan has been at the helm of Higher Level Martial Arts since the inception of the Scottish gym. But what did it take to build it from the ground, up to one of the best gyms in the United Kingdom? Coach Doolan talks the trials, tribulations and triumphs he’s experienced up until this point.

Doolan’s martial arts journey started at the age of 8, when his parents signed their ‘shy and introverted’ son up for a karate club to help build his confidence. He rapidly fell in love with combat sports, quickly adding a plethora of additional striking disciplines to his repertoire.

“I stayed with traditional martial arts adding Taekwondo into my teens then moved more towards Muay Thai kickboxing and boxing after realising the training methods in traditional martial arts were limited. Like most martial arts guys of my generation I saw a VHS of UFC 2 with Royce (Gracie) and that made me go looking for BJJ.” He said.

After discovering the effectiveness of Jiu Jitsu, Doolan would have to embark on regular, lengthy trips to receive adequate BJJ training. This would also lead to him meeting long time friend and fellow coach, Paul McVeigh.

“I had to make 70 mile round trips to Glasgow to train under Scott McVeigh, a blue Belt at the time under Royce. I met Paul McVeigh there and we got into MMA together. I taught him striking and he taught me grappling. We went on to fight all over the world together, started our team together and ended up being best man at each other’s weddings!”

During his teen years, Doolan knew he wanted to become a martial arts coach but believed in order to understand fighting to coach better, he should have one full contact kickboxing bout. Then one became one more and over the course of the next few years, he amassed over 60 bouts across several disciplines, winning belt’s in all and competing on some of the most prolific shows around the globe. In 2013, he made the decision to retire to fully focus on coaching.

“I’ve been coaching since I was 17, when I was competing. I was hiring halls and running classes as well as coaching as part of the Dinky Ninja team. Around 2012 my students were starting to take up more and more of my time, they were surpassing the level I was at as a fighter also. At the same time some of the original members of the Dinky Ninjas were moving on in life and the level of the guys coming after them as coaches and fighters wasn’t what it was so I decided to change and rebrand my Lanark MMA club to Higher Level Martial Arts, get a full time place and make a go of it.”

And what a monumental success story it has been.

The progress of Higher Level MMA is undeniable; having established themselves as one of the best gyms in the United Kingdom. Doolan emits immense pride reflecting on the success of his gym. He said:

“It means everything. I’m obsessed with making Higher Level Martial Arts a success.

“My view of success for the gym has shifted, when I was younger I wanted champions, the best fighters in the country, guys making a name at world level. Pretty soon I realised Higher Level Martial Arts could be so much more than that. We’ve built a community of over 200 people in the gym. Kids to adults from every walk of life.


“When I was a kid getting bullied, the only time I felt safe and stress free was when I was on the mats, so now that’s what we offer, an escape from the everyday shit of life that’s trying to break you down. A place to go and forget that stuff for an hour or two, have a laugh and get the best martial arts coaching we can provide.

“Today that means more than the 8 world titles, the UFC contracts, PFL, Bellator, One FC, Cage Warriors, EFC fighters we have. The fact we built it from nothing is important, we never missed a step, I haven’t inherited a gym or a team I’ve built it and in terms of fighters we are on our fourth generation of athletes.”

Extremely openly, the former national champion discussed some of the challenges attached to being not only a head coach but a family man too. He said: 

“The difficulty I had previously was knowing I needed to wear two hats as a coach, one as a performance coach and the second as a participation coach. Preparing them for fights, technically, physically, mentally.

“I’ve had to let fighters go at the highest level of the sport because it was the right thing to do, I’ve had to tell fighters that a career in the sport isn’t for them no matter how bad they want it.” 


Coaching is extremely time consuming, something that the expectant father is all too aware of.

“I struggle with it, on top of my time in the gym on the mat coaching, I watch a lot of tape, I read and study as many aspects of the game and coaching as I can trying to keep progressing myself. I’ve missed birthdays, weddings, funerals the lot because of it but thankfully my wife’s fairly understanding she knows how important it is to me and that it’s my job.”


The talent is stacked deep within the gym, not only at the professional level but with a squad of athletes  working away at amateur level too.

“The squad we have right now have the benefit and experience of the guys who went before. Guys like Paul McVeigh, Graham Turner, Martin Delaney, Alan Love . Now we have Stevie Ray fighting for the PFL world title after his UFC run. When he wins he will be only the UKs fourth world MMA champion behind (Michael) Bisping, Liam McGeary and Leon Edwards. We have Danny Henry in the UFC, Chris Shaw at One championship, the likes of Mark Ewan, Keir Harvie, Dylan Tuke, Luke Shanks, Scott Malone and Stevie Macintosh in the pro ranks and a big team of amateurs like Sean Clancy Jr and the Lawal brothers doing well.” He said.

The future seems bright for Higher Level and all associated with it and with a very proud & intelligent coach, it is easy to see why.