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22nd Feb 2019

Bellator Dublin – A closer look at Wicklow’s Richie Smullen

Peter Guckian

From school halls to the 3Arena.

Father of one, Richie Smullen (3-1-1) is living proof that hard work and dedication pays off. The Arklow native is one of many prospects coming out of Straight Blast Gym Ireland. Such was his talent, SBG teammate and former UFC featherweight, Artem Lobov, paid for Smullen to travel to Las Vegas to try out for season 27 of The Ultimate Fighter. Smullen passed the test with flying colours and became the third pick of TUF coach and UFC heavyweight champion, Daniel Cormier.

Unfortunately, Smullen was medically ruled out of the competition before he was due to fight. He contracted a rare disease known as rhabdomyolysis, the destruction of striated muscle cells. Smullen’s muscles broke down and the creatine kinase protein went into his bloodstream which then travelled to his kidneys. This was devastating for the SBG prospect as many felt it was his time to shine. The UFC noticed this potential and rewarded him with a fight at the season’s finale card against fellow contestant Luis Pena in 2018, becoming the first Irish fighter to debut in the promotion since 2016. Going into this contest, Smullen was looking to continue his then-unbeaten professional career but suffered an unfortunate submission loss in round. Perhaps it was just too soon following the illness he suffered but as they say in SBG, you win or learn.

UFC’s loss was Bellator’s gain as the promotion signed him during the acquisition of 16 Irish fighters during the summer. Smullen is now finally slated to make his Bellator debut at the 3Arena this weekend when he takes on fellow debutant, Adam Gustab (3-3) at 145lbs. Richie is known for his Brazilian Jiu Jistsu skills since his amateur days. Smullen was present at the Bellator Dublin fight week press event and SportsJOE got to have a chat with the featherweight. Speaking on his love of submissions and if fans would see his BJJ skills on display this weekend, Smullen said;

“BJJ was always my thing, I always loved it that was like, that’s still my main passion, jiu jitsu but I just love to fight, I love the game, even though I’ve got a lot of experience this is going to help me at the weekend, from the MMA League to all my amateur fights to my pro fights to all my grappling experience, this guy is in for a rough night. A quick night but a rough night”.

To those who aren’t familiar with this league, The Amateur Irish Mixed Martial Arts League was established in 2004 by Mark Leonard and used to be the primary platform for Irish fighters who sought experience competing in the sport before making the eventual move to the cage. The league ran for 10 years before being dissolved but its memory will forever be remembered by those who competed and watched the event during that time. Leonard spoke to SportsJOE on how the Irish MMA League came about.

“By 2004 I had fought a few times in MMA and I found that the gulf between the gym and getting into the ring was huge, so I wanted something for others starting out that would help them bridge that gap with the league fighters could pressure test and prepare for a future in the cage or ring, or find out in a safe way that MMA competition wasn’t for them.”

Leonard continued to say that “a lot of fighters kept coming back to the league and didn’t move on as the League itself was a fun event hence the slogan “The Safe, Fun and Easy way to try MMA”. Over the course of a year, registered fighters would compete in the MMA League on four occasions in different counties in Ireland. The rules were quite simple one five minute bout, with no head shots and the fight could end by way of submission, knockout or disqualification. If it went the full five minutes, it was deemed a draw. Three points for a win, one for a draw. The final event then ran for as many matches needed to crown a winner.
Smullen was not only a competitor in the MMA League but he was also crowned the 75kg champion back in 2012, submitting each opponent on the way.  Talking to the Wicklow native at the Bellator Dublin press event, Smullen smiled when asked if he thought back then that he would be fighting live on Sky Sports for one of the worlds’ largest MMA organisations.

“No, I actually would have never thought that. I was doing it for fun back then, I was still training very hard, as I won as you can tell but yeah, it’s a big jump up from no head shots MMA League to be there on the main card for TV for Bellator”.

MMA fans are undoubtedly excited that the 27-year-old is getting another chance to show that the hype isn’t just that. Highly regarded by the entire roster at SBG, his stablemates have only good things to say about the Arklow man. Speaking to SportsJOE on what Smullen is like as a sparring partner, fellow SBG prospect, Cian Cowley told us that “Richie is one of the toughest rounds in the gym. Relentless pressure and drive.”

With regards his Bellator career, Cowley can only see it going one way.

“I really think he can dominate the featherweight division at Bellator. He has a great fighter’s mind and a will to learn so with that, the sky is the limit for him!”

When SportsJOE asked Richie how he thought the fight would go on Saturday. He replied quite confidently, again smiling, “Destruction, round one”.

Undoubtedly a fight to look forward to, as well as an MMA career to watch out for.