After overcoming crushing lows, James Gallagher feels like a world champion already
James Gallagher started training at Strabane Fight Team on his 12th birthday.
By the age of 13, he had his first fight. In his amateur debut, he tapped out his opponent, who was a few years his senior, in exactly 58 seconds via armbar.
In his second fight, he was up against a 21-year-old. John Kavanagh was tasked with judging the bout. When the SBG head coach heard that a grown man was fighting a child who had only just entered his teens, he told the promoter that a fight like this was going to ruin MMA in Ireland.
Gallagher proceeded to go out and smoke his adversary.
After the fight, Kavanagh sat down and told Gallagher he didn't agree with what him taking on older guys without proper training. He admits that it was his drive rather than his technical ability that impressed Kavanagh. Even at that early age, 'the Strabanimal' had the desire to become one of the best fighters on the planet. So he welcomed him to ply his trade at SBG, a four-hour car trip away in Dublin.
"Obviously I couldn't be at the gym every day because I had school. I was going up and down to SBG for two years. My father would drive me down. We wouldn't get back until 2:30/3am. Then I would have to get up at 6:30 am to get ready for school and not only that, I was travelling one hour to Derry to get training in before school. Showing up to school late. After school I'd be heading back to Dublin or doing some other kind 0f training."
It didn't take long for Gallagher to realise that he had found his calling. Three years after beginning his martial arts journey, he knew he wanted to pursue fighting as a profession. That same ambition that Kavanagh spotted wasn't something he saw in those that surrounded him.
A drastic change was needed.
"One day I was at school and I was just surrounded by people who didn't have any drive, but they were just happy to get by. That's not me. I'm not just happy to get by. I could get by for the rest of my life, if I just held back. But I don't want to just get by, I want to be the fucking greatest ever. I want to conquer everything I put my mind to. I don't want to just be ok, I want to be the best. And that's exactly what I'm going to do."
"I was surrounded by people who are happy getting by, including my teacher. Getting by just so you can pay a few bills, that's not me. I'd rather be broke. I'd rather have no money at all than to be something I hate to just get by. I love MMA and I knew I could be the best at it if I just put everything that I got into it."
Making that walk
When Gallagher was 15, he told his parents he wanted to drop out of school. They were very against the idea, as any parents would. Initially, they completely dismissed it.
"My parents said, 'No. You're crazy. Don't drop out of school. You're 15. It's illegal.' I went back to school because my parents wouldn't allow me to leave and I respected what my parents said."
After that talk, Gallagher went back to school. He was back for about a month when he arrived at the same conclusion. A blanket of snow was covering the ground in the build-up to Christmas. It was a half-day which, in his school, meant everyone just 'chilled out'. No one did work on days like these.
That is, no one who had managed to stay out of trouble. Gallagher had done something he 'shouldn't have done,' so he was forced to do work as punishment. At this point, he had enough.
"The teacher made me do all this work. 'You have to do that.' Giving out to me and being crabby. I just looked at her and I was like, 'I don't want to do any of this shit. It has no benefit to my life.'
"So I just said, 'No, I'm not doing it.' And I got up and just walked straight out of school."
The school's staff put up a fight, but Gallagher was having none of it. His mind was made up. When he arrived home, his parents were already waiting for him.
"The teachers were like shouting at me and going mad like, 'You can't just walk out of school.'' I'm gone. No one can tell me what to do. I was only 15, but I felt like I was a man. I'm a man, I can do whatever the fuck I want. I walked home from school and my parents were there. I was like, 'I can't go back to that place. I'm surrounded by people who don't want to be great, who have no aspirations in life. To be great at something, I can't be surrounded by people who are like that. I need to be around people who have the same mindset.'"
Cutting a deal
The first time Gallagher tried to drop out of school, his parents stopped him. This time, he came prepared. He knew the only he would be able to convince them of how serious he was about becoming a professional fighter would be by proving it. So he made a deal with them.
"I promised my parents, this is how I convinced them, 'Just let me do it and I promise my work ethic will get me my dreams.' When I was leaving school I knew I could be the best at what I was doing. So I said to them, 'I can always go back an do education and get a university degree. I can do that when I'm 30. But I've got a small window to become the best at what I love.' And that was MMA.
"I said, 'If you don't see me giving it every last ounce of my focus, energy and dedication. If you see me slacking, you can call it a day for me and I'll go back into education.'"
The terms were agreed and they haven't looked back since. Gallagher went 3-0 as a pro before being snapped up by Bellator MMA, the second-largest promotion in the world. Four victories later, at the age of 21, he found himself in a title eliminator. He plans on repaying his parents for their support before the year's end. The gift he has in mind, that Bellator belt.
"I'm forever grateful for my parents. Not only did they make that deal with me, they supported me. They paid for my bus up to Dublin so I could stay with John Kavanagh and train every day at SBG. They're the people that funded me, believed in me and I'm forever in debt to my mother and father, and also, John Kavanagh. I look forward to repaying them and giving them the best Christmas present of their lives by winning a world title this December."
— Chamatkar Sandhu (@SandhuMMA) June 25, 2017
At Bellator's Madison Square Garden debut, Gallagher had arguably his most impressive win until that point. In his first fight on US soil, he quickly dismantled Chinzo Machida, the older brother of former UFC light-heavyweight champion Lyoto.
In the opening round, Gallagher caught a kick, scored the takedown and swiftly moved into mount to work his ground-and-pound. He opened up a cut just above his opponent's eye before taking his back and forcing the Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu black belt to the tap to a rear-naked choke at the 2:22 mark.
The victory moved him up to 7-0 and it looked like he was on the cusp of graduating from his prospect status to a fully-fledged headliner. However, fate stepped in to halt his progress.
"I blew out my knee and had to get surgery. Then I completed a 17-week rehab programme to get on my feet. I was back on my feet for three weeks and got back training and then I broke my hand. I had to take six weeks out for my hand. Then I did a rehab programme for the hand and then I was back three days and got a big, deep cut under my eye. So I had to get stitches and take a few weeks out to let that heal."
"But I never stopped working at all. When I couldn't walk, I was doing press-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and stuff like that. When I couldn't punch, I was doing wrestling, jiu-jitsu and cardio. When I got the cut on my eye, I was doing conditioning. I needed that. I needed that time of and I needed them injuries because I got to work on certain aspects. And so I feel like it's made me better."
“I was lying in my bed most of the time, I didn't even want to watch TV, didn't want to chat to anybody. It was a boring, lonely time.” @jay_quigley opens up about his long injury lay-off to @TheJivemaster https://t.co/ZeCM7tmzP1
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) August 4, 2018
"The lowest of the lows"
About 45 minutes away from the home of 'The Strabanimal,' is the birthplace of 'El Animal'. Gallagher was aware of Jason Quigley's rise up the ranks from an early age but became friends with the Donegal boxer, who's also on the cusp of a world title fight, in Los Angeles.
It was in the City of Angels where Quigley reached his lowest point after spending a year out with a 'one-in-a-million' hand injury. Gallagher can certainly relate. He went through a very similar mental battle during his year of inactivity. Suddenly, he had doubts about the profession he had been so certain he was born to do.
"At times, I had never felt lower. I felt the worst feelings of the worst feelings. I was at the lowest of the lows but I always had the picture of the top in my head. Now I'm climbing back up and ready to be at the top. I've overcome the lowest of the lows and now I'm ready to achieve the highest of the highs."
"At some points, I was so low, it was like 'Is it worth it? Is this worth pushing through?' But then I realised, when I had the bigger picture in my head, that it was. It is! I'm one fight away from a world title. What more could I ask for?"
"I feel on top of the world. I feel like a world champion already. I'm prepared to go out there and show it."
Closing in on the throne
Gallagher drops down from featherweight to bantamweight for the first time at Sioux Falls for Bellator 204 on 17 August. If he beats 10-1 Ricky Bandejos, he will receive a shot at Darrion Caldwell's 135 lb strap. Bellator's bantamweight expects Gallagher to fall at the final hurdle. However, Gallagher believes that's wishful thinking.
"He can say what he wants. You know what he really meant by that? 'I hope James doesn't win that because that's who I don't want to fight next.' He's praying that I don't win. He's saying his prayers every night hoping that I get beat. Unlucky mate, I'm not getting beat this one. I'm not getting beat. I've worked my bollocks off. I've worked too hard for this and there's no one getting in there next weekend and being a patch on me. There's no one that gets in there that's laying a glove on me. I'm going to go in there and dominate this fella inside one round."
"Darrion Caldwell's next. If he doesn't want to fight me for the belt, I'm still fighting for the belt and he's gone. He's coming to Dublin whether he likes it or not. If he wants to defend his belt then he'll have to fight me. If he wants to let his belt go, then I'll be fighting someone else for it."
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) August 9, 2018
Gallagher doesn't want to stop at one title though. Just like his most famous SBG stablemate, he has aspirations of being a two-weight champion. The man currently in possession of the Bellator featherweight belt is Patricio 'Pitbull' Freire. The Brazillian recently accepted the challenge thrown down by Brian Moore of a gym vs gym event involving the Pitbull Brothers' team and SBG Ireland.
Considering the amount of SBG fighters that have recently signed for the promotion, this seems like a genuine possibility. Gallagher remains sceptical about how much involvement Pitbull wants in an event like that though.
"The only is, when the Pitbull brothers came out and said, 'team vs team,' they meant their team versus me, Brian (Moore) and everyone else on my team. They didn't mean themselves, they meant their team. That's the biggest pussy move I've ever seen. Me and Brian want to fight them because we've got a set of balls and we're willing to step up and we fight our own battles."
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) July 7, 2018
Returning with the prize
Gallagher loves the 'mad, wee town' of Strabane. When he finally decides to hang up the smaller gloves for good, he wants to build his mansion there. He finds the immense pride the townspeople have for him hugely motivating. And for that show of support, he aims to repay them.
"You could be walking down town and a random, little, old granny could stop you and be like, 'Oh, when's your next fight, love? You're doing the town proud and we're all proud of you.' Every person that you come across is like that. They're just all behind me and that's what got me through my injuries and hard times."
"What I'm going to do in return is go beat this guy next week, go back, fight for the belt and bring it back to Strabane and hand it over like, 'This is it. I've become a world champion. the Strabanimal brought a world title back to Strabane.' That's going to be one of the greatest moments of my life."
What a proud day for that mad, wee little town that would be.
Or will be, as Gallagher firmly believes.