James Gallagher: more than a Conor McGregor clone

Hailing from the Emerald Isle, and not short of confidence, James Gallagher isn’t just a Conor McGregor clone, but will make Irish eyes smile. Ahead of his fight with Adam Borics at Bellator 196 in Budapest, Hungary, Gareth A Davies discovered what makes ‘The Strabanimal’ a special prospect.

There was little wonder James Gallagher aped Conor McGregor on the weigh-in scales at Madison Square Garden before Bellator’s super event in June 2017. The ‘Strabanimal’ was one of the fearsome takeaways on the night, a thrilling, emphatic defeat of Chinzo Machida creating that moment where writers make notes with asterisks, fans want to know when his next fight is, and the promoter knows he’s onto a winner. That’s the kind of energy 21-year-old Gallagher creates, and he is clearly one of the biggest young stars in Bellator’s burgeoning roster of fighters.

The template for the Irish MMA invasion into America was laid down by ‘The Notorious’. And though Gallagher, from Strabane, might have grown up in the same SBG Dublin gym as a protege under the masterful shadow of McGregor, and wants to emulate the game-changer from his homeland, he nonetheless insists there is a narrative all of his own doing currently being written.

That seventh professional MMA victory for the unbeaten featherweight fighter showed an ambition. And the man himself says that desire to rise up knows no bounds.

“I’m trying to do what he (Conor) does, but a lot better,” he explained. “I’d be disappointed if I didn’t achieve what Conor has achieved.

Gallagher was 12 years old when he started in MMA and says he hasn’t looked back since. “Conor has 100 percent raised the bar, but I had that mindset already. Conor helped take it to that next level. Now I think if he can do it, so can I. Not only can I do it, I can do it better. That’s the way I look at it. The Irish MMA scene is special at the moment and it’s all because of James Gallagher,” he says, without a piece of his tongue in his cheek. He means it.

Ireland, of course, is buzzing with the new sport. “MMA is getting so mainstream and everyone says oh you’re trying to be someone else. But if you look back at my first fight when I was 13 years old, that’s eight years ago, MMA wasn’t even mainstream then and I went into that fight the exact same way I do now. I haven’t changed one bit. What you see is what you get. It’s always been that way. That’s why I have such a big following now. Everyone just thinks I’m this young kid as a professional, but I’ve been in the game a long time. I’ve probably had 30 fights including my amateur fights.”

But in this sport, the rough comes with the smooth. The victory over Machida in New York had a downside. He came out of it with a  knee injury and has been out since then. “I’m back in the gym now getting rehab and stuff. I’m on the good side of it. When I wasn’t in the gym I was sitting around doing nothing and that was tough. There are ups and downs and you’ve just got to get on with it. I’m going to have a lot more highs and a lot more lows. You just have to be prepared for them and deal with it.”

Gallagher appears to learn from everything, even the five weeks he could not walk or drive. For someone who talks, thinks and moves so fast, it must have been caged tiger time.

“It was a rough five weeks. It was driving me mad, but I was just sat at home watching fights and other fighters and documentaries about athletes who had overcome injuries. I tried to keep my mind busy that way. I’d read up on the best things to help you recover and stuff like that. I read so much and then I thought just f**k this I’m going to do my own thing.”

The knee injury, to explain it, was not as serious as first thought. “When I got the scan, they said I had two ligaments completely torn. I was getting ready for the operation and before I got put to sleep they told me they would take a bit of the hamstring to attach the ligaments together. They said I was looking at nine months’ recovery. But then when they opened me up they saw that it wasn’t as bad as the scan showed, so then they only cleaned it all out. They didn’t need to take a bit off my hamstring. They just cleaned it all out so the ligaments could heal naturally.”

That has meant that with healing and getting back into the gym, Gallagher could be out again in March. “I’m hoping for then. If March comes and I feel like I’m not ready, I’m not going to fight. I’m going to wait. I’m young. I’ve got loads of time.” It’s a great attitude and shows real maturity, and having witnessed Gallagher’s disappointment first hand at not having been able to headline the Bellator event in Dublin in November, I can vouch first hand that he is learning from every experience.

“I was happy for Brian Moore and the rest of my teammates. They got that opportunity. Brian has been working his balls off since before I was even in this game. He got his main event slot. I was glad to see that, happy for him,” Gallagher told me. “One man’s misfortune is another man’s gain. I was happy he benefitted from my misfortune.”

He’s a fascinating character Gallagher, with many levels to him. Like the array of tattoos adorning his body which Gallagher is happy to walk Fighters Only through. “On my left arm, it’s all Japanese themed. I’ve got the geisha, the samurai. I just like the way they look. The way of the warrior code. It’s pretty fascinating. I love how they’re quite spiritual about going to war. That’s nuts. I’m the modern-day samurai, that’s the way I see it. If the samurai were around now doing what they f**king did, I feel like MMA fighters would be the modern-day samurai warriors. We spend every day mastering our craft to go into battle. It’s a bit nuts, isn’t it?”

He got his first tattoo when he was 15, the SBG (his Dublin Straight Blast Gym) logo. “It’s to show loyalty to the team. They got me to where I am. I’ve got the shamrock and the map of Ireland on the other side. These are just things that mean something to me. And I’ve got the lion, the king of the jungle. It fits me well.”

There is the inscription ‘Live to Win’. “I’m just living to win my next fight. I’m working towards winning my next one. I feel like I’m always winning and that’s what I live to do. The one on my neck says family and that means everything to me. I’ve got my mother and father’s name on my right arm as well.”

If MMA is a sport on an accelerated trajectory then Gallagher’s learning curve and changes mirror that. He used to come out with his hair dyed, aged 13, jumping on the cage and shouting through the mic. He has mellowed as the years have gone on. “I’ve never changed. If anything, I have mellowed out, though,” he admits.

He’s watched Conor McGregor closely, too. “Everything’s blowing up. He doesn’t need to come back and fight. But just knowing him as a person I think he’ll come back and fight. I haven’t spoken to him about it but I’m sure he wants to come back and fight. He’s a fighter at the end of the day. That’s what he was before he got all this money. Back in the day when he didn’t have any money he could have got a job.”

How would Gallagher have reacted if he was in the same position? “I wouldn’t be out of the sport, but I’d probably lose my mind. Some of the stuff you should just do naturally and go with it. See how it plays out. A lot of things I do different to the way he done them. I see a lot of things I won’t do and I see a lot of things I will do. I’m taking the pros and cons of it. That’s the wonderful thing – I’ve got that. He didn’t have that. He didn’t have someone ahead of him he could look up to. That’s why you have to give him so much respect for what he has done.”

Learning seems to be a consistent theme for the young fighter whose following is sure to grow. Like the losses in his amateur fights. “I had 18 amateur fights and I’ve lost three of them. I got arm barred. The fella broke my arm. I was 13 years old and got my arm f**king bent to bits and tapped. I was heartbroken. It was the first and only time I ever tapped in competition. I felt like a sissy that day and said I’d never do it again. I let myself down.” And now he says he would “happily take a loss if I learned loads from it. All day. That’s a win, not a loss.”

Put all these qualities together and that is why, in my view, there is a very special young fighter in Gallagher, who will emerge as something of a star in 2018. By the end of next year, his ambition is to have, if not the belt around his waist, the title in his sights.

Gallagher told Fighters Only he will fight anyone, but Pitbull Friere, is the man he wants.

“I want the belt. I want to be known as the world champion and the best in the division. I’ll fight whoever I have to fight to get to that,” he explained, believing that his time to reign will start in a year.

“Pitbull said himself he’ll come over and fight me in Dublin. That’s what I’m hoping for. I’m going to make him eat his words. But I want to fight for that belt here. That would work for me perfect.”

It would also be a great moment for Irish MMA, with its fans counted as amongst the best in the world. “Once an Irishman is out there doing something for his country, the whole country gets behind him,” explained Gallagher, speaking of the groundswell of support.

“Everyone supports everyone. It’s great to see. Conor single-handedly brought the whole thing back. That’s just the way it is. People wouldn’t be on the TV if it wasn’t for him,” he added. “Take your hat off to him for that. There’s a new era coming through in a different kind of way. People like myself are carrying the flag all the way. There are not many 21-year-olds from Ireland that have been talked about in terms of fighting for world titles.”

And it is back to that ambition. Gallagher suddenly breaks out to talk about business he will set up, new moves he will show. And then he stops. And goes back to why he is here, why we are talking, and why so many fans are talking about him. The modern samurai…

“That’s right. For now, I’m going to live the life of a samurai. I don’t do it the way any person does. When I’m training, that’s meditation for me. It takes me to somewhere else. That’s the point. If you can’t give it 100%, you might as well go home.”

And right now, the samurai ‘Strabanimal’ is going nowhere – except towards the gold.

This interview first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Fighters Only.