Castlecoote fighter wins silver medal in MMA championships
At first glance earlier this week, the only indication that Danni Neilan from Castlecoote was a fighter was the battle damage she had picked up while scrapping her way to a silver medal at the IMMAF World Championships in Bahrain the week before. There was an unmistakable confidence but it wasn’t overbearing as she spoke eloquently about her journey from a Las Vegas pool party to the world of MMA under Coach John Kavanagh.
“In January 2015, I swiped a guy on Tinder who was a fighter. I had known nothing about MMA up to that point but I met up with him and he was telling me all about how he’d been trained by John Kavanagh. I just decided to give it a go and so I started training myself, doing a bit of everything, Jiu Jitsu, striking and wrestling for six months in Naas in Kildare,” she said.
The Tinder date was followed a few months later by another chance meeting with one of the most famous MMA coaches in the world.
“I was finishing my college degree as well at that time but when I finished my brother brought me to America for a holiday and that trip concluded in Las Vegas at one of Conor’s (McGregor) fights (versus Chad Mendes).
“It was there that I bumped into John (Kavanagh) at a pool party. Well, didn’t bump into him so much as lent over a barrier to ask for a selfie! I told him I was training and interested in joining his gym in the future (SBG) and of course he humoured me –I’m sure he’s listened to many people saying the same thing over the years!”
Danni was supposed to come home after the holiday but decided to move to Vancouver with her brother for seven months. A decision that led to homesickness and a tough grapple with anxiety yet may have played a vital role in what came next.
“I continued martial arts in Canada but constantly had it in my mind that I wanted to be in SBG (Straight Blast Gym) in Dublin. I got really homesick over there and struggled quite a bit with anxiety and stuff. I decided I had enough. I was done. We came home on Stephen’s Day 2015.”
Danni had promised herself a happier life on her return to Ireland and that she would get a job she enjoyed and become financially independent and finally join SBG. Within months of returning home she had hit those targets, an early indication of the iron will that would carry her through a week of bruising battles in Bahrain.
“In January I moved to Dublin, joined SBG and was working as a pediatric physiotherapist within two months up there,” she says with a hint of pride.
The hard work didn’t end there and her arrival at Kavanagh’s gym was followed by six months of tough training and disciplined dedication. This earned Danni the right to spar for a place on SBG’s pro team.
“John asked me one day to spar Sinéad Kavanagh as part of a trial for the team. I did and I made the team that evening. After that I had four MMA fights and then decided to take part in the World Championships this year. I had been on the team a year and a half and we entered the championships thinking I had a chance. It was just over two years since meeting him in Vegas that John Kavanagh walked me out to the cage the other night.”
Her striking coach and boyfriend, Alan McCormack, is her other corner man. She trains with him up to three times a week at his Relentless Gym in Mullingar. The rest of the time is spent at SBG in Dublin. You can tell how much appreciation Danni has for her two coaches, her teammates and her sponsors NDC, by the way they appear so frequently in the detail.
All of this support complemented by Danni’s mental resolve and hard work culminated in last week’s World Championships in Bahrain. Looking back now, Danni’s path to the Gold Medal match was far from easy.
“My first fight was against a Tunisian (Mariem) and within the first round of that fight I went through some dark moments. She was an extremely tough, strong girl and I thought ‘Mother of God, I’m not even going to get through the first round never mind the final’.”
Danni survived and faced another gruelling battle against an Italian opponent (Ilaria Norcia) in the next round, which she came through to set up a semi-final bout with Finnish fighter, Osterberg.
“I feel like I put absolutely everything into that semi-final and that’s where I sustained most of the damage. I was lying on a stretcher in a haze for an hour after and was brought to the hospital for a CT scan as a precaution. That night was quite dark and I thought that maybe the final wasn’t going to happen.”
An accidental clash of heads against the Finn left Danni requiring several stitches in the build-up to her final showdown with the Brazilian, Michele Oliveira. That wasn’t her only concern however.
“The day after the semi-final the doctor told me to take complete bed rest and because of losing weight throughout the week, I gained 3kgs that day. So that meant I had to cut 5kgs the night before the final.”
The night before the biggest fight of her life and all Danni’s energy would be focussed on just being able to take her place in the arena.
It’s this struggle and her ability to overcome these obstacles that separate Danni Neilan from the thousands of others who’ve told John Kavanagh about their potential as fighters whilst grabbing a selfie. It’s hunger and self-belief that few are born with. It’s an obsession.
As we now know, Danni made the cut and faced Oliveira in the octagon.
Suffice to say however, Danni wouldn’t recommend what she went through on the eve of the fight as a quick-fix weight loss technique.
“Lots of girls ask me about how they can do it (lose weight) the night before a wedding and stuff but they’d have a pretty rough day the next day (laughs).
“Cuts, injuries and cuts in weight don’t matter. You go in and fight anyway. You’ll fight on adrenaline when there’s a world title on the line.”
As for the final itself, Danni admits she has some regrets.
“The girl was definitely the better fighter that day but I wish I had a shot at her fresh, not worn and beaten. Maybe the result could’ve been reversed. Unfortunately, it (the series of fights) took a toll throughout the tournament.
“I guess I’m a bad loser but going over there I thought ‘Just don’t lose your first fight and have to come home as a loser’, then I’m coming home with a silver medal and I’m sulking on the plane! I guess it just hasn’t sunk in that I beat so many of those girls and that I’ve come such a long way.”
And as for working under Coach Kavanagh at SBG, Danni certainly subscribes to his philosophy of ‘Win or Learn’.
“We’re all so skillful because of him. It’s his knowledge and obsession with the sport. He also gives us this ridiculous confidence, you’d only be on the team a week and he’d be telling you you’re going to be a world champion.”
It all started with a Tinder date which led to a gym in Naas and was followed by a trip to Vegas. Danni has fought some serious battles along the way, in and out of the octagon, but now she moves forward with confidence.
“I’ve given myself a cut-off period which I’ve also told John about. The target is a UFC belt and he has until I’m 34 and I obviously have to fulfill my role too. I’m 28 in spring, so that’s six and a half years. I know that after that I don’t want to be fighting anymore.
“I really want to do this, I know I’m good at it and I know I can get myself a UFC belt so I’m going to go and do it but when the cut-off time comes I’m going to stop. Although I don’t think I’ll even need that to be honest, I think I’ll do it in four!”
She puts her silver medal back in her bag, gently offers a fight-hardened hand and leaves the office with her number one corner man, Alan. It’s hard to disagree with the girl who, two years after a poolside selfie with John Kavanagh, walked alongside him on her way into the Khalifa Sports City Arena for her World Championship fight.