It’s easy to forget that 6-0 Bellator stand out James Gallagher is just 20 years old given the fanfare surrounding his progress in the promotion’s featherweight division. His performances have, duly, been getting increasingly more impressive, and a dominant first round submission win over Israel’s Kirill Medvedovski in Belfast this past February cemented his status as one of the most legitimate prospects in all of MMA – and one of the first names on the lips of potential opponents.
While a scrap with fellow undefeated up-and-comer AJ McKee seems all but destined to take place some time in the future, James Gallagher’s latest assignment comes against one of the most experienced rookies in the sport – Chinzo Machida.
The brother of legendary karate stylist Lyoto ‘The Dragon’ Machida, Chinzo may boast a record of just 5-2, but his experience in martial arts tournaments around the world should stand him in good stead in what The MMA Vanguard expects to be a momentous night as Bellator hold their first show in the sport’s newest territory – New York City.
Madison Square Garden will be the venue as Gallagher attempts to claim his biggest scalp to date, and James expects to have what will amount to a home field advantage in his first pro fight outside of the UK and Ireland. “One hundred percent, the Irish are coming over and they’re going to make some noise,” Gallagher told The MMA Vanguard in an exclusive interview. “There’s loads coming from my home town in Strabane, I’ve got loads coming from all around Ireland, there’s a bus load coming from Boston, and there’s also a big bunch coming from Queens in New York. The Irish are going to be there, you’re going to hear the Irish in there, and it’s going to be amazing.”
Some of the most vocal and passionate fans in MMA, we can expect the Irish contingent to be represented strongly in a city with great historic links to the Straight Blast Gym product’s home nation. It’s something that Gallagher admits motivates him – and he’s already feeling the love having touched down in New York City ten days ahead of fight night. “This is the kind of thing that drives me on, even since I’ve landed here in New York I’ve just been floating around the area and people have been coming over and wishing me good luck and stuff. I’m blown away by that kind of thing, to get recognized in such a big city just by doing something I love and something I’m passionate about, and getting to this level. It’s a warming feeling. I’m looking forward to going out here and putting on a show and stealing the show – That’s what I’m planning on, stealing the show and putting on a good display for the fans that came over to support me. I’m very grateful to them for making the trip over.”
That support, James feels, could be even greater than fighting back home: “I feel I’m going to have more support in MSG in New York City than I would have in Dublin or anywhere else, I think there’s going to be that much of a crowd coming. This is a big magnitude to this event and people get excited by that, I’m only the second Irish fighter ever to fight in MSG, Conor was first and I’m second, a lot of people get excited for that and they’re making the trip over to see what I’m about, and I look forward to showing them what I am about.”
One of the big questions, then, is will this kind of partisan atmosphere affect the performance of his opponent? “I don’t think it will, he’s an older guy, I’m sure he’s experienced this kind of thing before, but what is going to affect him is when I’m running straight out of the gates towards him and I’m in his face calling him on, and he’s going to be saying ‘What’s this kid doing, he’s not respecting me?’” James explains. “I feel like the next minute I’m on his back cracking him with big shots and starting to choke him, I feel like that’s going to affect him, once he feels my pressure in there, I feel like that will affect him more than the crowd will.”
The confidence and motivation levels evident in Gallagher could not have come across any clearer to The MMA Vanguard. With around 48 hours until fight time remaining, The MMA Vanguard asked James how he felt the fight might play out – and what kind of advantages he might hold over his ‘experienced rookie’ opponent: “I feel he’s very one dimensional, he’s got that Machida Karate style, and that seems to be all he’s got, he doesn’t seem to have anything else. I feel like that’s the difference – I’ve got it all, I can do everything. I can box, I can do karate, I can wrestle, I can do Jiu Jitsu, I can do everything in there and I’ve got that mindset that no matter what he does I’m still going to be in the fight, I’m still going to be coming at him, I’m still going to be talking to him, and telling him that I’m going to beat him during the fight. I feel like that’s really the difference, he’s not going that mindset that I have, I’m 20 years old, I’m hungry for this, I need this win, I feel like I want this too bad compared to him, he won’t want it as much as me, it’s only the start of me, and it’s the end of him.”
That isn’t the only advantage James feels he holds – one particular advantage ‘The Strabanimal’ may have is in the mental stakes: “I’ve got the right frame of mind. He’s coming in here for a contest – I’m coming in to fight, that’s a very different mind set,” James told The MMA Vanguard. “Coming for a contest or going for a fight.”
It’s a marked difference, really emphasised by Gallagher’s desire not only to win, but to get a finish no matter how the fight may play out: “I’m going to finish him in the quickest way possible. If it’s on the feet or on the ground, I’m here to do an MMA fight, I’m not going to do it one way or the other, I’m going to do it the quickest way that presents itself. If a takedown presents itself and I get on his back, I’m going to choke him. If a strike presents itself on the feet, I’m going to take that as well. I’m going to take what I can get. I feel like it won’t take me long to figure out the quickest way to beat him.”
With a clarity of focus, then, the key issue has to be around James’ fight camp – and James seems very please with how that’s gone, too: “Yeah, it’s been a great training camp. I feel like I’ve really worked myself, I’ve put everything I’ve got into this, [this fight at MSG] is something I’ve always dreamt of since a young age. I’ve figured out how to get here and I’ve put everything I’ve got into it, I’ve been at the gym every day, listening to my coaches, doing exactly what they’ve told me. I’m ready, I’m prepared, I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I’m ready to go – I’m calm and I’m excited for Saturday. I’m really focussed, I’m physically in good shape, I’m mentally in good shape, I’m ready to go and look forward to doing it.”
So what has ‘The Strabanimal’ been working on? “I’ve been working on improving my game as a complete fighter, as usual, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything mad differently but I’ve got a lot more specific on what I’m doing and how the training sessions are planned. I’m running on more of a tight schedule. I’ve got George Lockhart looking after my diet for my weight cut, I’ve got Health Matters looking after my cardio side of things, then I’ve got John [Kavanagh] looking after all my technique and my sparring and all that side of things. I feel like I’ve got really specific about what I’m doing. I’m not guessing anything, I’m doing the cardio, I’m all measured out, always working off my heart rate, I’ve got my VO2 Mach tested, I know I’m doing the right cardio training and [thanks to] John I know I’m doing all the right sparring and technique training. George is looking after my diet to make sure my body’s fuelled through all these sessions, and also that I’m getting enough rest and stuff like this, so I feel I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”
A scary prospect no doubt for a fighter that is only getting better, fast. So what are James’ thoughts on his performances in Bellator? “Yeah, it’s been a great run, I’ve had a few good fights, but there’s also been a few fights I don’t like either – I hate the fight I had in Dublin [against Anthony Taylor], I wasn’t happy with that, I feel like I wasn’t myself in that fight, it wasn’t me in there. I didn’t perform that good, but apart from that I feel I did good in my last fight in Belfast [against Medvedovsky], I ran through the guy, I was on the ball and I put on a good performance. Now I’m looking forward to this one, I feel like I’m going to show a different James Gallagher, I feel like I’m gonna be sharp and be on the ball and I think a lot of people are going to be shocked, but I know one thing for sure: I’m not going to be shocked and my coaches aren’t going to be shocked, this is what we expect, we don’t expect nothing else except for a perfect fight.”
Speaking of perfect fights, does James feel he’s near his peak as a performer? “I’m nowhere near my peak, I’m only getting started, I’m 20 years old, I’m still young. There’s still a lot to learn in this sport. I feel like this is just the beginning for me, I feel in this fight people are going to start to see what I’m about and see what I’m really like and I’m just starting to become a man, as you can say, and getting that man strength, so I feel like in the next five fights you’re going to see a really different James Gallagher than you’ve seen in the last year or so.”
So what’s next for James Gallagher, assuming he defeats Chinzo Machida? “I’d love a nice main event in Dublin, that would be great, or fight for the title, that’s what I want [most of all], I want the belt, that’s what I’m going after. One or the other I’d be happy with, but I’m just focussing on Chinzo, as soon as I’ve put him away then I’ll figure out very quick what’s next.”
One thing James won’t be doing, however, is calling someone out – and with all the McKee posturing going on in the background, Gallagher feels pretty strongly about that subject! “No, I don’t need to call anyone out, I want the belt that’s where I’m going, and if there’s people who are ahead of me, I want them guys. I’ll go to Bellator and I’ll get them to get me one of them [top-ranked] guys, and I’ll go and beat a few of them as well [before I] get that belt. What’s the point in calling someone out, it doesn’t matter who they are, I just want the best, whoever’s above me or the guy who’s got the belt. I feel like there’s a lot of people in the division who keep calling me out, and I’m sitting here, I’m only 6-0, I don’t even have a belt, what the fuck you calling me out for? I want someone who has the belt or someone who has fought for the belt before, or someone who’s going to make me get it, that’s the kind of fight that I want.”
And one of those top fights could come James Gallagher’s way should he put in the kind of performance he feels he will do come Saturday. Bellator NYC: Sonnen vs Silva is possibly the biggest card the organization have put on to date, and James Gallagher, with his youth, exuberance, and above all else, confidence, is very definitely coming to make a statement in front of a huge crowd at Madison Square Garden.
The MMA Vanguard cannot wait!