Ordinary People..Extraordinary lives… Melissa Miskell: A Social worker finds MMA

Interview 4 in my Ordinary people…..Extraordinary lives… series.

I would imagine that sports people are finding the embargo on freedom of movement difficult at the moment. People that are used to the routine of regular group training and then weekend performance.

Sports is an amateur pursuit for all but the lucky few and last week I had a chance to chat with a woman, Melissa Miskell, who made her debut as a mixed martial artist a few days before the Covid-19 Iron curtain came down.

Melissa Miskell is a social worker by day and works the mats by evening in Shaolin MMA club in Galway City. I caught up with her a week after her debut which she won by technical knockout. We kicked off the interview by discussing what led her into the sport in her mid 20’s.

GON: So I suppose let’s start by talking a bit about you before you got into the Jiu-jitsu/mma scene and what drew you into it.

MM: I had just finished college in Athlone studying social care, I got a job in day services and was a bit lost on what I wanted to do with myself outside of work, I always had an interest in fitness through Gaelic football years ago with Corofin and my school in Tuam.

I dabbled a bit in school athletics as well and always hobbied gymnastics anywhere I could and somewhere along the way I had just stopped doing any sports. I guess finishing college was an eye opener as the real world wasn’t as full of parties it was full of Bills!!

GON: Did you always enjoy watching combat sports – how did that interest develop

MM: I had always wanted to do kickboxing and boxing and at the time of me starting in Shaolin I was watching a lot of MMA for a few years before hand, so I decided to take a leap and join in at age 24.

I discovered jiu-jitsu and from there I started practicing a bit of everything that martial arts had to offer from MMA, Boxing, Muay Thai, Capoeira and many others. I really wanted to explore what was there and it kicked off from there.

GON: How did you find Shaolin MMA ?

It was by pure chance, I was googling different clubs initially for boxing and mma and I came across an advert on my News-feed about a new all female beginner friendly course led by a female coach – so it was no-brainer for me then. I was nervous anyway but it was great to have found one that was for women by women

GON: Yeah that makes sense…how long ago was that?

MM: It’s already 3 years since February I think. I joined the mixed classes in April, 2 months later, and absolutely loved it the lads were great helping me adjust. Although I’m pretty sure I fell on my first day in the mixed classes actually!!

GON: You mention you always wanted to do boxing or kickboxing. Where does the desire come from?

MM: I grew up watching a bit of it on the telly with my Dad and even when I was young I really wanted to try it but the opportunity just never arose. Along the way, be it in school or college I’d meet people who were boxing or doing kickboxing and it kinda followed me, in college I remember going to Cavan and seeing people doing training in the green area.

Looking back now I didn’t know what it was but I realise now it was Capoeira and I couldn’t stop watching it. A year later I met someone who had been training in an mma gym. So it really did follow me until I did it myself and my only regret is not starting sooner.

GON: Very good. So you graduated from college in social care – What career path did that lead you down. Apologies I tend to jump around in my questioning!

MM: No problem. I’ve no short answer for that one I’ve been everywhere, I initially worked in the disability sector, then I went on to work in mental health for children then Mental Health with adults, and I’ m presently in the homeless sector in emergency accommodation.

GON: That’s quite a bundle of experiences?

MM: It’s been a real experience between exploring various marginalized groups whilst working on myself alongside it, it takes it’s toll at times but I think that’s what makes u wiser is understanding the wide range of social issues and who they affect because it really could be anyone of us.

It reminds me to be grounded when I meet people on a daily basis and in martial arts, just to be that bit kinder.

GON: So in the homeless sector are you working with a government agency or charity or how does that work. And given the coronavirus how does that impact the work you are doing at the moment ?

MM: I’m with an agency that places me as per the need, a lot of places are protecting their contracted staff first so to keep inflow and outflow of people to a bare minimum thus reducing risks to people and reducing traffic, so with the coronavirus I will likely be placed in a hospital/nursing care environment because I just received my driving letter this week to allow me to get there.

GON: Do you find the work rewarding – it sounds tough and in this current environment not without danger?

MM: It is very very rewarding because I think when your working with an agency you’ve a little less worry in terms of the actual organisation or HSE, its fresh staffing and a fresh environment – so with the right attitude going in you really get a feel of which sector you’d like to stick with on a longer term basis. I’m somewhere closer to deciding that too because I am also considering my ability to pay Bill’s, keep training, and to importantly enjoy my job because I think it’s so important for people to actually like what they do because life becomes less about waiting for Friday and more about enjoying everyday instead.

GON: Oh okay…..now that’s interesting….so how do the contracts work with the agencies are they like for a fixed period like 6 months or more short term, like 3 days here 4 days there? Are there gaps between work contracts and that kind of thing.

MM: So in a normal healthy environment like without coronavirus it’s 3 days here or 4 there and you can move around as you please but with coronavirus it’s not the same because of cross contamination. You would need to be consistent in one place or wait 2 weeks before you move to another to avoid spreading.

GON: You mentioned earlier ‘I received my driving letter’ what is that?

MM: Oh yeah so I got a letter in case I get stopped by the guards outlining I’m a health and social care professional. If I get stopped I just show them the letter and they let me go I’m assuming – I don’t know really it’s full purpose.

( Note: To anyone reading this in 2050 – yes we had to receive a permit to drive our cars to work during this crisis!)

GON: Oh OK….Do you find it hard to plan and budget and stuff due to the unstructured work nature or does it suit you for the moment? For example do you know where you’ll be working next week?

MM: I suppose at the start this was a massive issue like the transition from full time 5 days a week work to shift work, but that’s when you as a person really decide the difference between a necessity and a materialistic want. Cos for example I used to be more about having the right outfit and pub money where as now it doesn’t affect me – because I don’t drink I use my money to get organised for the things I really want now and I’m very focused on that.

Preparation is key and building a rapport with the places where you work. Do they like you and do you like the job, this is definitely something you’d want to have figured out and how you want to manage your lifestyle,

It definitely requires discipline!!

GON: I follow most of the Shaolin gang and you seem like one of the leaders. People seem to look up to you. Are you aware of that kind of thing?

MM: Not at all!!! I wouldn’t even imagine that if I’m honest because I look up to everyone there, I think it’s just such a unique place. You really have a lot of unique characters to go with it, I’ve really been able to value that even coming up to my own recent fight and how supportive everyone was so it’s an evenness of helping each other I find anyway because teamwork is so strong.

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As I was writing this up – I decided to take a short cigerette break from the Interview at this very point – to muse why I wasn’t entirely happy with her answer to this question. I had a sense from following the joys, trials and tribulations of Shaolin MMA for the past year or so that Melissa’s answer wasn’t quite an accurate reflection of herself. She is certainly modest in nature. So I decided to see if I could get clarification from her coach and training partner Indra Davis in terms of the accuracy of my perception.

GON: Hi Indra – I am writing up a piece about Melissa Miskell and I wanted to get a quote (if possible) from you as someone that coaches and trains with her to use in the piece?

Indra: Cool. Shes an absolute superhero. I don’t know how much shes told you about her life but I’m so proud of how far shes come. When I 1st started the women’s only classes she was the 1st girl in the door, 20 mins early. Since then shes always been my right hand. She covers classes for me, she encourages me and the other girls. She has hit some serious walls in her competition and training journey but she’s never quit and she’s overcome everything. Her performance on Cage Conflict proved if you face your fears you can achieve anything!!

GON: I have an impression of her as a quiet leader?

Indra: 100% – She leads by example.

(Note: Smoking kills kids but I probably won’t quit just yet. Just saying. Anyway back to Melissa)

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GON: It sounds like you found your tribe in Shaolin MMA. if you know what I mean ?

MM: Definitely. I’d totally agree with that

GON: So if you could….tell me about the week leading up to your debut MMA fight on Cage Conflict….the training…the nerves…the travel…..I remember kind of following the posts various members of Shaolin were posting and wondering if the show would make the coronavirus cut – it was pretty tight – the country closed down a few days later?

MM: I was wondering the same I was following it a lot!!

MM: My main aim during the entire fight camp and the week leading into it was to solely control my mindset. I probably put more work into that than anything. I spent a lot of time visualizing, meditating, shadow boxing, sharpening wrestling take-downs etc.

While like you – wondering if the fight would go ahead because of the coronavirus – so it was weird. Being up there was enjoyable every moment even the nervous ones. I focused on eating properly, hydrating and being calm. That’s probably why I remember more about before the fight than during it. I remember seeing my opponent and feeling unsure how to respond so I just stayed kind and said hello.

GON: You don’t go in for the mind games malarkey then?

MM: I don’t see a need for intimidation or name calling before fights. I think it’s daft. Indra and Ben Davis, Martin Hynes, Catherine Costigan and Dermot McGrath from Limerick were all so helpful in the lead up. As well as my teammates and my partner traveled with me and stayed with me so he was a huge part in it for me because he had also done my strength and conditioning for the whole fight. I simply talked to them if I got nervous or felt unsure.

They all sent me messages of support and gave kind words of advice. I was just really, really determined to get through my first fight in front of people. And with the fight walkout because that’s a huge challenge for me as well. I’ve also got anxiety and I was worried about how it would manifest. So this was my biggest challenge by far but overcoming it even if the fight didn’t go my way would have been a huge win for me in the first place. I think there were people around me that realized that as well. I just wanted to be in full control of myself.

GON: And the fight itself ? You won by TKO. What do you remember about it and what were the emotion afterwards?

MM: As soon as we touched gloves I decided I wanted to stay standing she was very good and landed some nice kicks on me, I knew she had more experience kickboxing but the way I saw it was so did everyone else I ever sparred or fought at novice level.
The first round in my head I was OK but I remember being so unhappy with myself after the second round because I wasn’t performing to the best of my ability but I was still pretty relaxed. Just for myself I wanted to fight my hardest and my best.
During the break from the second round I just made a decision to do better and went out with more fire in the 3rd and finished by KO. I was still so full of adrenaline afterwards and I just found myself laughing with the medics at the state of my toes afterwards. And I got to meet my opponent properly and we’ve been chatting since then joking about our wee injuries, so that was really really nice.

GON: When you say ‘ wee injuries’ what were they? MMA fighters tend to talk about broken bones like broken finger nails.

MM: Luckily nothing at all like that they were genuinely small she damaged her foot ligaments and I broke two toes but it was just funny being almost side by side afterwards with similar things. It was both of our debuts so the experiences were new for both of us.

(Note: I’ll refer you all to my earlier observation about MMA fighters and injuries)

GON: What do your family make of your MMA pursuits?

MM: Initially a lot of their thinking was I’m stone mad but they’ve also known me since I was small so it’s not too much of a surprise to my brother and sisters. They knew I was always interested in the sport in one way or another and that it really was just a matter of time, I got messages from my uncles and aunties and cousins afterwards as well and that was really awesome people were genuinely happy.

GON: Tell me how are you finding social distancing and not being able to group train?

MM: I was OK at first because I do my strength training at home the majority of the time anyway so I still had that much of my usual routine with my boyfriend but I am really missing seeing the girls and having the pre oats at Aisling’s or the coffee afterwards. I usually would go meet Martin during the week for pads so there’s a lot of disruption to my usual routine but I’m lucky Paulie trains because we utilize each other too, just have to use some creativity to train because our size difference is vast!!!

But I think the longer this goes on the harder it gets because your used to seeing people all of the time and that was also how I socialized. So between training and socializing its definitely hard but we still motivate each other to train and do more. so all’s not lost it’s just something we gotta do.

But it also means when we do go back I’m gonna have tonnes of questions for Ben and Indra and Martin so I guess i’ll just have to write it down and bug them upon return because I’d love to fight again soon!

GON: How long do you think it will be and what are your impressions of how the whole crisis is being handled?

MM: It’s really, really hard to say, I’m trying to stay off social media as much as possible because there’s so much mis-information.

I think it’s so far being handled quite well in terms of social distancing measures there’s other positions we could be in right now and were not so trying to stay positive is so important. What I do think from the latent point of view is if anything this should really highlight the reality of inequality and health inequities and I hope people realise how important these issues are. Instead of focusing on young people.

A lot of people have been left in terrible situations and also we as a country from a financial perspective need a massive shakeup, airport measures were really lacking but highlighting this will only see budgets turn to new equipment or more poorly paid cleaners instead of realising there are people forced to live on the dole weekly and people are worrying about surviving on 350 euro – so I think this should serve as a push for a more equal society as a whole!

In terms of how long this would last I’d love to say the End of April it gets put to Bed but we will see. Because we are already aware of the homelessness crisis, poverty levels and social housing demands so I’d like to see peoples attention and focus awakened to the importance of a more equal society.

GON: What do you mean by focusing so much on young people?

MM: I just noticed a lot of reporting in terms of negative outcomes revolved a lot around misbehaving young people I just think it should look at a little bit more at misbehaving leaders maybe! I’ll try not to get so political though.

As the Interview draws to a close it occurs to me that Melissa Miskell perhaps one day should consider getting into the political. She seems to have the mindset and work ethic of an activist. A person that overcomes obstacles and gets things done. A refreshing attitude to the inequalities that exist in our society and a disposition through her work of being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Each generation worries that the one coming behind isn’t quite as tough or didn’t have it quite as hard growing up. We worry that collectively they may not be made of stern enough stuff for the world outside. Well as long as there are a few Miskell’s methinks the future will be A-OK.

I post 4 or 5 times a week Just Click here  and get an e-mail notification when I publish. It’s free and the content is a mixture of observations, Interviews, satire and politics.

Main Photo is courtesy of Amy Kelly MMA media.

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