I’ve been sitting on this Interview for about a week. I have no good reason for this as the interview in question was a very enlightening 90 minutes in the company of Ben Davis, head coach of Shaolin MMA in Galway. Corrective action required on my part.
About 18 months ago Tuam received the gift of a motorway. So now, our town is connected to about a dozen new towns and cities via a very fine, two lane highway. I’m led to believe that the reasoning behind building this strip of real estate, was to create a western corridor of super connectedness.
I use it mainly for writers block.
As I sit in the car I stick on an oversized set of headphones. Type something along the lines of ’80’s Rock’ into Youtube. Hit Mix. Vroom Vroom.
At the southern edge of town, I slide left on to the M17 and almost immediately my mind starts to relax and drifts back to my conversation with Ben and this strange slice of MMA heaven he ( and wife Indra) have managed to create in the Liosbain Industrial Estate.
The first 25 kilometres of motorway requires one decision. Left for Dublin and the M6 or dead ahead for Limerick. Hmmmmmmm. It’s ten past midnight. 2 hours left. 1 hour straight ahead.
Helpfully ‘Here I go Again’ from Whitesnake starts seeping into my ears. The fragments of an idea start to form. It’s not a 1 hour project, so the blinkety blink of amber flashes in the darkness.
I don’t know where I’m goin’
But I sure know where I’ve been
Hanging on the promises in songs of yesterday
An’ I’ve made up my mind, I ain’t wasting no more time
Here I go again, here I go again”
I met Ben Davis just before a lunchtime class was due to start. As we parked ourselves in the reception area, the gym was busy with members moving between the dressing room and the BJJ class about to begin downstairs.
Most stopped to greet Ben and then by extension me. And here was the first curiosity. Almost everyone stopped, said a friendly hello and shook hands with Ben, shook hands with me and introduced themselves. It happened maybe 5 or 6 times during the course of our chat and in almost the same identical manner each time. A proper and meaningful greeting. Easy eye contact. The courtesy of their full attention. People at ease with themselves.
It may seem like a small thing but somewhere outside Ballinasloe, in the flickering reflection of a million cats eyes, it started to feel like a not so small thing.
Currently Ben has 4 professional fighters under his tutelage. The coaching element he thoroughly enjoys but finds the worry of ensuring they are correctly matched a stress at times. Especially to ensure he isn’t throwing them into a shark pool against opponents who perhaps are masking their full range of martial arts experience. There is no charge on his end for this side of the business – indeed he gives the same refrain to each fighter.
” When you go professional I don’t want any money for managing you. I am here to help you take control of your reality. If you get successful and make it to somewhere like the UFC and start earning, give something to the club. Give it to everybody. All I want from Shaolin MMA is minimum wage “
It is refreshing to hear Ben talk so openly on this area of the fight game. It is almost impossible to get any coach or fighter to talk about compensation in detail. I don’t know why, because I know the vast majority of professionals get paid shit. Maybe the promotions don’t want the wider public to know exactly how shit.
To say that there is a Piranha pool of duckers and divers on the management side of the professional game is an understatement. In fairness, it is far more prevalent in the UK than here but nonetheless. An amateur with a tasty record can be open to a wide range of ” management offers ” and you can be certain they don’t spend hours upon hours scouring the Internet to ensure the opponent is a fair one. Hell most of them wouldn’t know how in the first instance.
Shaolin MMA is a gym that takes absolute beginners to martial arts and offers them an MMA pathway. One of those pathways can be to pursue a dream to become a professional MMA fighter. Another pathway is introducing kids to the sports in a safe environment with no other end goal than to instruct them in the art of defending themselves.
At this point I could say something a bit patronising along the lines of – I hope the membership realise how fortunate they are to have a Head Coach like Ben Davis – But as I remember my brief interactions with the bodies coming and going on that Wednesday afternoon, I suspect no-one needs any reminders. It’s a one for all and all for one kinda joint.
I take the last exit off the Athlone ring road and go in search of a 24 hour coffee station. I hit play on the recording of our conversation. I am in search of something Ben said that I can’t quite recall.
To understand Ben Davis we need to go back in time. Ben’s mother’s side of the family is Irish and his father’s side is Jamacian. His family lived in a rough part of Bristol and at the age of 6 Ben was dealing with the death of his father. In the years that followed Ben’s family moved back to Ireland, specifically to Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. What is commonly referred to on this island as ” The Troubles” were a very real part of young Ben’s life.
Quite how hard they were on a young bi-racial kid I can only imagine. Ben doesn’t dramatise it unduly only to mention that he understood the necessity of learning how to fight to help defend himself and conquer his fears.
His wife, Indra helpfully points out that it wasn’t unusual to have kids and even on occasion the school bus driver spit on him. The period of time between being a teenager to being a young man in his 20’s saw him crisscross the Irish sea a number of times. In and out of trouble and struggling to find his place in the world. It is hard to reconcile the younger version of himself that he describes and the erudite, serene and caring 33 year old sat on the couch beside me.
It was around this time of living that Ben hit rock bottom. Sport gave him a way out.
” I started boxing, in and out of boxing for a few years when I was a teenager. Then moved back to England. My sister’s ex- boyfriend was Che Mills who went on to fight in the UFC, introduced me to MMA. He showed me all these videos of Pride championships and UFC. I became very entrigued with it. The way I learned to fight on the streets, the school of hard knocks was not the most practical way to fight. Very damaging. I learnt to grapple and it switched something in my head “
Indeed whatever that initial switch was it has led him on a road here to Galway and now Shaolin MMA.
” I think martial arts is beautiful. It’s pure art. If you can control your inner energy then you can do amazing things. This is one of the things that has been lost, the root essence of where martial arts came from. It is was about inner energy. Yin and yang. Thats why we have that as our club symbol. Controlling your fear. Controlling your ego. I sometimes think that there is too much ego around MMA today”
The idea of the individual winning is something a bit alien in this club. The individual accomplishments serve to increase the team identity. Two of the clubs professionals Tadhg Linnane and Andreeas Binder have currently got a bit of social media profile in the sport in Ireland but they also pour back their energy into the club, running classes, increasing the standing of the club and not just themselves. Ben name checked another 4 or 5 who are involved in taking ownership of the classes and by extension the club.
One member helps them by sorting out their accounts and bookkeeping. Another has just completed work on updating their website. As I sat there on the day, I could see a member responsible for taking money for some class that has just ended. And when I say taking money I mean donation box. If you have something give it. If you don’t no problem.
Kinnegad flashes to my left briefly as I contemplate this unusual way of running a club. I think back to Ben’s own youth. Working class. Learning difficulties in school. Dare I say consistently treated as an outsider? Someone different, Someone other. Whether it was in the concrete jungle of Bristol or the rural fields of Enniskillen.
I get the sense that Shaolin MMA will never exclude people that are different indeed it maybe one of it’s foundation stones. Kids that are in someway other than the norm. Whatever the fuck the norm is or means anyway. These people, these kids very often don’t have much to put in a donation box. The ethos of Shaolin MMA dares them to believe that one day they will.
Ben and his wife both have backgrounds in youth work and this grounding shines consistently through in the wisdom of their words.
” We want to teach them, not just how to overcome their fears but to step in there, in the cage and create the reality that they have done in the gym for the last two months. After that I want them to be balanced out. OK say they have just won now. The internet is going to be going ding, ding, ding. Likes. Likes. Likes. All this dopamine going off in their heads. When people start out in MMA they are fighting their fears. Fear of failure. Fear of the cage. Fear of physical contact. Once they face their fears and overcome them a new battle begins, one of battling to overcome their ego and it can be an issue for the most humble of people”
I am conscious at this point that I have utterly failed to mention that Ben Davies is still an active professional MMA fighter. He has a record of 7 wins and 5 losses. It is the record of a man that loves to fight and fight anywhere. Back in his early days he trained with Mark Leonard and his Point Blank gym in Galway.
If I was to say anything about his fight record it would be that Ben Davis the fighter would have benefitted from Ben Davis the coach and manager earlier in his career!
Someone to look out for him as carefully as he looks out for his motley crew of competitors.
He is very much hoping to announce his next fight very shortly and indeed it sounds like a very promising announcement. The success on the coaching side has had the side benefit of having a young stable of professional fighters in the gym to aide in his preparation work and it is probably no surprise that he has won his last two fights as the gym has gained in popularity and moved from Loughrea, Gort and now finally in Galway City and the Liosbain Industrial Estate.
As I am winding up this piece, listening to the last few sentences and recorded sounds of Ben’s voice I have arrived at the Applegreen in Enfield. I am somewhat amazed at what this man has created in Shaolin MMA and by extension what he has made of himself. The odds were stacked against him and yet he found a path through the darkness.
I walk across to the hatch at the service station and treat myself to a Cappucino still lost in thought. The attendant returns with my hot caffeine fix as I am blowing my hands to keep warm. As I pay for my drink he says.
” Cold Night. Are you just finishing work?”
A broad smile crosses my face and I realise something that Ben Davis figured out a long time ago. I turn the car around to head for home and I quickly find that Whitesnake song again. Yes my work is finished here but then again it’s only work if you hate doing it.
Written By: Gerry O’Neill
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