Fran O’Kelly was in the backstage bathroom of the King’s Hall, Belfast ahead of his bout with Marty Kelly at Cage Contender 13 in April 2012. With only a few amateur fights under his belt, standing beside the sink, Kelly confessed that he was “a little bit anxious” about his challenge. Stumbling over some overused clichés, I tried my best to put his mind at rest. Judging by the expression on O'Kelly's face, my attempts did not have the desired effect.
Paddy ‘The Hooligan’ Holohan broke the silence when he appeared from one of the cubicle doors. Grinning from ear to ear, Holohan immediately expressed how excited he was for his clash with Damien Rooney, the co-main event of the evening, which would decide once and for all who the best bantamweight in Ireland was. Pushed for some words of advice for Kelly, ‘The Hooligan’ put his arm around his fellow fighter.
“Relax, take your time and enjoy yourself,” he told him, before rejoining his SBG teammates in the warm-up room.
There was nothing groundbreaking about Holohan’s advice, but O'Kelly couldn’t wipe the smile from his face after one of the biggest names in the Irish sport had taken the time to talk to him. Before the Octagon, before the Irish Invasion, even before his 24th birthday, Holohan had already gained an iconic status on the national scene.
Primarily known for his submission skills, when Holohan rocked Rooney with a right head kick and finished him in the first round of their clash, there was a massive push for him to get a bigger test from across the water. It was his penultimate professional contest before signing with UFC, where many people believed the Irishman was faced with the biggest fights of his life.
Really, the biggest fight of Holohan’s life happened on a surgeon’s table.
After his sublime grappling display against Artemij Sitenkov, Holohan came up short against Josh Hill in the elimination round for The Ultimate Fighter: Team Rousey vs. Team Tate. At that stage, the discs in his back were so swollen that it began to affect his nerves, but Holohan bit down on his gum shield as Hill “wrestle fucked him”, as Dana White put it, to win a decision.
After his elimination, Holohan underwent a career-threatening discectomy surgery. Following the operation, ‘The Hooligan’ spent months upon months being inactive. He couldn’t even train. When UFC announced they were going to put on a show in the third quarter of 2014 in Dublin, Holohan told everyone that he would be on the card.
With his last official contest having come two years before the eventual July date, as much everybody wanted to believe him, the majority of people didn’t.
Emerging from the back of the stage with a tricolor raised over his head, the Irish crowd exploded in the 02 Arena as Holohan stepped up to register his weight for his UFC debut against Josh Sampo. The following day, veteran journalists recalled his first round submission win over the American as the loudest and most atmospheric curtain raiser in the history of the promotion.
Holohan told Ariel Helwani that he saw himself as ‘the berserker’ for the Irish contingent, like the Norse warriors who led their armies into battle and struck fear into the hearts of their enemies with their unbridled fury. True to his word, every time he did play a supporting role to an Irish fighter with a higher billing under the UFC banner–against Sampo, Shane Howell and Vaughan Lee–he always left the Octagon with a win.
With his ultra-aggressive style, even his losses bolstered his stock. His first defeat to Chris Kelades in his sophomore UFC outing resulted in a ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus. In what would be his last ever outing, Holohan took a ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus from his epic main event bout with Louis Smolka in Dublin last October.
Of course, the bonuses never softened the blow for the Tallaght man. A text message following his unsuccessful trip to Nova Scotia declared that he was “fucking disgusted” with his performance. Even after the Smolka loss, Holohan refused to acknowledge that he had fought well after the press conference. As we walked from the arena to the fighter hotel, ‘The Hooligan’ dismissed enthusiastic compliments about the fight until eventually someone relayed one of the many fast paced transitional battles that transpired over the two furiously fought rounds.
“You know what? It was a good knock, though, wasn’t it?” he said, as his infectious smile spread across his face.
The second group of headlines suggesting that an Irishman retired from MMA within a week led me to believe that there was no substance in the initial reports about Holohan stepping away from the sport. Reading through his statement, it became painstakingly clear that he was not joking around.
Holohan knowingly competing with his Factor XIII deficiently, a blood condition that medical professionals believe would make him more susceptible to cranial bleeds, underlines his love for the sport. And through his own mesmerizing passion, he makes other people love mixed martial arts.
The finality of the retirement announcement is unsettling. Throughout his career, Holohan has always prevailed despite having the odds stacked against him. From his back injury to his unlikely debut, right up until he stepped in on three days notice to headline a UFC card in his hometown, Holohan has always risen to the occasion.
For the Irish, Holohan will always represent the golden era of mixed martial arts in the country. Though some people would refute it, it is unlikely that the Emerald Isle, or any other country, will ever have a night as magical as July 19, 2014.
Personally, there will be a massive void in the scene without ‘The Hooligan’. Loyal almost to a fault, Holohan would go out of his way to cater to my ever need during fight weeks. As scores of microphones and cameras were thrust into his face as he sat down to meet the press after taking the Dublin main event, Holohan’s eyes darted around the gathering as a few voices shouted up questions.
“Petesy, what do you think?” he asked me in his humorous manner, picking my head out of the hundred or so that were in front of him.
Win, lose or draw, Holohan would seek me out on press row after each of his fights. A quick embrace and a word in my ear meant everything as a young writer wondering how I had gone from writing about events in a community hall to sitting Octagonside at the TD Garden.
A dynamic creature, it will be interesting to see what Holohan does next. A head-coaching role in his all-new SBG Tallaght is looming closely, which will suit the jiu jitsu brown belt to a tee. There will inevitably be some stress and some anxiety with the shift in pace for the young Dubliner. For advice, I would offer him the words of a very wise man:
“Relax, take your time and enjoy yourself.”
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