The 3-D artwork on the back wall of SBG Tallaght completely grabs your attention as you walk through the gyms’ doors.
Three images of men with the heads of gorillas sit inside the three letters emblazoned on the wall—S.B.G.—the first of which is undoubtedly head coach Paddy Holohan’s torso, raising an Irish tricolor.
On this same day last year, October 24, I walked with a dejected Holohan from the 3 Arena to the nearby fighters’ hotel. Within a year he had gone from the curtain raiser to the headliner. In a sport where entertainment increasingly takes precedent, the Dubliner gave his hometown crowd a night to remember, despite coming up short.
It would be Holohan’s last ever outing as a professional fighter as a rare blood condition brought his career to a close six months later. Thankfully, he can now see the beauty in his final fray.
“The more I see Louis Smolka fight, the more I’m impressed with it, to be honest,” he concedes.
“It changes when you’re a year down the road. It’s always a bitter feeling when you’re thinking about a loss. It’s that gamble, you’re all in every time you step into the Octagon. When you win the whole world celebrates with you, when you lose nobody in the world realizes how low you can get.
“I still think that I would fight Louis over and over again until I won if I could. It would have been nice to know that was my last one, but what a special way it was to go out.”
Fighters often talk about a depression that can sweep over them following the highs of a fight week. With no fight to immediately gear their lives towards, there's a loss of purpose, which can often last months.
Holohan’s exit from professional fighting came swiftly just a couple of weeks before he was scheduled to meet Willie Gates in Rotterdam. Understandably, with his fighting future completely taken off the table, Holohan found himself doing some soul searching too.
“I know friends and family that have suffered from depression, so I don’t want to say I had anything on a similar level, but I was very low on myself for a while after the retirement.
“Definitely, I was in that space where I had no idea what I was going to do. There was a chance that this gym would never have happened and I was stuck in a limbo of sorts.
“People always tell me that I’ve done my part for Irish history, what they don’t realize is, I want to do it again,” he said before smiling widely.
Life after fighting in the UFC can be confusing for some fans to grasp. The common misconception is that the athletes are set up for life once they have reached the pinnacle of the sport, but Holohan knows that the work only begins once you’ve stepped away from competition.
“People don’t understand that it’s only a few rare people that can set their whole lives up on the back of a fight career. Conor has managed to do that, but for people like me, and the vast majority of others, you have to do something after the UFC.
“A lot of the time you leave with nothing but fame, and fame can get in the way of you trying to make a living. Who wants a guy working in their shop that’s getting stopped every two seconds to take a selfie?” he laughed.
A group of thirty kids looks on as Holohan shows off some basic guard techniques with fellow coach Dean Connolly, a man who started jiu jitsu on the same day as him after Connolly’s father convinced them both to give it a try.
From behind a viewing area parallel to the reception, dozens of parents looks on at the Tallaght icon as he goes through the motions. The kids show signs of learning from the BJJ buff as they name drop heroes of his like Helio Gracie during their session.
When the class ends, Holohan is off to the viewing area to shake scores of hands. It’s not just the parents either, there are politicians, charities and various martial arts instructors all there waiting to get a quick word, and he greets every one of them before making his way back over to me.
He’s clearly busy and busy is definitely a good thing for a former pro fighter.
“Coaching has always been what I wanted to get into,” he explained.
“I got all of my certs years ago and I always felt like that was where my future was. It’s an incredible gift for me to be able to hand this knowledge on to other people. And it’s not just any people, it’s the people in my town.
“Jiu jitsu is so much more than a martial art. I’m not looking for the next Paddy Holohan or Conor McGregor. I’m looking for the guy or girl that lives down the road that’s low on confidence. I don’t look at this place like a gym. I see it as one big outlet for the people of Tallaght and the broader Dublin area.
“I want this to be like a social club. The people at reception know your name when you walk in the door. They know the parents of the kids who train here. I like to try and speak to them as much as I can.”
Standing in the middle of his state-of-the-art facility, it’s clear that Holohan isn’t finished with the fight game completely. Posts on Instagram from John Kavanagh have shown Holohan still in the thick of it during McGregor’s preparations for UFC 205.
For Holohan, turning up for his teammates has never been a burden.
“I didn’t just turn up because I had a fight, I turned up out of loyalty. I have a good relationship with Conor. I’m loyal to the end, that’s just embedded in me. Loyalty is just a tattoo to most people these days.
“When we started out in this game, we were heading in to take over the whole UFC. That’s the way we thought of it. And we did it, really.”
There’s no mistaking what he’s talking about. On July 19th, 2014, Irish MMA became the toast of the international community when six fighters—Holohan, Pendred, Seery, Parke, Nelson, and McGregor—proved that the small island had the tools to take on the world.
It was a night that no Irish MMA fan will ever forget, nor Holohan either.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. If I could live in that moment I might spend the rest of my life in it. I’d just let it play over and over again.
“There were grown men reduced to tears in the 3 Arena that night, and believe me, I’ve been around Temple Bar after midnight enough to know what it means to the Irish people. That’s a moment I’ll hold onto for the rest of my life, but there are other things that mean more to me.
“I was in my jeep the other day and a load of kids ran up to me and start chatting to me and my son, he was with me.
“So these kids were asking me different questions and we talked to them for a while. Then suddenly my son turns to me and says—‘You’re a role model, Da’—that kind of stuff gives me shivers when I hear it. People in the street know my dogs’ names, it’s crazy.”
Last weekend ‘The Hooligan’ took part in his first triathlon. In the intermediate section of the event, he took gold. Even at that, when he saw a 55-year-old take gold in the main race, he went from being inspired by it to wanting to have a crack at the larger course in a matter of seconds. It’s something that he wants to get into more in the future, but there seems to be a more functional transition for him to make.
Known for his slick submission game since his emergence on the scene, the growing pro jiu jitsu scene seems like an obvious path for Holohan to take. Although he’s not ruling it out, he needs to establish a few things before he can get amongst the action.
“Realistically, I don’t know if I’m able to compete in combat sports anymore. I don’t know who to ask or anything. If I do go into pro jiu jitsu, I’ll probably just show up one day and do it.
“I’ve got one of Ireland’s best, Joey Breslin, doing the BJJ coaching in SBG Tallaght now. I’d love to prepare alongside him and some other guys to go to a jiu jitsu tournament. I really come into my own when I’ve got a pack around me, so it’s definitely an option for the future.”
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