Changing lanes

'I definitely had hairier moments in horse-racing than I've had in the cage'

Danni Neilan, the former jockey overcoming hurdles in a race to the top in mixed martial arts.

IN A STEPHEN’S Green cafe, customers cast inquisitive glances over their books and laptops towards the woman seated down the back whose face is swollen and pockmarked by lacerations.

Danni Neilan has no intention of hiding her wounds. She’s proud of how they got there. They’re a product of a pursuit which soothes the anxiety that once shackled her. For her, the temporary physical pain is a sound investment in her psychological well-being.

The curiosity of the eavesdropping coffee drinkers is satisfied when she recounts the events of her past week. All things considered, she doesn’t look too bad for someone who’s just had four cage fights in the space of five days on the other side of the world.

“It would have been incredible to have gotten the gold medal but I’m still very proud of what I achieved,” Neilan explains, three days after fighting in Bahrain in the women’s flyweight final at the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation Amateur World Championships.

23800190_1163488073781617_1187395608638654298_o Danni Neilan (far left) on the podium after receiving her silver medal at the 2017 IMMAF World Championships. Jorden Curren / IMMAF Jorden Curren / IMMAF / IMMAF

What’s particularly remarkable about the achievement is that she only has to cast her mind back three years to recall a time when she hadn’t yet thrown her first punch. Not in the schoolyard, not in a fitness class, and certainly not in a cage.

Raised in Roscommon and now residing in Mullingar — neither an MMA stronghold — Neilan’s unlikely journey to this point began with a spot of online dating in January 2015. A drunken declaration at a Las Vegas pool party that summer was also significant.

“The first time I found out about MMA was when I swiped a lad on Tinder who was a fighter,” she says. “We went on a couple of dates but it didn’t go any further. But the sport got my interest. I ended up joining a gym in Naas to give it a go. It very quickly became a bit of an obsession.

“I had never even done a boxercise class before. I didn’t get into fights in school or anything. The first martial arts class I did was wrestling. I just remember feeling the other person and feeling confident that I could be stronger than them. I just loved the contact, using my body to that extent and intensity. I was hooked.”

Although she possessed no background in martial arts, Neilan had accumulated extensive experience in another sporting discipline. Having ridden horses from the age of four, she transitioned from show-jumping to racing at 16. After leaving school, she spent two years working full-time in the late Dessie Hughes’ yard at the Curragh, and did another four years on a part-time basis while studying for a physiotherapy degree at Trinity College.

“I was always strong and competitive from working in horse-racing,” Neilan says. “I rode in a few races at an amateur level. But I was never going to be fantastic and I think I realised that. I started to become a bit stale then. I was as good as I could be but I’m a very competitive person so it was never going to be enough.”

A few months after she began training in MMA, Neilan took off to the USA to do some travelling with her brother in the summer of 2015. While there, they attended UFC 189 in Las Vegas, where Conor McGregor defeated Chad Mendes to win the interim featherweight title. After the fight, Neilan crossed paths with John Kavanagh, McGregor’s head coach at Straight Blast Gym on the Naas Road.

“I was at a pool party and I saw John across a barrier,” she recalls. “I was waving at him and asking if I could get a photo. I told him that I had started training and that I wanted to join his gym, that I was going to be really good. I had a few drinks in me at the time but he humoured me and he was really good about it, even though he probably hears that stuff all the time.”

23561755_10159548182475024_6059449004874479968_n Danni Neilan meeting John Kavanagh in Las Vegas in July 2015. Danni Neilan Danni Neilan

Neilan adds: “While I was away that summer I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life. I had just gotten my degree but I felt like I was in a bit of a rut in Ireland. I was suffering a fair bit from anxiety too. I really wasn’t happy here. I felt I needed to get my life sorted.

“I went on to Canada then and stayed there for a few months. Over there I realised how much I wasn’t dealing with my anxiety and it got a lot worse. In November that year I made the decision to come back. Moving to Canada wasn’t going to solve my problems so I came home and faced up to them here. On the plane home I said to myself: ‘Things weren’t working at home, things weren’t working in Canada, so what are you going to do to change it?’

“I didn’t want to go home to continue the same cycle. I made two promises to myself: to get a job that I enjoy in order to make myself financially independent, and to join SBG to train under John and become a good fighter — because one thing that did make me happy was training in martial arts. I wanted to do whatever it took to be happy instead of going through the constant cycle of anxiety and feeling sorry for myself.”

Neilan became a member at SBG in January 2016 and began training three times a day: a session in the morning, another in the evening, as well as one on her lunch break from her new job as a paediatric physio for children with intellectual disabilities at the Daughters of Charity on the Navan Road.

“I wanted to work with kids instead of adults because I felt I’d be more stimulated and challenged by that,” she says. “Working with children makes a big difference to my daily life, particularly children with special needs. It just gives you a kick up the bum and reminds you that your life isn’t that hard.”

In the gym, Neilan’s progress was swift. Combining a full-time job with three training sessions a day, in addition to the Mullingar-Dublin commute, gives you an indication of how much this means to her. After six months, John Kavanagh promoted her to the SBG fight team and she started to cut her teeth with bouts on the amateur circuit.

“As soon as I joined SBG I just got my head down and put the work in every day,” says Neilan, for whom the graduation process to the fight team involved a sparring session with Bellator featherweight Sinead Kavanagh. “After I sparred Sinead, John said to me, ‘I think you and I are going to enjoy a lot of big days together in the future’. To hear something like that from him at such an early stage made me feel 10 feet tall.”

23658698_1163482617115496_2760866709306153336_n Neilan in action at the 2017 IMMAF World Championships. Jorden Curran / IMMAF Jorden Curran / IMMAF / IMMAF

Her lack of experience should have made her initial appearances in the cage daunting, but the potential to be hurt was something Neilan had already encountered.

“I definitely had hairier moments in horse-racing than I’ve had in the cage,” she insists. “Horses are a lot more unpredictable than people. I had a few bad injuries. I broke my pelvis and ruptured my spleen. Horse-racing would be way ahead as regards injuries and the danger of it. You’re riding around at speed on top of a half-ton horse.

“There’s definitely a certain danger in fighting but I don’t have that fear in the cage. The only fear in the cage is the fear of not doing myself justice. It’s not about being afraid of embarrassing myself, because I got over that pretty quickly. It’s a fear of not doing what I know I can do.

“I loved horse-racing but I was never as passionate about it as I am about this [MMA] now. There was always the thing that it was me and the horse, so it was very much dependent on how the horse performed as well as myself. Also, if you aren’t backed in horse-racing or if you don’t have money behind you, you don’t always get the rewards.

“What really intrigued me about fighting was it was just me, and it didn’t matter where I came from or how much money we had. It’s me versus another girl and whoever works hard enough wins the fight. There’s no other variable. It’s the ultimate competition. I love my team-mates in the gym and it’s a team sport in the sense that we need to train with each other in order to prepare, but I just wanted it to be about me when push came to shove.

“I still hugely admire a lot of jockeys. Tony McCoy would be an idol. He’s an amazing man. He’s gone to some dark places in his life and emerged. I really looked up to him and all the lads I worked with as well, particularly with all the falls and injuries that are involved.”

A former housemate of Neilan’s knows all about the potential pitfalls of life as a jockey. In April 2015, Robbie McNamara came off a horse during a race in Wexford and was left paralysed from the waist down. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, McNamara is now prospering as a trainer.

“Robbie and I worked together indirectly through horse-racing for years,” Neilan explains. “When I came back from Canada I had nowhere to stay when I joined SBG. I contacted him and asked him did he have a room. He gave me one in his place in Kildare and got me up and running.

Robbie McNamara celebrates after winning with Cascavelle Robbie McNamara at this year's Galway Races. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s a massive inspiration to me, knowing where he’s come from with his injury and how he’s got his life back on track. When you talk to him, you’d never think that he’s gone through what he has. He’s still a massive supporter of me now. He’s definitely one of my biggest inspirations.”

The success of Conor McGregor has been the catalyst for a significant increase in participation numbers in MMA in Ireland in recent years. Danni Neilan is part of that new wave of fighters, and while her ultimate goal is to emulate McGregor by becoming a UFC champion, she wants to do so by carving her own path instead of following his.

She says: “Early on after meeting me, John [Kavanagh] asked me why was I doing this. I told him I love winning and there’s no better feeling than winning. The only thing I want is to have my hand raised, knowing that I worked harder than the person who’s trying to stop me winning.

“It’s never about money, fame, Conor or anything like that. Everyone has different reasons for doing it. Social media recognition means nothing to me. For me, it’s only about winning. It’s the ultimate challenge for my anxiety for me to step into a cage, completely vulnerable, completely raw, and to lay it out there with everyone watching.”

That’s what Neilan did repeatedly last month in Bahrain. After overcoming opponents from Tunisia, Italy and Finland on consecutive days, she had a day of rest and recovery before taking on Michele Oliveira of Brazil in the final of the World Championships.

Just over two years after her Vegas vow to John Kavanagh, the SBG head coach took to social media to speak of his pride as he prepared to work Neilan’s corner: “At almost every post-fight party I get hundreds of people coming up to me and saying they’re going to join the gym and become the next best thing. Only one person has actually followed through with the promise they’ve made to themselves. Danni Neilan continues to be a source of inspiration to me and everyone in her gym.”

The decision ultimately went Oliveira’s way at the end of the three rounds, but it had already been a successful venture for the 27-year-old from Castlecoote before she even entered the cage for her fourth fight of the week.

“I went out and put on the best performance I could on that day,” Neilan says. “I won the second round and had a bit of a dramatic comeback, but I was beaten. She definitely won the fight but I gave it everything I could. Even though I was disappointed I didn’t win, I was proud of myself for how far I’ve come.”

23559616_1161008100696281_2969373589077197524_n Danni Neilan flanked by her boyfriend and striking coach Alan McCormack and John Kavanagh in Bahrain. Jorden Curran / IMMAF Jorden Curran / IMMAF / IMMAF

While Neilan is eager to eventually enter the professional ranks, she won’t jump the gun. She’s realistic enough to appreciate that even though she’s come a long way in a short period, there’s still much to learn. Remaining an amateur throughout 2018 is the plan for now.

“This definitely isn’t just a hobby for me. The objective has been the same since the first day I joined the gym. I tend to get obsessed with things quite quickly so from the moment I started training I decided I wanted to become a UFC champion. Nothing in the meantime has changed that. There’s no other goal here.

“The World Championships was a small milestone on the road to that goal. Between now and that UFC title fight, that’s all everything else is going to be too.”

There’s no guarantee that Danni Neilan’s journey in MMA will have a fairytale ending, but she’s been living the dream ever since it began.

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