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'Fighting is the rawest form of sport' - Kieran McGeeney's martial arts journey

“It’s about thinking under pressure when someone is trying to break your arm or choke you out.”

Armagh senior football manager Kieran McGeeney.
Armagh senior football manager Kieran McGeeney.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

IT’S FORTY-EIGHT HOURS since his team were eliminated from the Ulster Championship and Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney is in the gym for some recreational therapy.

Sunday’s game was a frustrating one for the Orchard County. They expected to deliver a performance, hoped to secure a result. In the end they got neither.

“The less said about it, the better,” says McGeeney… which suits me fine. I haven’t come down to the Straight Blast Gym on the Naas Road to talk GAA, but the topic does eventually force its way into the conversation.

McGeeney has been a member at SBG for over six years now. It’s Ireland’s top martial arts facility, known throughout the MMA world as the home of Conor McGregor and several more of Ireland’s Ultimate Fighting Championship athletes.

As an awareness of McGeeney’s connection to the the gym has increased, so too has the level of embellishment contained in the tales of his exploits there.

“Did ya hear that Kieran McGeeney is a cage-fighter now? He pucks the head off Conor McGregor just as a warm-up, then lifts a load of weights for a few hours.”

That’s the kind of thing McGeeney’s had to contend with. Mostly it’s amusing but occasionally it does irritate, particularly when the aspect of martial arts he’s chosen to pursue doesn’t involve striking your opponent. It doesn’t take place in a cage either.

But McGeeney says he’s become accustomed to that sort of thing over the course of 24 years of involvement in senior inter-county football as both a player and a manager.

Kieran McGeeney 23/9/2002 DIGITAL Armagh's only senior All-ireland success came in 2002 when Kieran McGeeney was captain. Source: INPHO

“You always just have to look at who’s saying it. Most of them are faceless people on forums. Even with my own playing career, I went through 17 years and my disciplinary record was first class, but people seem to forget that.

“You could take the Kildare team I managed as well; a lot of people talked about the size of them and them being these muscle-bound fellas, but if you go through the individuals — I don’t know what people call muscle-bound nowadays, no disrespect to the Kildare boys — we had about two fellas who were well-built.

“Johnny [Doyle] keeps slagging me, saying ‘I was never muscle-bound until you came along and when you left it was all gone again’. It’s the same sort of stuff really, that’s the point. A pattern of inaccurate statements, but what can you do?

“People will highlight things that happened with Armagh and Kildare, but the top teams would be involved in more skirmishes than we would. They’re just not looked at in the same way. The facts are there but a lot of people don’t like facts because they spoil a good story.”

I wait in the reception area at SBG while McGeeney finishes up a two-hour Brazilian jiu-jitsu class. Sporting a blue gi — the standard BJJ attire (it’s similar to a karate uniform but made of heavy cotton) — he pops his head over the partition and says he’ll be with me in a couple of minutes.

The gi is adorned at the waist by a belt; purple in McGeeney’s case, signifying his level of competence in the sport. He has progressed from white, to blue to where he is now.

Brown is next but it’s a long way off, by his own admission. Being graded up in BJJ is a big deal. When you feel you’ve put in enough work to earn a new belt, you probably do the same amount again before it’s eventually awarded.

What is Brazilian jiu-jitsu? In plain terms it’s a form of grappling which focuses on submissions, but everyone has their own definition. McGeeney describes it as “a form of athletic chess”. It’s one of the many elements of mixed martial arts and, similar to MMA, its popularity is increasing significantly.

Source: SBG Ireland/YouTube

“Everything in BJJ is dominated by strategy,” McGeeney explains. “The nuances of it are so small that it’s not a great spectator sport. At the top level in this sport, when you see them, you’re probably talking about some of the best athletes in the world. It’s hard to describe just how tough on the body eight-to-twelve minutes of it can be.”

McGeeney has been training in BJJ since the beginning of 2009. He was in charge of the Kildare senior football team at the time and felt his panel needed a fresh approach to pre-season training.

Following the success of one of his star pupils, UFC star Conor McGregor, the work being done by SBG chief John Kavanagh is finally being recognised. He wasn’t a household name back then but he was, and remains, Ireland’s leading mixed martial arts coach — with a particularly decorated background in BJJ.

McGeeney: “I had done a few other sports to try and mix it up and make it more exciting, because people get very fed up of gym-work and field-work. I decided to look for something different and, in terms of thinking under pressure, fighting is probably the best thing when it’s controlled.

“It ticked a lot of the boxes that you’d like to touch on for all sports, especially contact sports. I looked around to see what was the best and BJJ kept coming up. I did a bit of research, tried to find out who was the best at it and John’s name kept coming up. I took the boys in for pre-season and enjoyed it so much myself I decided to stay at it.

kieran-mcgeeney-mcgregor-630x381 McGeeney training with Conor McGregor during a session at SBG.

“Contrary to popular belief, I don’t really like gyms. But this made a lot of sense for me; it kept me in shape, there’s great camaraderie and I’ve learned a lot from John as well in terms of coaching. Despite what people might think when they watch it, it’s very much a thinking-person’s game. You give a lot of pawns to get your rook and your bishop; to get to bigger things. It’s about thinking under pressure when someone is trying to break your arm or choke you out.

“You have to put that in context because unfortunately in the GAA world we have a lot of… you could call them idiots, but we’ll call them sensationalists who like to think that whatever team I get is all about bench-pressing and all of this malarkey. That’s coming from people who don’t really know what it’s about at all. Gross inaccuracies, basically.

“I think it’s a great sport and I’d love my own kids to do it if they ever get a chance. It’s great for fitness and self-defence but even the way it’s coached, it’s well-geared towards constant feedback and learning. I believe our education system could even learn something from it. That’s what fascinates me about it.

“There’s fantastic camaraderie too. I believe there’s a closer bond between the individual athletes in here than there is in most teams.”

McGeeney is by no means the only inter-county GAA figure who’s been taken in by BJJ either. Players from Cork, Armagh and other Ulster counties have also gotten involved, he says.

“It can be frustrating for most of them because they’re some of the top athletes in the country, very athletic, very strong, but they come in here and they’re starting from scratch. It’s a bit of an ego-bashing.

“That’s one of the reasons I think it’s such a great sport. You come in here and leave with your ego in your bag. But when you walk out you realise it’s good for you.”

That was the case when McGeeney got started too. After four weeks of training he competed at the Irish Open and his match lasted just over a minute: “My wife came along and had a good giggle at me.”

As well as coaching a BJJ class himself, McGeeney regularly grapples with the likes of Conor McGregor, Cathal Pendred and SBG’s other mixed martial artists, but you won’t find the Armagh boss stepping into the cage any time soon. He’s carving out his own path in BJJ and isn’t being diverted, but he has been impressed by the success of the gym’s MMA stars and their level of commitment.

“Fighting is probably the rawest form of sport, in the sense that you can walk in a man but you could be very much less of a man when you walk out. It definitely has that impact on you,” says McGeeney.

“In other sports, people can point to referees, they can point to bad decisions, they can point to all sorts of stuff; in the fighting game the only person you can point to is yourself. And if you get beat, you have to put your hands up and say you were beaten by a better man. It takes a lot of courage.

“We have this perception in Gaelic games that we train very hard. I hate to burst the bubble, but they don’t.

“We keep saying we over-train, and there are a couple of examples of that between the ages of 18 and 21 where fellas are playing too many games. But once you get to senior level, you’re only training two nights a week on the pitch and you’re doing two gym sessions.

“The travel can be a factor but there’s fellas travelling from places like Wexford regularly to train here. They [GAA players] will say, well ours is an amateur sport, but every sport in Ireland is amateur. We only have four professional teams in rugby and we have semi-professional soccer.

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“Even in rugby, you have to be at the very top level to make a good career. Outside of that, what have we got? Five or six professional athletes who are making a living out of it. The rest of them are working hard during the day, the same as GAA players.”

Burnout among GAA players is a common talking point. According to McGeeney, however, it’s afforded more attention than it deserves via some sections of the media… former players, mostly.

Martin O'Reilly scores their second goal past Mathew McNeice Donegal's Martin O'Reilly scores a goal against McGeeney's Armagh side in last weekend's defeat. Source: Presseye/Andrew Paton/INPHO

“Hopefully in the future, if we change some of the people we have on TV… the journalists aren’t the problem, it’s the ex-players. I wouldn’t say I agree with all the journalists but most of them are realistic. It’s the ex-players, and I’m not just talking about the over-training thing. Football’s terrible, let’s go back to the good old days, nobody is as good as we were… that sort of stuff. I played with these fellas and they’re not half as good as they remember.

“Thankfully we have TV so people can watch and see for themselves. And I don’t say that in a derogatory way because they were the best of what was there at the time. Fair play to them, they deserve all the credit. But let the youngfellas have their day. It’s their time now and it’s a different game. The game has progressed.

“They try to compare football and hurling, and I don’t know why. Football and soccer are probably more suitable to compare. It’s not defensive football that exists now, it’s counter-attacking football. I could go on ad nauseam about it but I’m not going to change their opinions and they’re not going to change mine.

“They’re trying to build their own personalities but the problem is that we’re all daft enough to listen to them. There have been a couple of fellas who have come on and been a breath of fresh air, like Tomás Ó Sé and fellas like that. They’re honest, they’re direct and they understand the game, but otherwise it’s been the same old rhetoric for 20 years.

“I think it’s time for a change. You see journalists being laid-off in some newspapers and these big headliners coming in because they write very fancy, untrue stories. But that’s obviously what sells.”

Reverting back to the issue of complaints about GAA players over-training, is it something McGeeney has had to deal with in the Armagh dressing room?

“Ach, people will tell fellas they’re wasting their time, the GAA is a small thing, it’s only in Ireland… but what are the alternatives? Of course you have to work on your career and I would never stop anybody from working hard, but are you going to just watch TV then? Obesity is going through the roof in this country, at adult level as well as in children.

“We’re talking about over-training but some of the stories are exaggerated. Like, people talked about all the money that we supposedly spent with Kildare… I would love to get the money that was available to other counties. Then I wouldn’t have to go around having fundraisers and begging for it for teams.

“You try not to get involved in all that because you’d be answering critics all day, every day. But most of them criticise you based on false information anyway.”

Kieran McGeeney and John Doyle of Kildare disappointed McGeeney with former Kildare star Johnny Doyle during his time as manager of the Lilywhites. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

When it comes to balancing various commitments, it’s perhaps fortunate for Armagh football fans that McGeeney didn’t discover Brazilian jiu-jitsu until after his playing career ended.

The passion he brought to the fields of Clones and Croke Park is now being replicated on the mats at SBG, so Armagh’s only All-Ireland winning captain may have had a difficult decision to make if BJJ crossed his path 25 years earlier.

“To say that BJJ would have taken me away from football, I’m not so sure. I love football but I would have loved this too. It’s hard to say because when I was 15 or 16 there was no BJJ in this country. It’s difficult to know.”

McGeeney heads for the exit door at SBG, with the form a little better than when he arrived. The disappointment of Armagh’s Ulster Championship exit will still linger for a while yet, but a couple of hours in Ireland’s top martial arts facility has certainly helped to ease the pain.

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