Paddy Holohan: ‘MMA was a liferaft to grab onto’
The former MMA fighter talks about his upbringing, martial arts and becoming a politician
On the wall of the Straight Blast Gym (SBG) in an industrial estate in Dublin 24, there’s a huge picture of the gym’s owner, the red-bearded MMA fighter Paddy Holohan. Inside is a coffee dock, a pool table, a lot of exercise equipment I barely understand, and a mixed martial arts (MMA) cage. Upstairs there’s a flotation tank, a podcast studio (Holohan hosts an interview podcast called No Shame), a recording studio and another gym space in which a Jiu-Jitsu class is taking place.
Holohan, a Sinn Féin councillor and now a retired MMA fighter, asks me have I ever done Jiu-Jitsu. I have not. He talks about how life changing it is. “You interact with people,” he says. “You’re rolling around with people and you’re figuring out how your body moves. You’re finding this really cool confidence.”
There’s a nice warm atmosphere in the place. People get the wrong idea about gyms like this, he says. “This is a wellness centre, a family centre.”
Holohan has just published an autobiography, Hooligan, which tracks a disadvantaged upbringing in Jobstown, a successful MMA career and his forced retirement for medical reasons, followed by a new life in the roles mentioned above.
His childhood was tough. His mother had issues with her mental health and prescription medication. Years before he was born she lost two babies and spent time in a Magdalene Laundry. “She was maxed out, in a way,” he says. “I have two boys and I have my fiancee. And my first son was not with my fiancee, so there are two mothers there. And even with that I found it hard. My mother did it on her own on very little money in a really tough area at a really tough time.”
He was aware that his mother was vulnerable from a young age, he says. “And I’m still aware that there are a lot of people like that in society. And society still isn’t there to help them, and it judges them instead.
“It was always joked about in the house that I was the man of the house. I wallpapered my mother’s bedroom at eight years of age. I took the reins very early on. Protecting my home and protecting my family was a huge thing for me.”
His mother’s sister Marguerite was a stabilising influence. She would take him to stay with her family in Lenadoon in Belfast, though the downside of that was some exposure to a more overt form of state violence.
“I remember a soldier calling me over, keeping me at a wall talking to me, and my aunty went over and dragged me away,” he says. “She was really angry, and I couldn’t understand what she was angry about. I was just asking about his camouflage. He had a bird on his shoulder. But it turns out he was using me for cover. I remember that being explained to me. ‘You mean someone could have shot me?’”
I still was a kid when I became a da
As a kid he got into fights, usually defending himself or someone in his family. “I never started fights. I wasn’t a rowdy type of person. I would have been picked on at times, and sometimes just being from a different road meant you got a hiding.”
When he was seven he was hit in the face, and this led to a blood clot on the brain that required surgery. He still has the scar. The wayward clot was a result of a very rare blood disorder, a form of haemophilia known as a Factor XIII Deficiency. A few years later, after he had a tooth extracted, a clot “the size of a plum” kept building in the cavity and he spent weeks in Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin. “I was so fed up I just walked home. I think my mam was a bit shocked . . . Crumlin is a three hour walk for a kid.”
There’s a clipping of a Sunday World news story reprinted in the book, with the headline This Little Boy Walked the Five Miles Home Alone from Hospital. He laughs at the picture. “That’s what a council kid in the 90s looked like.”
What did he want from life when he was a child? “It hasn’t changed. I wanted a family, a family unit. I wanted to grow up and have children and be able to take them on holidays and have a stable home.”
He wanted to be a dad as a kid? He laughs. “I still was a kid when I became a da. I was 19 or something. Back then I would have told you that I was a man. I was in a situation where I wanted to be a father, but (then) it was happening and I realised ‘Oh sh*t I have nothing. I don’t have a pot to piss in’.”
Around the same time he discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. “I walked into a tiny club named SBG, then only a small little place in Rathcoole. Now it’s a global thing. It changed me. One pill fixes all. Russell Brand says he’s done more drugs in his life than anyone else, but that the high from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is like nothing else.
“If you look at a guy across the street and he has tattoos and a bald head and a biker jacket on, you think, ‘He’s tough’. You make assumptions . . . That part of my brain was taken out. Being bigger was not better. Being scary looking usually means you’re putting on a camouflage to protect yourself. And when I went out to the world I could see it. I had different goggles on. If you train in Jiu-Jitsu, it’s no longer about being bigger. It’s about physics and leverage.”
Irish mixed martial arts was tiny then, he says. He lists friends who went on to make names for themselves – Conor McGregor, Aisling Daly, Owen Roddy, Cathal Pendred. “People started to realise that we Irish are good at combat sports.”
What did it mean for him, specifically? “It was a life raft to grab onto. My motivation was my son and bettering my life and my family name, and now I had the actual vehicle for that.”
He was eventually selected to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and his book depicts the physical toll both the fights and the required weight loss took on him. Was fighting frightening? “Everything you want in life is on the other side of fear,” he says. “When I step through that gate I’m stepping onto a battlefield, the same way people stepped onto a battle field hundreds of years ago. I lost the main event in Dublin to Louis Smolka (in 2015), but I invested what I got from that fight into my village, into my gym.
“I’ll face the fear, and when I conquer what’s in front of me, then I’ll be on the other side of everything and I’ll feel amazing and I’ll have a story and I’ve built something. Fear is a survival instinct that wants to keep you in the cave. You have to control your fear . . . When you look into someone (while) fighting, it makes you look into yourself. It’s putting a mirror to your face.”
What does he say to people who think that MMA is too dangerous? “Everyone is okay to go watch fellas get up on a horse and lob themselves around the track,” he says. “To me that’s terrifying. You put me on the back of a wild animal a hundred times more powerful than me, I’d be petrified. We let men climb Everest. People will definitely walk past people who have died on that mountain. And we’re okay with that?”
I have always been interested in Ireland running well for the people
At times he has reflected on how strange it is to be a fighter. “I remember one time standing in the cage,” he says. “I’d kicked someone in the groin by accident and he was taking five minutes, and it was the first time I was in there looking out at everyone else . . . no one is looking at each other. Everyone is looking in one direction. And you can see it in their faces: ‘Kill him! Aaagh!’ . . . it’s a little bit weird. Listen, I love the fans. I am one of them. I’ll be on the other side with an Irish flag screaming worse than anyone.”
What are his interactions with fans like? Social media makes it a bit weirder, he says. “I have people ask ‘Paddy. Do you mind if I ask you a question? I’m deeply depressed and I don’t know how to get out of a hole’ . . . and over the next few days I’ll be messaging and texting giving them tips and help. And then another day I’ll be asked, ‘Paddy can I ask a question? Have you got ginger pubes?’”
In 2016 the UFC learned that Holohan had the Factor XIII blood disorder, and after that no doctor would clear him for a fight. He had previously told them about his brain operation and he had received examinations all along, but this specific issue had never arisen. “When I went to the UFC I was never really asked about it, so I never really disclosed it,” he says. Though it was something that worried him. “It was a burden,” he says, a little later. “I’m an honest man.”
So what was it like to be told he couldn’t fight anymore? “It took me 10 years to get where I was,” he says. “I turned up and searched the knowledge and travelled the world. To me it was like a PhD being taken away . . . The bitter part of me saw guys on a ban at the same time I had to retire, and I watched those same guys make the walk to the Octagon later saying, ‘I didn’t realise that I was pumping my butt cheeks full of performance-enhancing drugs!’”
Does he miss fighting? “Terribly. I miss it terribly.”
At the same time this was happening, he was starting a gym with his long-time coach John Kavanagh, but they ended up going their separate ways. Holohan didn’t get on with one of the investors, and he felt like he would have little control over the business. So despite having the same “SBG” brand name, Holohan’s gym is unaffiliated with Kavanagh’s.
Holohan views his operation as a sort of community centre. He talks about “social camouflage”, the way children in some areas feel a need to protect themselves by acting up and becoming petty criminals. His gym, he says, gives them some purpose. He has scholarships for talented kids who can’t pay the fees. “[They’re] so shy sometimes. They just say ‘I’m not going to train anymore’ and then I find out it’s that they actually can’t afford it.”
Sinn Féin’s Cathal King suggested he run for council. “I thought, ‘Politics? Oh, that’s not me’,” he says. “But your bins are politics. If your bins aren’t been taken, that’s politics. I have always been interested in Ireland running well for the people . . . And that’s what Sinn Féin has been trying to do.” Holohan ran for election on South Dublin County Council in May this year, clinching a seat in the Tallaght South electoral area.
When people ask what I want to do now, I say ‘president’ because why not?
I ask him how he feels about Conor McGregor’s recent court fine for punching an older man in a Dublin pub (CCTV footage of the incident circulated online). He defends his friend. “I know he isn’t proud of what happened. But let’s be straight: how many times does what happened happen in pubs in Dublin city? That doesn’t make it right . . . but it’s definitely not on the front of a newspaper.”
But McGregor is a role model, I say, and young fans are influenced by what he does.
He sighs. “The problem with having sports stars and fighters as role models is that our leaders and our Government should be the role models . . . By default, we worked (ourselves) into a position where people admired us and looked up to us, but it’s not in my job description to be doing the right thing so kids are going the right way. That’s something I took up voluntarily [as a councillor]. If you put role model on Conor’s back that’s unfair . . . The leaders and people running the country should be the role models.”
Throughout our interview, Holohan is eager to make the most of his position. He references families living in hotels, the privatisation of public space like O’Devaney Gardens, hospital waiting lists, the way vulnerable people are encouraged to turn on each other, suicide rates in his community, and the monopoly on power held by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. He believes that inequality creates damage across the generations.
“There’s massive poverty in this country,” he says. “We’ve put broken generations on the back of each other, but we only blame the one that’s in front of us . . . We went from the British owning us to the Catholic Church owning us and now to the businesses. What are we doing here? Where’s the space for the people?”
From a very early age, Holohan detected that people who talked and dressed like him were looked down upon and not expected to do well. “If you were growing up and decided you wanted to be a TD, they’d say ‘Why not? That’s very obtainable.’ But if I said, ‘I want to be a councillor’, they’d have laughed. They still laugh.
“There are moments people don’t know who I am and treat me the way they think I am . . . When people ask what I want to do now, I say ‘president’ because why not? Becoming a councillor was the equivalent of that.”
Hooligan by Paddy Holohan is published by Gill Books