Before Paddy Holohan signed his first UFC deal, a back injury nearly forced him into an early retirement.
After a discectomy and long road back to competition, he eventually did get a chance to make his UFC debut in Dublin. His first-round win over Josh Sampo sparked an unforgettable night for the Irish on July 19, 2014, the likes of which many believe will never be seen again.
“The Hooligan” was born with a rare blood condition, Factor XIII deficiency, that affects only one in five million people. Although he took a supplement throughout his career to deal with his disadvantage, in 2016 the UFC effectively forced his exit from the sport due to safety concerns.
Upon his retirement, the Irish flyweight launched himself into a coaching role that presented itself in his native Tallaght. Yet, just a year later, Holohan went out on his own and built a new gym in the area, this time, to his own specification.
“This is the second gym that I’ve hand built since my retirement. The first time around, I was approached to open a gym, but my original plan was always to have my own place.
“This is the original plan,” Holohan told me, his head turning to drink in his new complex.
“I guess I learned a lot from the first experience with the other gym, so I was able to approach this with military precision. Even before I had announced this new spot, I had 200 people waiting to join the classes.
“Tallaght has always been good to me, and I really love this place. Honestly, people don’t realize how beautiful this place is and I always appreciate that my people have my back.”
Holohan is sometimes jokingly referred to as “The Patron Saint of Tallaght,” and although he laughs off the title, it’s evident how much respect he commands in the locality.
Although classes haven’t begun on the day that I visit him, 20-odd people are dotted around his new building, working away. And when Paddy makes an understated entrance, everyone in the building wants a word with him.
Those around Holohan have seen him overcome adversity and refuse to take no for answer during his career. For that reason, he feels he is better equipped than most to show a new generation the path to the world’s biggest MMA stages.
“I know the path. I came from a single-parent household and I made it all the way to the Octagon,” he said.
“Has it been scary? Yeah. Have there been setbacks? Of course, but I have the knowledge to steer the next generation around those potholes and that’s what I intend to do.
“People forget how long I’ve been coaching for because they don’t realize as I was fighting, I was going around the world cornering my teammates. I saw that as an apprenticeship in a way.
“I’ve been to Jordan where there are guarded military dotted around the city. These kinds of trips were mostly done off your own expense, but I knew all of it would be valuable to me when it came time to open my own place.
“I’m so glad that I did all of those things now. It was an investment in my future.”
Some active fighters shudder at the thoughts of retirement, even when they have a choice as to when they will make their final walk. Holohan’s career was effectively pulled out from underneath him two weeks before he was set to fight Willie Gates in Rotterdam.
He rarely speaks negatively about any aspect of his life, even the low points. However, he admits that watching Gates take on his replacement, Ulka Sasaki, made for particularly difficult viewing.
“I had to go out the back after and sit down, I was just thinking, ‘F*ck, I was supposed to fight Willie Gates tonight.’
“In the lead up to that fight I was religiously training with a strength and conditioning coach and I just knew I was ready. I went to Iceland and put in one of the best camps of my life.
“The medical reasons for my retirement still play on my mind. I know some people will read this and think, ‘Shut up Paddy,’ but it’s like people think that there is something wrong with me.
“My health is great. My issue was very normal to me. I always thought it was like diabetes. I took a supplement to replace the Factor XIII that my blood was missing and I thought I was good to go. Not everyone felt that way though, so eventually, you have to accept the cards you have been dealt.
“The fact that my blood would be the same as any other fighters when we go to compete makes me feel like I should be able to fight, but what can you do?”
It felt like déjà vu watching Holohan and partner, Chelsea Hudson, lugging around mats and other gym equipment on social media, just a year after they slogged over the set-up of the gym he coached at directly after his retirement.
Although parting ways with the first facility was another hurdle to overcome, he and Chelsea worked the problem to death, which resulted in the new gym, SBG Dublin 24, seemingly coming to fruition in just a few short weeks.
The reality of putting another establishment together was far more demanding of course, but Holohan had help from some of the names that have stood beside him since day one.
Even though he was beginning his camp for Floyd Mayweather while the gym was being put together, Holohan claimed that Conor McGregor was very helpful throughout the process.
“He’s been one of the people who has helped me through all of this stuff,” Holohan explained. “He sent his people over here to help me with different advice and other things.
“That’s amazing to me, he’s off in Vegas preparing to fight Floyd Mayweather and he’s still reaching out to me.
“He’s a special man. You realize when you’re in his circle that it goes a lot deeper than what people see on the outside. Conor really appreciates the people that have been around since day one and you can’t buy that kind of loyalty.
“I’m glad that I’ve got those kinds of people in my life too, and Conor is certainly one of them,” Holohan continued.
“I look at him like a big brother even though I’m older than him. I see a lot of the team that way. I had a lot of father figures in my life and John Kavanagh was one for me as well.
“When I first started training with them I used to think, ‘If I stick with these guys I’ll be fine,’ and SBG was really like a life raft for me at times.”
When you look at Holohan’s corners over the years, he has always put a lot of faith in the next generation to be by his side. “The Hooligan” wanted to show the likes of James Gallagher, Tommy Martin, Blaine O’Driscoll and Richie Smullen — some of the most promising fighters on the island — what it was like to fight for the world’s flagship MMA promotion.
Many believe that the Irish MMA scene has already had its golden era come and go, but Holohan is confident that the next generation could have something special up their sleeves.
His passion remains in exactly the same place it was before he hung up his gloves, and for that reason, it’s hard not to see the submission ace playing a part should the next wave of Irish look to make their mark on the international scene in the future.
“We were only learning while we were doing all these amazing things like the 3 Arena and all of that,” he said.
“We know more about strength and conditioning, more about balancing your day as a fighter, we understand how to rest and rehydrate a lot more…I feel like we’re still only in the process of gathering that information. The more we learn the more see improvement.
“If you think about it in terms of football, I look at our group like we were the Georgie Best era of Irish MMA.
“Now we see James Gallagher and the others, and they’re in a much better position to handle themselves because they’ve learned from what Conor has been through as he rises in the sport.
“The thing is, the Irish could win the World Cup and Italia ’90 and USA ’94 will still be the best moments of our lives. I was only two years old when Ireland went to the World Cup in Italy and I feel like I can remember everything…that’s just the way we are.
“Like anything in Ireland, that night at the 3 Arena might not be as special as we thought, but the further we get away from it the more amazing it seems. The Irish are amazing storytellers, I’ve heard thousands from that night alone, but those stories will spur on the next generation.
“So imagine there are five Irish MMA fighters on a UFC card at the 3 Arena many years from now. They have heard all the stories from the first night we went unbeaten in Dublin and now they have all of the information that we didn’t have.
“It would be hard not to get excited, wouldn’t it?”