By Jake Smith
In the space of six and a half years, Danni Neilan has gone from complete novice, to competing on one of the biggest mixed martial arts promotions in the world, Bellator. Her journey until this point has been meteoric.
Neilan’s entry into competitive sports was a far cry from the discipline in which she would end up excelling in. She first competed in horse racing and did so for many years. It was only at the age of 25, after a difficult 12 months, that she stepped away from horse racing and around that time Neilan discovered mixed martial arts for the first time. In the same week, she joined a local gym.
“I started training in MMA with no background in martial arts at all. From the first session I was absolutely hooked and pretty much wanted to compete straight away, I knew I wanted to be a fighter from that first day and it’s been all guns blazing since then.” said Neilan.
After a conversation with her coach, John Kavanagh, Neilan decided to enter the 2016 IMMAF European Championships and although she dropped out of the competition in the first round, the experience was the start of something special.
“The first IMMAF tournament I competed in, I lost my first fight. It was a rude awakening of what an actual fight was. I lost in the first round, I got submitted and it made me realise this is a proper fight, it’s not like being in the gym.
“That really set a fire under me after the first tournament. The next tournament I did was the World Championships, where I got silver and through that experience I got an awful lot of confidence in myself and my ability and it made me realise that if you believe in yourself, you’re tenacious and you really, really want it, that you can hang with the best amateurs in the world.”
Neilan believes that IMMAF not only helps athletes develop their skill set, but also improves their mental strength. She explained:
“The big thing for me was getting the amount of fights I got, fighting different styles from different countries and gaining confidence of knowing I could fight these girls from around the world and if I went for it, and I had the skill set, that I could win and that gave me massive confidence to turn pro and know I could be a professional fighter, after I got the silver medal.
“The IMMAFs teach you how to be resilient, you get injured between fights, you need to maintain your weight, you have to eat breakfast across from your opponent; you need to be extremely resilient and mentally tough to go to an IMMAF tournament and not let any of those things bother you and just show up and keep fighting, regardless how tired you are. You have to be massively resilient to get through an IMMAF tournament, a pro fight is a walk in the park after that!”
The Bellator Strawweight joined the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association coaching team ahead of this year’s Youth World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her role within the association involves squad sessions for the Youth athletes, sessions with the Junior and Senior female athletes, along with studying opponents and creating gameplans during competition days. Following an extremely successful championship for the Irish, Neilan set her sights on the World Cup. Reflecting fondly on her time at the Youth Championships, she expressed how currently competing herself, helps within the role.
“I loved it. I’m still fighting too so it’s a bit of a juggling act, sorting my own training and coaching but I absolutely loved it so after the cadets, I was asked if I would look after the female juniors and seniors and that’s how I ended up here at the World Cup; it’s my first time coaching juniors and seniors.
“It wasn’t that different for me going between athlete and coach. I feel like because I’m still fighting I have a lot of first hand experience. I know what the fighters are going through, I know what the level is at the moment and what techniques are working, what things to do to try and win the fight so it was a pretty easy transition for me to go from fighter to coach and I feel very comfortable in that role. I coach at home in my own gym, myself and my partner own a gym called Relentless MMA, so I have a lot of experience coaching in the gym.
“The best thing about being an IMMAF coach is coaching people from other gyms. I really enjoy that. Coaching your own is a lot easier and your motivation for your own gym to do well but I feel like it brings out the best in you if you are willing to help someone from another gym. Then it is not about your gym, you’re there to help anyone from Ireland; I love that we all come together as a country, it doesn’t matter what gym you’re from. That’s really important for me as a coach, that I give as much time to any athlete from Ireland, it doesn’t matter which gym they’re from.”
Heading into the Youth World Championships, the Irish team received an incredibly generous donation from ‘The Notorious’ Conor Mcgregor, who covered all the Irish youth squad’s expenses. Her teammate, Cian Cowley sponsored the all Ireland European squad, ensuring they all had Irish kits.
“It’s absolutely amazing with Conor supporting the cadets initially, I was absolutely blown away, it was a huge amount of money to send that cadet team to Bulgaria, I was just really proud to be associated with it and for him to do it out of his own pocket was amazing, it made me so happy.
“Cian is still fighting, a team mate of mine, for him to pay for the kits this year really shows what kind of person he is, that he did that, that he remembered what it was like to not have a kit. He never forgot what that felt like and he wanted to make sure the team had a kit this year.
It means so much, it makes me feel warm inside just thinking about it. They are the salt of the Earth kind of people to have done that,” she said.
Following the world cup, Danni’s focus will switch back to her fighting career as she prepares herself for her upcoming Bellator bout against Audrey Kerouche at the 3 Arena Dublin on November the 5th.