WHILE MOST PEOPLE are tucked up in their beds, subconsciously dreading the morning call on their alarm clock, one athlete is already hard at work.
Six days a week, he aims to have the first of his three daily workouts done and dusted before breakfast.
He isn’t training for the upcoming Olympics, nor is he part of any team that you would usually associate with Irish sport.
Instead, Damien Rooney is a professional mixed martial artist and TheScore has had the chance to follow his progress in the run up to his next fight at Cage Contender XIII, in the King’s Hall, Belfast on 28th April.
For a long time MMA has been viewed as a brutal and unforgiving sport on the same level as backyard brawling and underground bare-knuckle fights.
From somewhat disorganised beginnings, the sport and organisations such as the UFC have challenged public perceptions, and the tide of opinion seems to be turning favourably, so much so that it is now being shown on the mainstream TV channel Fox in America.
As the sport’s stock continues to rise, it is no surprise that its appeal has reached these shores. Ireland has a history of producing great fighters; Barry Mc Guigan, Steve Collins and Michael Carruth to name but a few.
And while Irish boxing is currently thriving, its MMA scene also has a number of great up-and-coming fighters on the verge of breaking into the UFC.
Damien “The Rage” Rooney
One such fighter TheScore managed to catch up with is twenty eight year old Newry native Damien Rooney.
For the past three years, Rooney has been training as a fulltime MMA fighter, having taking part in events in Dublin, Belfast and Manchester.
He is currently three weeks away from a fight against fellow bantamweight prospect Paddy “The Hooligan” Holohan. As it stands his professional record is eight wins, two losses and one draw.
So what was it that made him get into MMA?
“I practiced and competed nationally and internationally in Tae Kwon Do at both Junior and Senior levels and my eager fighting style often meant I had points taken off in competition. I’ve always loved fighting and the adrenaline rush of actually going in there and competing, but even at international level I found Tae Kwon Do very restrictive and was always looking for more, coming away from the semi-contact bouts feeling quite unfulfilled.”
The emergence of MMA and in particular the UFC, occurred at the perfect moment for Rooney who saw a sport that could fulfil all his desire for more action.
He travelled to Thailand to train in Muay Thai, and it was there he got his first proper taste of MMA.
“I’d started watching more of the UFC over in Thailand and began sparring with some of the MMA fighters, and I basically got taken down and destroyed on the ground and thought ‘I’m really going to have to get into this now.’”
He travelled to Brazil to train with the renowned Gracie Floripa team lead by Tony Eduardo and spent six months training with UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes in his H.I.T. Squad gym in Illinois.
“There’s no doubt that Americans are the top of the food chain when it comes to setting the standard. I went away with the mind-set that I’m from Ireland so I’m not getting the same training, the same facilities or the same coaches as these guys and I’m going to be a few steps behind.
“However, after the first few training sessions I remember thinking I can get in and compete with these guys at this level. It was a big confidence boost.”
Fighting at home
Having seen a steady improvement in training facilities here, he decided to move back and try and climb the ladder in the UK and Ireland rankings.
Fighting domestically in organisations such as Cage Contender is the perfect way to build experience and Rooney believes the Irish MMA scene is brimming with competitive fighters who are nearly ready to make the cross-over to the UFC.
“Fighters like Paul McVeigh and Ali Maclean have raised the profile of Irish fighters by almost getting into The Ultimate Fighter TV series – the show gives up-and-coming fighters a shot UFC glory – and there’s no doubt you need to be at the top-level to get into that organisation.
“But the fact that the UFC is travelling so much now, it plays into your hand that you’re a different nationality. If they do come to England or Ireland and they’re looking for an Irish guy on the card, that break might come. You just have to keep working hard and hope that something happens for you.”
Follow Damien’s progress for his upcoming fight in Belfast on TheScore.ie in the next couple of weeks.