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MMA fighter Leah's daughter 'just loves it when she get home from a fight with a gold medal'

Mother and amateur MMA fighter Leah McCourt on how she juggles life and work... and how she wants a world title match when she turns pro

By Laure James

Punctuated with a sigh, she starts listening. It isn't one of exasperation or inconvenience, neither is it, perhaps most interestingly, one of exhaustion. With a daily, taxing training schedule, a strict nutrition plan, a six-year-old ("my best friend"), and committing hours to charity fundraising, Leah McCourt would be excused for fatigue.

Instead, her melodic, sharp breath is an 'okay then' of waiting to see what's next. She doesn't just listen to questions, she answers them with enthusiasm, eloquence and insight, so it's unsurprising the mixed martial arts (MMA) star is considering offers of professional contracts.

The amateur featherweight world champion recently conquered an undefeated American opponent, Taryn Conklin, with a broken thumb and nerves so debilitating she thought she was going to faint, to come home from San Francisco with gold in the IBJJF No Gi World Championships.

Overcoming obstacles is this incredible woman's speciality.

"Any fighter who says they don't get nervous is a liar," McCourt (24) says.

"I have such a supreme belief in my skills and I will never let fear stop me, but I put a lot of pressure on myself and that makes the adrenaline course through me.

"It drives me to be the best. It is a roller coaster of emotions. I have to concentrate on my craft, go in fully focused on my skill.

"I am in training with the best team and coaches in the country. Every night I'm in the gym, but of course the nerves, or the rush, gets to you before a fight."

McCourt, from Saintfield, Co Down, was faced with a 50-50 chance of fighting ever again after knee surgery in February spelled intense rehabilitation and appeared to have crushed her dream of being crowned amateur world champion in Las Vegas in July.

"About 50% don't come back from this surgery," she explains. "That was all after having fallen very ill last Christmas and having to be on a drip. It was a massive set-back for me, or so I thought it would be.

"I had three months in recovery and then I had no time at all to get back for Vegas. That was when everyone said I was mad and ought to put it back to next year.

"But I wanted to go ahead and make it possible. I had faith and belief, and prayed it would go well.

"Obviously, everything was worth it after all, and a broken thumb seems like nothing compared to the knee surgery, which wasn't as much of a problem either."

Moreover, Las Vegas was really no holiday. Leah took part in the IMMAF World Championships of Amateur MMA, part of the fifth UFC International Fight Week - a highlight of the hugely popular American promotion company's calendar.

"Weighing in for medicals at 6am every morning was hard and, as part of UFC Fight Week, we were part of the fan experience, so it was no rest," the judo black-belt says. "There's these five, lovely minutes of contentment when you win, then it's 'How do I progress my career?' So you're straight into looking at other things.

"I focused on Brazilian jiu jitsu in San Francisco. My partner was heading over to that anyway and it was just a week or two, but it was a brilliant experience. This year I have been continuing to compete in Brazilian jiu jitsu - it's a great discipline and encapsulates everything in terms of styles.

"I think it is important to work with different disciplines and to compete at those, so that you have a high level in the cage, especially as it is hard to get MMA fights and gain experience, which can be frustrating but that's just where the sport's at.

"Moving forward, the aim is to be in the UFC and to turn pro next year, so I am talking to different promotion agencies and I know a lot of decisions have to be made.

"It's always hard to know the right decision to make, but I will talk to my family and take my time."

At the heart of the family she refers to is her daughter, Isabella, and partner Patrick McAllister, an MMA coach and a core member of her dedicated team, with trainers Pol Murray, Rodney Moore and conditioning coach Ian Young.

"Patrick obviously has a real passion for MMA, but Isabella absolutely loves it when I come home with a gold medal," she says.

"She asks me to bring her one back like it's a souvenir, when I go to fight. I wrap a present for her, which I leave behind, and then she opens it with me during Facetime calls.

"She's never seen me in action - she's too young - but I bring her along to training. She loves the craic and is learning judo herself."

With a significant other in the industry and an adoring daughter, McCourt has a distinct advantage. Her family, no doubt, has an exciting ride ahead.

Yet, unlike boxer Michael Conlan, who recently turned pro with Top Rank, Leah has decided to remain here in Northern Ireland.

"I couldn't leave here - my home is here," she explains. "I am used to the gruelling schedules - I am a total workaholic and can never settle. I want to turn pro in March or April next year, but I'll still definitely stay in Northern Ireland.

"I think it's about having a goal. People say I am totally mad, but I love having something to work towards and I have so much support.

"I've friends my age who live for their weekends. They love to go out. While I am very sociable, I don't drink or party. I am way too busy. But I don't think I am missing out at all. I've never felt like I am missing out. I've been involved in judo since I was young, and I started MMA about four years ago, so that discipline and commitment has always been part of my life.

"It does take up a lot of time, and coming up to a fight the intensity of training and sparring would increase, so it does get harder still.

"My coaches and teammates know what point they need to push you to in training, so they know you are trying to push you to the limit. You know you can keep going if they've pushed you past that point."

As an amateur, McCourt has also battled to raise funds for herself to enable her to pursue her passion, but the sweet-natured fighter is also an active charity worker.

"I work for Mencap as a fundraising co-ordinator, and that's another, constant goal," she says.

"I have always had a passion for charities and people with learning disabilities, and helping to do something which can help others is what is so worthwhile for me. But I have to raise funds for myself too! There is no funding for MMA in Northern Ireland, so I have to seek sponsorship myself.

"My sponsors, Walsin, have been brilliant, but it would be nice to see the Sports Council here be proactive in helping athletes represent their country at such a high level in sports which it doesn't yet recognise."

For professional fighters, being a success in the cage, as with in the ring, is only part of the deal. Those who are signed have to boast marketability, drawing the punters in with their personality as well as punches.

McCourt made her debut performance in MMA in Clan Wars back in June 2014, and won over a home crowd in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, with her focus, commitment and personality.

Earning acclaim on her own turf was one thing, but drawing in the crowds at money-flushed promoter events is another thing entirely..

Naturally, as soon as she agrees terms, McCourt wants to make an instant impact to show there's a new girl on the circuit.

"I know I can be a UFC world champion, there's no doubt," she insists. "The men call me a beast in the cage - they say I am a total animal.

"I want to fight whoever is the world champion at the time when I go pro. I am the number one featherweight in the world. Why wouldn't I?

"I have a big profile in MMA and I've worked extremely hard to get here. Wherever the biggest challenge is, that's where I'll be."

Belfast Telegraph


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