James Gallagher: MMA fighter speaks about mental health struggles

James Gallagher tops the bill at Bellator Dublin this week
James Gallagher tops the bill at Bellator Dublin this week

Rising mixed martial arts star James Gallagher says fighting athletes are "100%" more susceptible to mental health issues because they are expected to follow their tough guy image.

The Strabane fighter, who headlines Bellator Dublin this week, spoke about his struggles with anxiety after beating Jeremiah Labiano in June.

But Gallagher says elite-level fighters must deal with the pressure of being perceived as 'big, scary' guys.

"We're the tough guys," said Gallagher.

"We're the ones everyone is scared of."

Speaking to BBC Sport NI in a candid interview for In The Cage: Bellator Dublin Countdown, he added: "Other athletes or celebrities put us on a pedestal. You've got an image that you're a big, scary fighter, but we're human beings and that's just how it is.

"I feel invincible in the cage, but it doesn't mean I'm invincible in life."

Gallagher, who responded to last year's shock KO defeat by Ricky Bandejas with wins over Steven Graham and Labiano, insists that fighters must contend with people wanting to "pull them down" once they have reached the pinnacle of their sport.

"We put ourselves out there and everyone loves you when you're on the climb," he said.

"When you get there, they want to pull you back off because no-one else has had the balls to do what you do.

"When all these guys reach the top, that's when it starts to happen. I can see it, I've studied these guys, the likes of Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua, everyone loved them on their way up but once they reached the top, no-one liked them any more.

Gallagher defeated Jeremiah Labiano at Bellator London in June
Gallagher defeated Jeremiah Labiano at Bellator London in June

"Everyone says you're a faker, but I'm not. I'll come out and say I had panic attacks when I was training in the gym.

"I was getting anxiouis and didn't feel great, but I'll walk out in the 3Arena next week, sold-out crowd and beat some grown man, smash him up. No problems."

Gallagher, who boasts an MMA record of 9-1, says his self-confidence helped him speak out about having experienced panic attacks in the build-up to the Labiano fight a Bellator London.

"I'm secure in myself so why wouldn't I speak about something that I've got going on?

"I feel like it's hard for people who aren't confident in themselves to speak about something like that because they'll think someone will think something of them.

"But I've been faced my whole life with people running me down, people coming on my back and I'm used to that.

Gallagher celebrates with his mother Doreen after beating Steven Graham in February
Gallagher celebrates with his mother Doreen after beating Steven Graham in February

"So that situation of people hating on me constantly has probably helped me get through something like that."

While Gallagher's unapologetic showmanship has attracted criticism on social media, the 22-year-old believes online naysayers have helped him deal with a different kind of adversity.

"They helped me," said Gallagher. "If I wasn't faced with such adversity, then how can I handle this different kind of adversity if I don't know what adversity feels like.

"You have to be real with yourself. That's the problem with the world today. Nobody's being real with themselves, but I am."

Our sport is particularly tough - Kavanagh

John Kavanagh, Gallagher's coach, feels as though egos stand in the way when it comes to young men discussing their struggles with mental health.

"It's something young men have a problem with," said Kavanagh.

"We do a lot of work in the gym about mental health, talking about how it's OK not to be OK.

"Young guys who fight and do MMA, this tough guy sport, find it hardest to be open. Sometimes these feelings can be repressed and they'll come out in a panic attack if you're not dealing with them on a daily basis. So we're trying to be more on top of it."

Kavanagh argues that the challenges the MMA presents to the fighters are differ vastly from footballers, who are used to playing every week. In stark contrast, if a fighter loses a bout, it can often be months before he has the opportunity to rectify.

"Our sport is particularly tough because you're only doing it two or three times a year.

"If you have a bad fight, it could be six months waiting for your next one. There is a lot of pressure, but you can use that on to spur you on.

"These things can be used in a positive manner so we have to accept that we're going to feel fear and anxiety and have days when we're not feeling great, but we still have to show up and do our job."

In The Cage: Bellator Dublin Countdown is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.