Winning means different things at different times, so when Danni Neilan took the win at Bellator Milan it was more than a submission. It was about staying focused and running a new gym as the whole country came to a standstill during the lockdown.
Neilan, a former amateur jockey, came to national attention in 2017 when she took silver at the world amateur martial arts championships for Ireland. Her latest bout at the end of September gave her three wins out of three appearances on the professional fighting stage with Bellator Europe.
The fight against Frenchwoman Claire Lopez was a test of Neilan’s determination as much as her skills, she says: “I got dropped in the first round, she threw an overhand right, I was watching for her to take me down. That woke me up.”
Having watched Lopez’s previous fights, she knew this was a fighter who gives her all in the first round. So Neilan’s plan was to weather that onslaught, cover up and dominate in the later rounds. But as Mike Tyson famously said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
The Roscommon woman says: “I ran at her a lot and didn’t stay safe. She was tired in the second round. I felt brilliant when I won that, it was my first win by submission after 12 fights. It could have been a disaster after the first round, it felt all the sweeter then to stop her.”
Nerves were not an issue, and the tougher the fight the better she performs, she says.
“It was a good match-up for me. My style meant it had the making of a good fight. People said it was the most exciting fight of the night.”
And despite the economic fireball caused by COVID19, Neilan’s contract stayed solid.
Fighters at Neilan’s level on Bellator get paid around €12-13,000 per fight. The next biggest promotion available for Irish MMA fighters she says would be Cage Warriors who pay about €1,000 for the same level of experience.
Neilan says: “I can’t speak highly enough of Bellator. There’s lots of professionals fighting for pennies. Bellator pay us well, they make it a profession for us. I don’t have a lot of time for the lower shows that are not paying that much to pros, it is a very hard sport if you are not concentrating full-time.”
Neilan has been involved in MMA for just over five years, but she is already spreading her wings into martial arts as a full-time life. She says the help she got from coach John Kavanagh was a big thing: when Kavanagh said she was good, people listened.
Still training at Straightblast Gym in Dublin with Kavanagh, she is also co-owner of the Relentless Martial Arts Gym in Mullingar, run with her striking coach and partner Alan McCormack.
And where some people shrank from the challenge of surviving COVID19 Neilan jumped straight in. She said: “We went online straight away, and we retained about 70% of our membership during the lockdown. It’s booming now, you have to adapt quickly, keep adjusting and follow the guidelines.”
It was not easy, she talks about the ‘grind’ of keeping things going. But they are still standing, and with Co Westmeath currently at Level 2 restrictions the gym is up and running. Neilan’s Bellator profile keeps the local spotlight on, and lets people know they don’t have to travel to Dublin for top-class training.
Neilan is big on humility, maybe something she learned racing horses. She carries more injuries from that sport than fighting could ever give her, trying to control a half-tonne of horseflesh teaches you a lot about your place in the world.
Both Neilan and McCormack coach at the club, and she says: “We teach everyone from the cubs, they’re aged four, all the way up. It’s cool for them to see us teaching the beginners too, we are community here. There are no egos, no elitism at all.”