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20-years-old and standing in the heart of Madison Square Garden with his arm hoisted in the air. Just two-and-a-half minutes needed to sink in his signature finish.
Last June, James Gallagher was on top of the world.
The undefeated Irish star had stopped Chinzo Machida with a rear naked choke on Bellator’s biggest card of the year. It was his first fight in the US and the win had raised his profile significantly. If people had been quietly optimistic about his development before, they were now a lot louder.
Now 7-0, “The Strabanimal” was to headline for the first time in Bellator’s return to his home country last November. If New York was a warm reception, Dublin would be utterly insane.
But it wasn’t to be.
After suffering a knee injury, Gallagher was forced to withdraw from Bellator 187.
He underwent surgery, recovered, rehabilitated and was finally set to return at Bellator 196 in April, before fracturing his hand.
Over one year later, Gallagher is itching to pick up where he left off last June. This Saturday (AU), he will make his return to the cage at Bellator 204 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota against Ricky Bandejas.
While he admits the time off was difficult, it seems the adversity has only fuelled his desire to compete.
“When you’re just 20-years-old and your ma’ has to put on your socks, and me girlfriend had to wash me, because I couldn’t move me leg. I was just stuck. I couldn’t move,” Gallagher told media on Wednesday ( via MMAjunkie).
“It’s embarrassing. It takes away your pride. I had the world at me feet. I fought Madison Square Garden, the pinnacle, the Mecca of the fight game, about to headline me home show and it was – bang – just pulled from underneath me.” Gallagher continued. “That was low. That was the lowest. Then I seen everyone else getting wins. They were winning and standing on me, going ‘Gallagher’s away running. He’s scared.’ But yeah, no, I was just in my gaff with me leg strapped up, not able to put on me own socks. And they stood on me. And I watched them win. Took inspiration from their wins. And it filled me. Rather than hate on it and get bitter towards what they said about me, I took inspiration from their performances, from their work that they put in to get them wins, and I climbed back up. And now I’m here and they’re saying fuck all. They’re not opening their mouth at all. And I’m here. I’m here. I’m back and they’re all fucked.”
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Ordinarily a featherweight, Gallagher said an offer from Bellator to fight for a title next persuaded his move to bantamweight for this contest, though he isn't overlooking Ricky Bandejas.
“I’m gonna walk in here Friday night and put on a clinic. I’m not looking past this guy at all. I’m going in here prepared for a solid opponent. I’m going out here prepared for the toughest fight of my life. I’m going out here to face a killer,” Gallagher said. “But I’m just too good. I’m just too good. He’s not my level. I’m that step above. I’m that next killer up. That’s what it is. But I’m not underestimating this guy at all. I’m gonna go in here Friday night, I’m gonna beat him and then I’m fighting for the belt in my home country, in Dublin, in December.”
Coincidently, the current bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell will be headlining Friday’s card in a non-title, featherweight bout with Noad Lahat. Though Gallagher doesn’t exactly see it as coincidence.
“I drop down a weight-class and the champ goes running. He goes running. So he’s back up to 145,” he said. “See you after, mate. I’m coming for that belt and I’m taking it. I’m gonna whip this fella on Friday night and then I’m going straight for that belt.”
After his time off, Gallagher dismissed any suggestion of ring rust.
“I’m prepared. That’s what that is. Ring rust comes from not being prepared. So this is nothing. I’ve been fighting since I’ve been 13-years-old,” he said.
“I get more comfortable. If anything, I was rusty in the gym and now when I step in there, it’s gonna be freedom.
“I’m home, and that’s the way it’s gonna feel, and I can’t wait to go in there and let loose, get them shots popping. And when I’m in training, I’m holding back. I don’t wanna hurt my teammates, the people that are helping me get to this level. I don’t wanna injure them and don’t wanna land heavy shots, ‘cause that’s not good training. You’re just damaging your own body and you’re damaging their body. Instead, I bring the pace down, just go technical, let their technical skills build mine and hopefully I can build theirs. We rise together. Saturday night – or Friday night – when I walk back in there, I’m gonna let it all go. Every shot, his head is gonna move. Every takedown is gonna hit the floor. Every transition, I’m gonna be a step ahead. Every position I wanna hold, he’s stuck. Any submission I go, he’s dead.”
Bellator 204 will be held at Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota this Satuday, August 18 (AU).