Aisling Daly may have lost her chance to compete on the UFC’s return to Dublin card in 2014 due to her participation on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, but when the First Lady of Irish MMA found out about another event taking place in her hometown, she was not about to miss this one.
“I think it might have been a given,” Daly said of fighting Ericka Almeida at 3Arena on October 24, “but I wasn’t going to take that risk, so I blew up (UFC matchmaker) Sean (Shelby)’s phone as well just in case.”
Daly laughs, but missing the card that saw her teammates Conor McGregor, Gunnar Nelson, Cathal Pendred and Paddy Holohan all sail to victory in front of a packed house a year ago was no laughing matter. So she was going to make sure she was there this year.
“To not be involved was really heartbreaking for me, so I definitely wanted to be part of this card, so there was no way I was leaving anything to chance.”
While the SBG Ireland squad was delighting the Dublin crowd, Daly was fighting to make it into the UFC as a member of the TUF cast in Las Vegas. She did get to see the event a day after it happened, which didn’t aid her nerves at all, but at least she was able to breathe easy when it was all over.
“It was hard to sit there and watch it, knowing that the camera guys and the sound guys all knew what happened, and I still didn’t know what happened to my teammates and friends,” she recalls. “That was a pretty crazy experience.”
A little more than a year removed from the TUF house and the last Dublin show, the 27-year-old Daly is in a completely different place in her life. She still trains, still fights, and still has championship dreams, but everything is on an a whole new level. She has already competed in the Octagon twice, submitting Alex Chambers and losing a decision to Randa Markos, and there’s an increased confidence in everything she does, whether it’s her role as an ambassador for MMA in Ireland, her fighting, or in the ever growing spotlight. Daly may not be where she wants to be accomplishment wise, but it’s clear that with everything else, she’s arrived.
It’s a day “Ais the Bash” never thought would come. Not because she didn’t feel she deserved it or had the goods to deliver on the world stage; it’s just that when she began training as a teenager, women’s MMA wasn’t what it is today, and even when she turned pro and it was an accepted part of the fight game, the UFC didn’t have any women’s divisions and there were no plans to implement any.
“I was competing in MMA at a time when (UFC President) Dana (White) said there would never be a women’s division in the UFC, so I never thought I’d see in the time of my career that I would be allowed to participate in a UFC fight, never mind a UFC fight in my home town. That, to me, is insane.”
Adding to the insanity is that Daly didn’t have any female role models in Irish MMA. She was the role model, the pioneer, the one leading the way for all Irish fighters to come after her. Yet as she made her way through the ranks, fighting everywhere from Denmark and the United States to England and Jordan, it was nothing out of the ordinary for her.
“To me, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” she said. “One of the issues for me was just the naiveté of youth. (Laughs) You don’t really realize what’s going on when you’re 18, 19 years of age. You just kind of, by a happy accident, ended up involved in this sport, and you love it, and you’re donating all your time and energy and passion towards it, and you’re getting to compete in it, which was the ultimate thing that made me happy. But at the same time, you’re not really even seeing the bigger picture. I was just doing something that I loved. But for everybody else, it was unusual and exciting, and I was a bit of a freakshow and I was the pioneer. ‘It was crazy. Did you see the Irish girl with the pink hair?” (Laughs) But it all went over my head because all I wanted to do was train hard and compete. And then it all just happened around me while I happened to be in the bubble.”
Now, the members of the SBG Ireland team fighting in the UFC are household names in Dublin, McGregor is one of the biggest stars in the sport, and the rest of the squad are making their way through their respective divisions. On October 24, Daly, Pendred and Holohan will strap on the gloves at home, and it’s no ordinary night - for the fighters or their fans.
“It’s a huge deal,” Daly said. “We’re such a tiny country, and for a long time we were training very, very hard and fighting on smaller, regional shows in the UK and Europe, trying to make something of this. And I think the reason why it’s so big for the fighters in particular is because it’s the culmination of a lot of years’ work. It’s not just any show to us.”
That’s a lot of pressure for anyone to deal with, but accepting it is how the fighters deal with it best.
“It’s only really now that I’m realizing that I kind of have created something,” Daly said. “I’ve kicked down quite a few doors, even for people who are training in my gym. There are hoops that I had to jump through and barriers I had to break down and walls I had to get out of my way to make it acceptable for women to be involved in mixed martial arts.”
Now you could say the biggest star in the sport – Ronda Rousey – is a woman, and back in Ireland, the SBG Dublin gym has enough women showing up that Daly teaches a ladies only class once a week and has an open mat for women once a month. These are heady days for Daly and women’s MMA, but there is still a fight to be fought in a couple weeks, and Daly is not letting any outside influences take away from the most important part of her life at the moment.
“It’s not too difficult,” she said. “I realize what the priority is. I can only help people in the way that I do because I’m achieving what I’m achieving. So if I don’t maintain a certain standard and achieve certain goals, then I can’t help people the way I want to help them.”
That goal is crystal clear, and it’s taking what currently sits in the trophy case of UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Daly may have been in line for a shot at the Polish star had she fought and beaten Brazilian contender Claudia Gadelha in April, but Gadelha was forced from the bout due to injury. Daly was initially pulled from the card as well, but she was then matched up with Markos at UFC 196 in Montreal. Daly lost that bout, but she’s not blaming the defeat on that spring madness.
“I wouldn’t say it really had too much of an impact on what happened on the night of the fight,” she said. “Obviously those changes with the difference in opponents, the timing, the weight cuts and all that kind of stuff can factor in a little bit, but I definitely couldn’t use them as an excuse. Maybe it resulted in my camp being a little bit too long and maybe being a little bit overtrained by the time I got to compete, but honestly, I’m not using that as any kind of excuse to what happened – Randa was better on the night, and I didn’t perform as well as I know I can perform. It just didn’t happen for me. Ideally, when you have a plan, you like the plan to happen the way you have it laid out, but things change and you have to be versatile and move with things as they’re going.”
That’s the life of a fighter, and who knows, if Daly beats Markos that night, she could have been the one fighting Jedrzejczyk in Australia this November. Daly is aware of that, and knowing that the reward often matches the risk, you get the impression that she would do it all again the same way.
“Sometimes those kind of risks pay off and sometimes they don’t,” she said. “Sometimes you take a fight against a different opponent on short notice and you go in and you do brilliantly, and sometimes you do that and you don’t perform the way you want to. It’s a decision you have to make for yourself, and sometimes that coin toss can be won or lost, so you have to decide if you want to toss the coin in the first place.”
Luckily for Daly, the strawweight division is rich with talent, but any fighter in it is maybe two wins away from a crack at the belt. Daly can get one of those wins against Brazil’s Almeida, and the Dubliner is confident that things are coming together for her at the right time.
“If I can get the fights that I want and need to get into title contention, that’s it for me,” she said. “I know my skill set is there. I know the mental side of things have improved vastly for me over the last six months to a year, and I’m a different person than I was when I came out of the Ultimate Fighter house. I know I say it a lot, but I do feel like I did leave a lot of residual mental effects that I really needed to get by before I could start to perform in fights. Obviously the Chambers fight, I won it, but I felt like it was one of my worst performances ever in my career. So for me, it was a win on paper, but it wasn’t a win that showed any improvements. Whereas I genuinely feel now my skill set has taken a massive jump, my mental strength has taken a massive jump, and it’s just a case of me getting the opponents I want or that the UFC deems adequate to put me into title contention. I don’t think there’s anything in the division stopping me from achieving that belt. I have all the keys necessary. My grappling is extremely good, my wrestling is extremely good, my striking is very unorthodox and it’s improved a lot, and I think going in, especially against somebody like Joanna, having good wrestling, good jiu-jitsu and a chin are very important. And I have them.”
She also has all of Ireland behind her, and on October 24, she’s ready to hear them roar.
“I’ve been lucky enough to get the feedback from when my teammates were on the previous Dublin card, and the thing I hear them talk about is that the crowd was so loud that it felt like somebody put a speaker on your chest and you can feel the vibrations go through your whole body,” she laughs. “That’s a pretty vivid explanation of how things went on the night, so I’m very fortunate to know what’s coming for me, and I’m just super excited. For me, that kind of walk, that kind of experience is a one in a lifetime experience. There are so many people who have fought in the UFC and fought the whole world around, but they’re never going to experience what I’m going to experience. I can’t think of another country that supports their athletes or their people the way the Irish people do. It’s a small enough arena, but every single person in that crowd is going to be on my side and willing me to win. And they’re going to be so fired up for me that by the time it gets into the fight, I’m going to feel like I’m invincible, and she’s going to feel like she has thousands of people hoping she falls.”