On Saturday night in the 3Arena, Leah McCourt becomes the first female to headline a Bellator European Series card, as she takes on Judith Ruis in a featherweight affair. The Northern Ireland native features on the card alongside fellow IMMAF alumni, Danni Neilan – a clear testament to the opportunities possible for the gold and silver medalists.
In her adopted home of Dublin, Neilan makes her second professional walk, taking on Chiara Penco on the event’s Preliminary section. It’s a timely turnaround for the Roscommon born competitor, following a dominant victory over Camilla Rivarola in the promotion’s last visit to the nation’s capital in September of last year. Speaking with Markey Martial Arts, Neilan gave her thoughts on her incoming clash with Penco, her Bellator bow last year, and the influences which led her to pursue mixed-martial-arts professionally.
Neilan who plys her craft under John Kavanagh and her partner, Alan McCormack at SBG Ireland and Relentless Muay Thai respectively, gave her thoughts on a debut in her backyard, and the bout placement surrounding her September appearance.
“September was a surreal experience,” Neilan explained. “I was waiting over a year for my pro debut but was held back by a couple of injuries. Finally, when the opportunity came round to fight for Bellator last September, I was more than ready to hit the ground running. On the night I ended up becoming a ‘swing bout’ which means my fight was delayed because of the TV deal. The prelims got cut short and I was told I could be fighting at any time before the end of the night. In the end, I was the co-main event, right before James Gallagher. Pretty cool to say the least walking out in front of thirteen-thousand people that late in the night and winning.“
It was a wrestling heavy approach from Neilan in her promotional and professional bow against Rivarola on her way to a unanimous decision triumph, something she and her coaches had expected ahead of the bout.
“I was confident that I had the edge over Camilla (Rivarola),” Neilan said. “My team and I had a foolproof plan to shut her down. It basically all formulated as planned – she tried to hit and run and I closed the distance, got the clinch against the fence and then into big ground-and-pound. I’m happy with how it went down and proud of my performance, however, I wish I finished her and I’m eager not to let any opportunity to finish pass me this time.“
As mentioned earlier, Neilan shares the card with fellow IMMAF alumni Leah McCourt, and praised the featherweight contender’s promotional talent and performance – as well as predicting a stoppage win for the so far, flawless Northern Ireland finisher.
“I’m thrilled for Leah (McCourt),” Neilan told. “She’s a grafter and deserves this opportunity. As John Kavanagh always tells us, fighters should be committed to both performances and promotion, both have equal weight. Really, there’s no point smoking people if no one is interested in watching. Leah performs and promotes her arse off and is reaping the rewards. I have no doubt she’s gonna put this girl away on Saturday.“
As for Neilan, the strawweight challenger takes on Chiara Penco, and gave her thoughts on the Italian who will make her promotional at the 3Arena, and commented on the certain belief that Bellator tends to match up SBG fighters with lesser talent.
“Chiara (Penco) is a strong girl – likes to strike from distance and grab on if she gets overwhelmed,” Neilan said. “She’s good everywhere but not fantastic anywhere. It’s a nice matchup, she’s 4-1 and I’m confident that similar to my debut, I’ll be too much everywhere for her. I’m happy to fight girls with records as I hear so many say that Bellator gives us an easy road. Well, I’m 1-0 and she’s 4-1 and a previous EFC champion, easy road eh? Beating her will prove I’m up there with some of the best strawweights. I predict a second round, ground-and-pound TKO.“
I spoke with some of the Bellator Dublin features last September, of the growing Irish contingency surrounding the ranks of the promotion – and the big waves the natives seem to make when the organization lands in the capital. Similarly to Conor McGregor’s rise to featherweight stardom, and his now infamous, “we’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over” speech, Bellator seems to have amassed an abundance of emerging Irish talent. Neilan gave her thoughts.
“Conor (McGregor) is special. One of a kind,” Neilan explained. “And only for him, I don’t believe the opportunity of fighting for a world-class promotion for proper money would be a reality. I try not to think about fighting as a team event. I concentrate on winning my fight and the other Irish fighters do the same I think. It’s the audience that brings the ‘take over’ atmosphere, it’s electric. The level is getting more competitive all over the world, but I believe there is a handful of Irish superstars developing at the moment, and I’m excited to see another Irish world champion, and Bellator is offering the platform for this to happen on Irish soil someday soon.“
In terms of inspirations, Neilan once more pointed at the success of SBG teammate, McGregor – as the driving force behind her hard work, and the eventual goal of making her own success story.
“Conor (McGregor) – he’s the first fighter I started watching. Even Ronda (Rousey) wasn’t close in comparison for me,” Neilan explained. “He inspired me to go get whatever the hell I want. To not limit myself because there’s enough people in the world to do that for you. Belief, work very hard, work some more and don’t stop. Regardless of obstacles, one day you can be that 1% who “made it”.“
I first spoke with Danni back in February of 2018. She had just claimed the silver medal at the 2017 IMMAF world championships – and was expecting to make her professional debut later that year. The following year, Neilan had transitioned from the amateur circuit to one of the biggest organizations world-wide – somewhat of an easy transition in her opinion.
“It was a breeze, anyone who fought at the IMMAF’s may agree with me that fighting the best amateurs in the world one day after another for five days consecutively is damn hard in comparison to preparing for one fight and one opponent,” Neilan told. “One difference is definitely that you are a paid employee for a promotion as a professional so it brings promotional responsibilities. Whereas amateur is a bit different on that front. I’m enjoying this more though and I’m excited to fight high-level skilled professional opponents.“
“Two years later! I’m 1-0 as a professional, in one of the biggest promotions in the world, along with working as a senior paediatric physiotherapist and bursting with enthusiasm for MMA and life in general. I took myself too seriously during my amateur career. Now, I’m happy, driven, calm, and blasting through goals.“
A usual question from me; you’ve got three seats available for a dinner party, who do you invite? Danni’s response;
“Three seats right? First goes to Kevin Hart. Second goes to Ben Bergeron – his book, ‘Chasing Excellence’ is a must-read. And third goes to my fianceé, Alan. That would be a pretty good night.“