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UFC's first Irish fighter shares his story



When it was all said and done, all Tom Egan could do is smile.

More than five years after he became the first Ireland native to compete in the UFC, he was back in Dublin, back in the O2 Arena, and watching his teammates win on the biggest night in Irish MMA history. He will never forget July 19, 2014.

“I was nothing but happy,” Egan said. “I was so happy and so emotional for all those guys for everything that they had done. I wasn’t thinking of anything other than pure support, pure love and pure happiness for every one of them. I was almost crying when Cathal Pendred got his win, and of course, Conor (McGregor) coming out, I was extremely proud.”

Four members of the SBG Ireland team – McGregor, Pendred, Paddy Holohan and Gunnar Nelson – won their bouts, igniting a packed house and kicking off a surge for the sport on the Emerald Isle. Egan sat Octagonside – no gloves, no mouthpiece, no fighting gear. At this moment, he was just a fan.

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“I got to put on a nice suit, sit down, and just take it all in,” he laughs.

There were no shout outs that night for “The Tank,” but the fans knew he was there and they treated him like the pioneer he was.

“During one of the intermissions, I was signing autographs for fans right next to Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin and Cub Swanson,” Egan said. “That was another very surreal moment.”

Irish MMA hadn’t forgotten Tom Egan, as well they shouldn’t.

“Whenever I am in Ireland, the young guys still come up to me and show me a lot of love and respect, and that’s way better to be able to have that than to try and wave around a big flag saying that I was the first and try to get attention. The people that matter, they know.”

***

The question on every UFC fighter’s bio form is fairly cut and dried.

“When and why did you start training for fighting?”

Photo credit: Natasha MoustacheThe response from Thomas Egan fit what you would expect from a 20-year-old with stars in his eyes and even bigger dreams.

“When I was 17. To become a world champion.”

In 2009, it wouldn’t warrant a second look. More than seven years later, it means so much more.

“It’s motivating almost to hear that,” Egan said. “It does open up a lot of memories from back then.”

Now 28 and living in Boston, Egan hasn’t reached those championship heights yet, with “yet” being the key word. He currently holds a 7-5 pro mixed martial arts record, and he hasn’t fought since March of 2014, but given that he may be approaching his physical prime, he hasn’t closed the door on those dreams.

“I’m certainly not done with fighting,” he said. “I get the itch every day to get back in there. But right now, I’m 28 years old, I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I’m just taking a little bit of time outside of what I like to call the tunnel. When you’re fighting, it’s like you’re inside this tunnel, and you’re going through it and your fight life and your fight career is all inside it.

“But outside that tunnel is everything else – your friends, your family, whatever way you make money, your job, whatever you do,” Egan continues. “So when you’re going down that tunnel, you have to commit to it. But at the same time, I feel like it’s important to make sure that everything on the outside is good, so that when you come to the other end of that tunnel – which is the end of your fight career – you have a couple things set up for yourself. I’m just taking care of that right now.”

It’s the voice of experience, and that kind of wisdom only comes with plenty of hard knocks along the way. Egan isn’t interested in becoming a fight game statistic, so he will take care of business outside the cage before it’s time to return to it.

“A smart person learns from their mistakes, but an even smarter person learns from the mistakes of others and can prevent things,” he said.

***

Who knows if the result of Egan’s lone UFC fight against John Hathaway could have been prevented. In some ways, it was the height of hubris to think a kid barely out of high school with four pro fights could win in the Octagon, and in front of his hometown, no less.

Photo credit: Tommy LakesBut at the same time, it made all the sense in the world, and as Egan’s coach John Kavanagh wrote in his recent book, “Win or Learn,” “In my mind, there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt about Tom Egan being the right man for the job.”

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Sure, Egan was young, but he had been training in martial arts since he was 12, encouraged by his mother, a Shotokan Karate black belt who saw her son trying other sports but always being more captivated by the idea of combat.

“I tried all the other sports,” Egan said. “Golf, soccer, rugby, you name it. I never really took to anything, but I was always into martial arts. My mother said, ‘Screw all these other sports. We need to get you into a martial arts school.’ And to this day, everything that I’ve learned there has stood by me. How I handle myself as a martial artist all stems from my original sport karate coach, Sensei Roy Baker. He essentially laid the foundation for my martial arts career.”

There would be other key influences over the years, from Kavanagh and boxing coach Jimmy Upton at home to coaches like Peter Welch and Tom Layte in Boston. All along, Egan would soak everything in, and by 2007, he was competing professionally in mixed martial arts.

Late in 2008, he was 4-0 with four knockouts, a black belt in kickboxing and a blue belt in jiu-jitsu. Egan was having difficulties with broken hands, but he was still on a good path as his next fight against another hot prospect in Joseph Duffy approached.

The two made weight for their bout on Friday and got ready for fight night. Yet on Saturday morning, the promoter of the show asked both to weigh in once more for the welterweight bout.

“We thought it was just for show, so I jumped on the scale and I was 82 kilos, which is 181 or 182 pounds. Joe was like 177 or 178,” Egan recalled. Then came the shocker.

“Tom’s a bit heavy, isn’t he,” Kavanagh was asked. “Any chance he could lose a couple pounds?”

“Absolutely not,” Kavanagh responded. “It’s fight day, I’m not making my fighter lose weight. It’s detrimental to his health and it could be damaging to his performance. Make your decision if you want us to fight and let us know. We’re ready to fight.”

Once the two got back to the hotel, Kavanagh received a call. The fight was off. Egan was crushed, but Kavanagh made everything a lot better when he told his charge that he was offered a fight at UFC 93 against Hathaway.

Tom Egan was about to take a big step onto the big stage.

***

When matched up against each other, Tom Egan and John Hathaway looked like prizefighters ready to throw down. When seated at a dais alongside Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin, Mark Coleman and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, they looked like a pair of kids, wide-eyed, fresh-faced and about to join a fraternity neither of them appeared to be ready for.

Yet both fighters handled everything well at the UFC 93 pre-fight press conference, answering all the questions, taking all the photos, while acting like veterans before the biggest fight of their life. Egan was a particularly cool customer, at least on the outside.

“At that point I had been doing MMA less than two years,” he laughs. “I graduated high school in 2006 at the age of 18. I started doing my MMA training consistently in 2007 and I fought my first fight in 2007. And less than two years later, I’m fighting in the UFC? So when I’m sitting there and looking around, it was unreal. What’s going on? It’s crazy.”

He pauses before continuing, presumably transporting back to that moment when everything was about to change.

“That was very surreal,” Egan said. “And there was one little head peeking out in the corner while I was out at the press conference, and that was Conor McGregor. He was flabbergasted at the whole thing.”

***

Hathaway vs. Egan wasn’t going to be a fight for Tom Egan’s personal highlight reel, as he was stopped at 4:36 of the first round, but he wasn’t going to hang his head about it either. He made the walk, he showed up to fight, but came up short. It’s the fight game. Today, he still looks at Hathaway as a friend.

“John Hathaway and I still stay in touch,” Egan said. “We share a very special part of both our lives. That was a defining moment for both of us in many different ways at a pivotal point in our lives.”

Egan recalls walking into the post-fight after party and seeing the man who he traded blows with a couple hours earlier.

“The first person I see sitting there is John Hathaway,” he laughs. “And he gets up and comes over and gives me a big hug. He said, ‘Tom, man, that was crazy. That whole thing was crazy.’”

Egan could only respond with, “You f**king nailed it.”

It was a reminder of the bond between fighters, especially those who have fought each other, and the class of both. Egan took that class to another level a bit earlier though when he showed up to the post-fight press conference.

“They didn’t expect me to come out to the press conference because I lost, but I did, and I didn’t think it was a thing,” he said. “To me, it was a sure thing – you go out and you explain your loss. You man up to your loss, and you talk about it. Looking back at myself at 20 years old, getting beat in my hometown in front of my own people, and then coming out of it and having no problem facing the people and facing the media and not even thinking about it, that’s part of your duty as a man. When you lose, you face it, you own up to it as a man.”

***

Egan’s grace under pressure impressed a couple of Americans that night in Dublin, namely Marcus Davis and Mark DellaGrotte. The fighter and coach invited Egan to the United States to train whenever he wanted to, and the Irishman took them up on that offer.

“I was growing up, and I’m looking at the sport, and a lot of different things were going on,” he said. “So I took the money I made from UFC 93, and I came over here.”

As of January of this year, he’s been living full-time in Boston for six years.

“The food and the women kept me over here,” Egan laughs.

During that first stretch in Boston, Egan got the call from Kavanagh that the UFC had cut him.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘Tom, this is a good thing. You can work on things, take some time, go do a couple other things and eventually get back there someday and do whatever you need to do.’ I was disappointed in some ways, but what I felt more was that this wasn’t meant to be at this point.”

With his UFC roster spot gone, it was the perfect opportunity for Egan to make his move to the States.

“I decided that I wanted to move on, I wanted to get out and I wanted to just go and do my own thing,” he said. “I’d rather be in Boston doing my own thing, struggling and on the grind, but loving it, rather than being at home. I had a good support system at home, but it was one of those things where you want to get out on your own and do your own thing for a little bit. I was young and I was going through growing pains at that time.”

***

As Egan made a new life for himself in Boston, his team in Ireland began to grow and build the infrastructure that resulted in that memorable night in Dublin as well as boatloads of success for its members.

Most notably, Egan has seen his high school buddy, McGregor, become a world champion and a true crossover star. For many fighters, seeing such success could cause bitterness as they wonder why him and not me? That’s not how Tom Egan is built.

“I do believe in a very important phrase, and that is that somebody else’s success is not going to hurt my future or my success,” he said. “If anything, it compliments me, them guys going out there and doing well. I don’t need to ride the wave. Paddy Holohan has been very vocal about saying that when he saw me make the walk at UFC 93, that’s what inspired him. I know Conor’s been vocal about it. Conor said that when he saw me fight, that reiterated his dream to him and brought it to reality that he could go out and do it. Cathal Pendred was getting involved at the time, and he saw me putting in the work and doing all my stuff. So it compliments me, and I know these guys, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be happy for them.”

He says that worldview comes from his parents and grandparents, as well as his younger brother. And it’s a credit to McGregor, Kavanagh and the rest of the SBG team that they haven’t forgotten their brother in arms, with Egan being a key member of a couple McGregor training camps and also serving as a coach on season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter, The bond between Egan and his former mates is a strong one. And that won’t change.

“I don’t need to run back and wave my hand and say, ‘I was the first guy here.’ I’m content.”

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