(Reuters) - Mixed martial artist Leah McCourt is relishing the chance to headline Bellator’s Dublin card at the Three Arena on Saturday, knowing a win over Judith Ruis in the building where Conor McGregor rose to fame could usher in a new era for Irish MMA.
Thrust into the spotlight due to an injury to bantamweight headliner James Gallagher, Northern Ireland’s McCourt is one of 13 Irish fighters on the bill, and she found out she was topping the card in the steamy surroundings of a Belfast sauna.
“I was sitting there in the sauna before teaching a women’s MMA class when I got the news, and I just thought, ‘Are you joking?’” she told Reuters in a telephone interview. “Then I ran out of the sauna screaming, and I was still only half-dressed!”
A black belt in judo and brown belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, the 27-year-old former amateur European and world champion in MMA quickly got over the excitement of being elevated to the main event.
“The Three Arena is a great place to fight and it’s going to be great to walk out there in front of my family and friends, but the fact that it’s the main event doesn’t change much - it’s still the same opponent, still the same fight,” she said.
McCourt, who boasts a professional record of three wins and one loss, now tops the bill in the same venue where former UFC champion McGregor scored a knockout win over Diego Brandao, triggering a golden period for Irish mixed martial artists.
With Paddy Holohan, Cathal Pendred, Neil Seery and Norman Parke all scoring victories in front of the home fans before McGregor KO’d Brandao, that night in July 2015 has gone down in Irish sporting folklore, and fans long for a repeat.
McCourt’s coach Owen Roddy, who also acts as McGregor’s striking coach and cornered him on that fabled Dublin card, says that his latest protege is capable of leading a new wave of Irish fighters into the big-time.
“This is it - these are big risks that fighters take, pushed up to the main card, pushed up to the main event on such a huge card, all the lights on you, all the eyes on you,” Roddy told Reuters.
“Leah is capable of going in and getting the job done, and when it pays off, it’s going to pay off with serious rewards.”
Bellator Europe boss David Green said he had no hesitation in giving McCourt top billing once Gallagher was forced to withdraw from his fight against Cal Ellenor due to a back injury.
“Anyone who was in the arena for her last fight knows she probably got as much vocal support as any other fighter, and more than that, I think she’s just a great ambassador for the sport and for Bellator,” Green told Reuters.
Coach Roddy believes that the lull in Irish MMA success since McGregor’s breakthrough is about to come to an end, and that a new era may well begin with a McCourt win on Saturday.
“There was a gap, but now it’s building again, and those young hungry fighters are doing phenomenal... they’re building nicely and you’re going to see that next wave coming through,” he said.
Proud to be one of the first two women to headline a Bellator Europe card, McCourt said she was more than happy to kick-start the party for the Irish.
“I’m going out there on Saturday to get the finish. I’m not the kind of fighter that goes in there looking to win on points,” she said.
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris