WHEN successful Clare sports stars at the top of their game come to mind, many will think about hurling, Gaelic football, rugby and even soccer.
While the Banner County isn’t to the forefront of many people’s thoughts when it comes to mixed martial arts (MMA), Sam Slater certainly is.
The Tuamgraney native may have caught the fighting bug in Dublin, but his love for MMA began in an unorthodox fashion while growing up in East Clare.
Ahead of his fight on the Bellator MMA card in the 3Arena on Saturday, February 23, the 24-year- old spoke to The Clare People about his journey so far.
“When I was 15, me and my brother started playing UFC Undisputed game on the Xbox,” he explained.
“At the time I thought it was all routine choreographed stuff like pro wrestling.
“I started watching videos clips on the game and fights on YouTube and I realised it was a real sport,” added Sam.
While trying his hand at every sport available to him growing up and while later attending Scariff Community College, the talented soccer player’s unusual discovery of mixed martial arts inspired him to “try this one day”.
So, how does a young lad from rural East Clare go from learning about the complex skills of mixed martial arts by playing video games to becoming one of the prestigious Straight Blast Gym (SBG) team’s most hyped prospects in the space of six years?
With little MMA activity in his area, Slater explained how the relocation east was pivotal to him talking up the sport.
“It was on my mind from when I was 15 to when I moved to Dublin for college at 18 and I went straight to SBG and joined up.
The Trinity College graduate finished his science degree after three years and then took time to fully concentrate on his fighting career, a sport he feels has grown in this country thanks to Conor’s McGregor’s recent success.
“I got the ordinary degree after third year and then I left because I wanted to focus on training full time.
“I got a part-time job in a fast food place.
“I was there for three years and with the Bellator deal I decided to train full time.
“So, it is only in the last few months that I have been training full time as a professional.
“I 100 per cent feel that this could be my career and that I can go far – I do believe in myself like that,” said the confident Clare man.
The word bellator means warrior in Latin and after minutes of talking to Sam Slater, it is clear that the unfazed Tuamgraney man lives up to the organisation’s name.
As he gears up for his first professional fight, Slater has noticed the difference going full time has made, expressing his confidence that he will extend his unbeaten 2-0 MMA record next month.
“After my last two fights, the fights were on Saturday night, I was back in work on Sunday morning.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to focus fully on it and I think it is probably the most confident I’ve ever been.
“The attention to detail I can give to my training now is great, it makes me feel super confident”, he added.
While Sam relished the early morning training sessions, prior to turning full time professional, the mental hardship of preparing for fights after a shift at work, began to take its toll.
The East Clare man currently trains out of mixed martial arts academy and professional team, Straight Blast Gym, in Dublin which is run by Conor McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh.
“You can’t focus [when training part time].
“I was struggling to retain a lot of techniques so I am feeling a lot fresher, mentally, and physically as well.
“When I was working as well, my rest day from training was Sunday but I was working on Sundays.
“I didn’t have a day where I was actually resting.
“It is nice [since going professional] to be able to have the time to recover and reflect on techniques from training,” smiled Sam.
Taking inspiration from his father, who coached Sam as a young soccer player, the rising MMA fighter believes he learned his strong work ethic on the pitches of Tuamgraney.
“I already had that goal of becoming a pro athlete,” said the former underage Clare soccer player.
I 100 per cent feel that this could be my career and that i can go far – i do believe in myself like that.
“My Dad instilled those qualities in me so that has stood to me massively.”
With this mind, Sam Slater hopes that any future success will help him grow the sport in his native county.
“When I was 15 I always wanted to try it [MMA] but there was no where.
“I managed to get one session in a gym in Ennis before I moved to Dublin for college.
“That is where they recommend me to train at SBG, that is the top gym to train at.
“There is no martial arts where I am from, that could be a nice project for me in the near future.
“Unfortunately, it a is a shame that it [MMA] is not really a thing down there [in Clare] yet.”
For now, Sam Slater’s focus remains fully on his upcoming Bellator 217 lightweight preliminary card fight against Scotland’s Chris Duncan in the 3Arena in Dublin on Saturday, February 23.
Sam certainly isn’t resting on his laurels following his recent success but the Clare man remains extremely confident that this is just the start of something special.
“The sky is the limit,” he concluded. “My goal would be the Bellator world title”.
With several lightweight titles under his name as an amateur, Sam Slater has gone from strength to strength since taking up the sport in 2012 but if his confidence alone is anything to go by, his well-deserved switchover to a full professional fighter is certainly set to be a major advantage.