All posts by George Mitchell

England stuck in quicksand as tour to South Africa looms

A summer Test series turnover to South Africa seems inescapable unless England address the many factors that led to their Six Nations slump.

In the final round of fixtures, Eddie Jones’s team lost 15-24 to champions Ireland at Twickenham, and ended up finishing a lowly fifth in the table.

But even beating the Irish to pour cold water on their St Patrick’s Day and Grand Slam parade would only have papered over the problems that England currently face.

As it was, Jonny May’s last-minute try was not enough to spare the blushes of the lacklustre hosts who, across the tournament, could only amass 10 points more on the pitch than whipping boys Italy.

A crisis? Jones and his players don’t seem to think so, and I’m inclined to agree with them, so long as the debilitating issues that led to England’s worst finish in 41 years are addressed – and quickly.

Despite Sir Clive Woodward’s claims that England are now “staring down the barrel”, a summer resurgence against the Springboks is well within the realms of possibility. But the amendments and adjustments needed are four-fold.

Quick ball

An imperative product of any successful breakdown; however England’s ruck was comprehensively pulverised during this tournament, pilling immense pressure on the distribution of scrum-halves Danny Care and the returning Richard Wigglesworth, who had a torrid time against the Irish.

The decision to field an ebbing James Haskell was met with hostility from fans. As Jones plots to turn water into wine come June, he should look no further than 21-year-old open side Sam Underhill, who is expected to make his return for the SA series.

Although the ruck showed slight improvement against the Irish, it was still a far cry from the standard needed to see off the Springboks – and to stand any chance of beating New Zealand at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Better discipline

If the sound captured by referee Arund Gardner’s mic is to be trusted, the need for better discipline is a sentiment England captain Dylan Hartley shares.

Cries of “Discipline!” could be heard from the Saints hooker as he watched his side yet again make basic errors in transition and with ball in hand.

The Red Roses continued their Six Nation trend of ragged unruliness, but added an absence of composure against the Irish. This impacted on the scoreline, with England giving a way far too many penalties in all thirds, allowing a pressure lapse and the visitors to effectively pull their socks up.

England’s ability to finish a game strongly quickly becomes null and void if they trudge to the changing room 16 points down at the break. And although one of Jones’ best qualities is his ability to galvanise a squad, the discipline problem is as May suggested “an individual thing”, and improving it depends on strength of character.

A backline make-over 

The decision to drop George Ford and rotate the backline came with no overwhelming improvement to the fluency of midfield play. England’s running lines were very basic and predictable, giving very little option for Farrell to imprint on the game in Twickenham’s biting winds.

Jones does, however, admit to be flirting with the idea of introducing a specialist backs coach, but the problem stretches beyond that to the need for succinct passing moves and outside running lines.

Ireland’s defence seldom looked like cracking against the English, with Ben Te’o left bewildered and the dynamic centre position a real problem.

But whisper it quietly, Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester form appears to be carrying some sort of international promise. And should he be included (if fit) in the summer, a centre of such ferocious stature with such an ability to commit defenders as he does, should go some way to fixing the problem.

Rest and recuperation

 A hangover from the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour was inevitable. The statistics corroborate this, with England’s previous string of three defeats following the 2005 Lions Tour, and they went on to lose six consecutively.

The tumult and exhaustion of this year’s Six Nations campaign was transparent, with England’s Lions having played as much as double the club rugby as their Welsh, Irish and Scottish counterparts, resulting in increased calls for centralised contracts in the days following the Irish invasion.

Calls that will come to no avail, however, as the RFU’s current deal with the Aviva Premiership detailing club control over players, runs until 2024, meaning the boys will have to just suck it up.

The good news is, Jones seems to be entertaining the idea of resting some of his Lions this summer, which bodes well for the future of young talent and the development of the team.

England’s defeat to the Irish was not for lack of effort, but they looked sapped of all sustained intensity needed to compete on an international stage.

The media talked up the team’s regression, but a lot of this was just hyperbole. But coming in a week when Jones’ disparaging comments at a sponsor’s event about the “scummy Irish” came to light, it was apt that Joe Schmidt’s men underlined their status as Europe’s power players.

Man City prospect Horsfield now thriving in Dutch football

After switching from Manchester City reserves to Dutch outfit NAC Breda last summer, James Horsfield has urged more young British footballers to follow in his footsteps and make the move abroad.

Last season he helped Breda win promotion to the top flight and is now playing regular football and experiencing a new culture.

“The facts are that I wasn’t playing at City. And at 22 years of age I need to be playing regularly. I decided Breda was my best chance at achieving that,” says Horsfield.

Horsfield’s experience at City began in the academy, later working his way up to the blues’ Elite Development Squad (EDS), headed by former France international Patrick Vieira.

Here he honed his skills among talents like George Evans and Kelechi Iheanacho. Eventually he was included in the  matchday squad to face Leicester in the 2015-16 season.

“Being involved that day gave me something to work towards. It made me think there might be an opportunity there for me, but it didn’t work out like that. I loved my time at City but I knew it was time to move not long after that.”

“I knew [when I was loaned here] last season that my situation at City might be changing. Breda has been on my mind since then.”

Silva lining

The 22-year-old is talking to me via Skype from his flat in Breda. It’s 11.15pm and a tired-looking Horsfield apologises for his tardiness – he’s an hour late four our face to face.

“I’m just home from training an hour ago and had to make dinner. Sorry pal,” he explains.

Horsfield (left) enjoying life with Manchester City’s superstars

Manchester City have just answered the title-defining question, ‘can it be done it on a cold Monday night in Stoke?’ by winning 2-0 in the Potteries with two goals from David Silva. Horsfield is full of admiration for his former club.

“They’re incredible aren’t they? But do you know what? I’m just off the phone with my Dad and I’m like… I don’t know… Silva, I don’t think that little guy gets nearly the credit he deserves.

“He just glides across the pitch, cutting passes and bagging [scoring], and nobody bats an eyelid, really, because of how long he’s been doing it and he keeps a low profile.”

Sergio Aguero’s injury meant the Spaniard was to adopt the goal-scoring mantle – not for the first time.

And although adoration for their ‘21’ has always been evident, the City faithful’s whispers of ‘our greatest ever player’ have become increasingly distinct.

“I’d agree with them. He’s a completely different player to everyone on that team. I’d have him up there as the best ever, most definitely.”

A player of poise and panache that often sits below the precipice of individual awards. ‘What’s he like James?’ I asked.

“If I said quiet would you laugh?”

A new culture

Despite being alongside the likes of Silva, Horsfield felt he had to move. A six-month loan deal to the Eerste Divisie (second tier) was presented to James mid-way through the 2016-17 campaign.

Despite spending the best part of 14 years on the blue side of Manchester, the opportunity to lace up his boots on the other side of the English Channel was one he couldn’t refuse.

That loan spell saw Horsfield play his part in the promotion of NAC Breda to the top flight of Dutch football, following a 5-1 aggregate thrashing of NEC Nijmegen in the play-off final. A feat the young man is very proud of.

“It’s the first time I’ve experienced anything like that. Winning promotion in that way and then parading the trophy around the city. It was a mad feeling. Something I’ve never felt before.

“It’s a massive club, I didn’t quite realise how big until that day. You saw how much it meant to the fans – it blew me away if i’m honest.”

‘I think lads get comfortable in England’

The defender’s professionalism and versatility saw him subsequently offered a three-year deal with the black and yellows, cementing a permanent move abroad and leaving his boyhood club behind — a challenge seldom pursued by young British footballers.

“Having been here last season and playing as well as we did, this was the move that made the most sense. [Not only] for me, but for my family and girlfriend as well.”

“I miss my family and girlfriend, of course, but they get why I came here. My girlfriend, comes to visit me every other weekend.”

Horsfield celebrating NAC Breda’s play-off win

A common theme in the Premier League is young players being brought through the system, but then unable to break into their respective first-teams. I asked James whether he’d recommend moving abroad to similarly struggling professionals.

“What I would say is that sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. I think lads get comfortable in England, it’s all there for you.

“You have to do very little for yourself. Moving to a different country, having to play a different style of football, different coaches, different language, different city — it all changes then.

“As a player, learning a different approach to football is useful I think. I’ve been at City pretty much my whole life and you get used to stuff. A change of scenery has been good for me.”

Pep talk

A recent UEFA study concluded that 69.2% of Premier League players were born overseas – a damning statistic for young British talent. However, despite not making the grade at City, James believes the completion of Manchester City’s £200 million-pound academy complex is an indication that the English powerhouse are progressing in a different direction.

“I think it’s something that’s wanted, from the club and the fans. The money they’ve spent across the bridge is evidence of that I think.

“That development squad is filled with talent. It’s just a case of finding the right time to bring them in. I’ve heard Mansour (City chairman) is keen to give the younger boys a platform. Pep’s been good for that in the past hasn’t he?”

When Pep Guardiola was appointed City manager at the start of the 2016/17 season Horsfield spent an invaluable pre-season under one of the most decorated managers in world football.

“As soon as we got there he was putting together that style of play you’re watching now.

Pep’s City: “You’re seeing the results of that hard work”

“The first thing we did was learn how to switch the ball from the back. And he explains it to you. He breaks it down, why he wants this and that and why it works and how it will work and why you need to do this and the other thing.

“[In training] he’s pulling you up constantly during drills, telling you stuff like where you should be looking at this point and what to be aware of. You’re seeing the results of that hard work now.”

The ‘Pep Guardiola way’ has always been that of good football and harvesting young talent. Most recently he gave  the 31st debut of his managerial career to local central midfielder Phil Foden.

“He looks like a Guardiola player doesn’t he?” declares Horsefield. “Good on the half turn, fine line passing. He’s from Manchester as well isn’t he? Good for him.”

Leaving the comfort zone

Although Guardiola often exhibits belief in raw talent City’s fixture at Burnley was overshadowed by controversy when injuries resulted in Guardiola naming only six substitutes when having the option of naming seven.

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville described the decision as “a joke”, suggesting the right thing was to give an EDS player the invaluable experience of first-team preparations.

“Yea I don’t know what’s happened there,” says Horsfield. “You’d think it was a perfect chance to give a younger lad a go but I don’t know. There’s obviously more to it than that.

“You’ve gotta think there was probably something behind it. He’s not forgot to give someone the nod has he?”

Horsfield is loving life in the Netherlands

The prospect of a winter break is one that the FA and Premier League have flirted with in recent years and it’s a strategy adopted by most of the major European leagues.

“Obviously I’m biased; as a player. I don’t think anyone playing the game would choose to be at work across Christmas,” says Horsfield.

“It’s for the fans, it’s an English tradition the Boxing Day fixtures. And I get it. But players would for sure benefit from a break.

“It’s like any job I suppose, you need a bit of down time to refresh and reset.”

James’ first season of a three-year deal will come to an end in the coming months. NAC Breda currently sit seven points above the relegation zone with as many games still to contest.

What the extended future holds for our Brit abroad is still unclear.

However, within an increasingly coddled and catered for industry, abandoning professional-comforts, broadening horizons and venturing outside the confines of British football is only to be applauded.

James is on Twitter @HorsfieldJ

Overpriced and underwhelming – the UK’s UFC fans are suffering

This year’s London UFC event took place at that mecca of commercial extortion, the O2 arena. 

And the venue continued its tradition of crippling prices, a pain only paralleled by the card’s mediocrity.

For the longest time, UK mixed martial arts (MMA) has been a respected marketplace for the UFC, having produced thoroughbred fighters such as Brad Pickett, Michael Bisping, and more recently Darren Till – all of them participating in the narrative of the charismatic and outspoken Brit.

However, the announcement of this year’s London UFC card had many fans feeling undervalued.

Upset at the lack of notable names, having anticipated the possible retirement fight of Bisping, or even a title eliminator for Liverpool’s up-and-comer Till.

Instead, what fans were presented with was an assortment of unranked British fighters – aside from Jimi Manuwa largely unrecognisable – and the prospect of having to pay £14.50 for a burger and cheap lager; an unwelcome expense having already paid £60-£200 for seats.

The night was a less-than spectacular affair considering the price of tickets, but probably worth the trip all the same – the rematch between South London’s Jimi Manuwa and Jan Blaschowitz being the saving grace.

Hindsight

Having previously suffered a defeat to Manuwa in his native Poland, Blaschowitz avenged the loss with a beautiful display in the co-main event; cutting clean angles and dominating all three rounds behind a stiff jab, earning himself a deserved decision victory.

It wasn’t, however, without a fight. Having only won their previous contest via the judges, Manuwa expressed his desire to right the only decision victory of his career with a knockout this time around.

Speaking to the BBC, he said. “My coaches told me a win’s a win, no matter how you do it. But I wasn’t happy. He’s the only decision win on my record, and I plan on rectifying that.”

A ruthless intent that shone through in the fight, both seemingly rocking the other at points, but neither able to close the show.

In hindsight, maybe the UFC brass would’ve bumped this light-heavyweight bout to top of the bill, considering the calibre and the fact that both looked fairly fresh getting off the stool.

The question is raised however, with this being the second time the pair have left it up to the judges: would a main-event slot and ultimately an extra two rounds have affected the result at all?

Mauna’s bloody defeat on home soil sets up the potential for a third match held at a neutral location in the future, whilst wetting our appetite for the final fight of the night.

The ceremonial weigh-in to our main-event saw Russia’s well represented Alexander Volkov, tower over Brazil’s heavyweight pride by four inches when they finally faced off.

Stood before a London crowd, Fabricio Werdum recognising his opponent’s stark height advantage, jokingly leapt onto a chair; briefly restoring his usual domineering superiority whilst reclaiming poll position in the battle of wits.

Shot at the title

To the fighters; maybe just a touch of playful showmanship to calm pre-fight jitters. To fans; an unwelcome reminder that our main-event lacks any kind of palpable magnitude.

What materialised the day following, was the former heavyweight champ Werdum persisting in his attempts to drag his 6ft 7” opponent to the floor where he would utilise his BJJ black-belt to a finish.

Although being largely successful in his take-downs, Werdum was unable to mount any credible threat from the ground – ending back on his feet more often than not.

Having dealt with most of Werdum’s attacks, the Russian began utilising his five-inch reach advantage, keeping on the outside and continuing to fight long before eventually stopping the 40-year-old veteran in the fourth round.

The victory extends Volkov’s UFC win streak four-fights-wide, being credited with performance bonuses for two of those.

Which beckons the question: is the Russian ready for a shot at the title?

Yes, a finish in the main event. But what did you expect from heavyweights? The card was still sub-standard, crying out for a name of some stature.

To some parts of the world, more prominently North America, UFC events are a regular occurrence.

Like the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening, they’re guaranteed five pay-per-view cards a year with the same assurance.

Pitfalls

Unfortunately, for most countries in Europe, being satisfied with a couple of Fight Nights, a possible Manchester card (if you reside in England) and late night/early morning viewings is something we’ve had to come to terms with.

The justifying to family or housemates why a 2pm Sunday surfacing is out of necessity and not laziness is something that will never sit well with us.

The countless Saturday nights spilled over to Sunday mornings have proven on more than one occasion to be the catalyst for a debate over, ‘Why you can’t just record it and watch it in the morning?’ – they don’t understand.

Despite all of these pitfalls, we persist. We persist as fans of the sport and in the faith that our market will never be depreciated, that the quality of our annual London card will remain sacred. And that CM Punk remains British-visa-less.

And that maybe the UFC can make it up to us in the future? We wait patiently across the pond…

AUDIO: The Elephant Sport Podcast – Varsity Edition

As Varsity 2018 approaches, the Elephant Sport Podcast brings to you a special edition from the LCC studios.

Hosted by Sam Taylor and Harry Dunning, the boys preview the upcoming games whilst chatting to a few prominent figures at UAL Sport.

All making their final Varsity appearances, Danny Olashore, Ed Kraurup and George Mitchell feature in the discussion. Each contributing to paint the Varsity picture.

mmajunkie.com

Does positive drug test signal the end for Jon Jones?

“Suck one” is the message Jon Jones tweeted to his ‘haters’ last week; a sentiment he has shared throughout his career with anyone who suggests  he is not a clean fighter.

However, the UFC star may have incriminated himself during a recent California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) hearing.

Awaiting punishment for a failed drug test, the former champion admitted to having his management forge signatures on documents relating to anti-doping enforcement.

At the age of 30, and with his career dogged by plenty of other controversies, Jones’s time among MMA’s elite might well be ended by a lengthy ban.

This latest episode relates to a positive urine sample he submitted prior to his eagerly anticipated rematch with Daniel Cormier at UFC 214 of last year.

Appearing before a panel of six CSAC commissioners, Jones appeared visibly nervous.

Having only returned from a 12-month drugs suspension last summer, he’s all too familiar with being on the ropes (to use a boxing metaphor).

The hearing resulted in his licence being revoked, but Jones was told he can re-apply for in a year. To get it back, Commissioner Shen-Urquidez said the CSAC would need to see evidence of rehabilitation.

However, Jones also has to answer to the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which might well decide that he deserves a ban of up to four years.

So how exactly how did metabolites of the anabolic steroid turanibol get into his urine?

Sitting in front of his manager, wearing a plain white polo and the look of ‘It wasn’t me’, Jones requested that he begin with a statement before stumbling and quickly changing his mind.

“I’m sorry it’s just… where do I start?” he asked plaintively.

Instead, Team Jones decided his attorney Howard Jacobs would ask him a series of questions about the weeks leading up to and following the test.

“You can call me many things; a party boy, a wild man, a knucklehead… but being a cheater is something I’ll never admit to,” the two-time UFC light-heavyweight title-holder said. “[It’s]…something I’ll never say that I am.”

Controversy

Jones has been before his fair share of these panels. His rap sheet also includes hitting a pregnant woman in his car and then fleeing the scene in April 2015.

There’s no doubting he is a substantial talent, but one that’s been hampered over the years by a severe lack in judgement.

The youngest of the three brothers, his talent undoubtedly has strong genetic foundations; his siblings are both NFL players.

A supreme athlete and technician inside the cage, Jones finds the perfect balance between crazy and calculated, speed and strength. He has is possessed by an overwhelming and incessant urge to win.

Having never been beaten in the octagon, aside from a disqualification to Matt Hamill, perhaps aligning himself with the laws of the land was always going to be his greatest challenge.

Jones and Mr Jacobs shared a fairly unconvincing back and forth, outlining the dubious precautions that his team took in the lead-up to the Cormier fight, before handing over to the panel.

The cross examination indicated quite clearly the commission’s wishes. They wanted to see Jones point towards an explanation, some sort of reasoning as to why he tested positive – if conscious consumption of the substance was as ridiculous as he suggested.

Jones failed to make a compelling case, however. At one point even suggesting sabotage from inside his circle. Surely not?

His answer to most of the questions was to repeatedly deny ever taking the drug, citing “common sense” as his key disposition. Although CSAC executive officer Andy Foster expressed sympathy, he made his point well with a pithy“…and yet, here we are.”

Interrogation

In hindsight, Jones’s testimony was destined for a squeeze into submission the moment commissioner Martha Shen-Urquidez’s took the mic.

She began her questioning with a polite “Good morning, Mr Jones,” accompanied by a wry smile.

What followed was a damning assessment on what she described at one point as “a continual lack of diligence and responsibility”.

Clearly having done her homework, the commissioner pitched hard balls for the best part of 30 minutes.

“The UFC gave you a Bentley. Which you wrapped round a utility pole. Correct?”

Oh, Jon. I’d actually forgotten about that one.

She even had the UFC’s unconquerable talent admit to having never disclosed 10 supplements to USADA, despite him signing a document specifying that he had. The supplements only came to light when submitted for banned substance testing, post-positive test.

“You’re saying all 10 supplement weren’t listed? Probably like fish oil and protein?” said Jones.

“… and endura, melalite and…” continued Shen-Urquidez.

“Very healthy things people should take,”  Jones mumbled nervously.

Incrimination

The last line of a shaky defence crumbled when a thread of questioning intended to rob Jones of his ‘USADA-oblivious narrative’, led to the assertion that Jones, in fact, took part in an online USADA training programme.

His response was: “I’m going to be honest with you guys. I never did that. My management did that for me.”

Cut to Jones’s manager sat behind him, now looking rather uncomfortable.

“I’m just here to be super honest and open with you guys,” he added.

When Jones was asked to clarify whether the signature had been forged on his behalf, he confirmed this.

His intention seemed to be to over-compensate with honesty in the hope it would equate to leniency from the commission. But with the definitive USADA hearing into his case to be held within the next few weeks, this strategy was questionable.

Despite imposing a maximum fine of $205,000 and revoking his licence, ultimately the Commission’s verdict seemed to be that of faith in USADA’s process and final judgement.

It will be the second time the Agency and Jones have collided in as many years, typically meaning the doubling of a previous sentence. Which in this case would suggest a four-year suspension in the prime of his career.

Would a 34-year-old Jones be able to reclaim his mantle?

It is, however, USADA policy that mitigating and aggravating factors are considered in a case of this nature. However, it’s hard to imagine Jones’s admission to having had his management complete his online training has helped his cause.

Change

“Have you considered a change in management?”

It was clear from the commission’s comments that any sign of character rehabilitation would’ve gone a long way.

Instead when questioned on the subject, Jones appeared lost in the line of questioning. Commissioner John Carvelli echoed that point and suggested a crack in his foundations.https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwifzduJ98vZAhUHBMAKHRX9D5sQjB16BAgAEAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.reviewjournal.com%2Fsports%2Fmma-ufc%2Fformer-ufc-champ-jon-jones-license-revoked-in-california%2F&psig=AOvVaw2YdZOhNaN5t-4nUW4KnkZA&ust=1520016345175429

“You’ve been asked time and time again to show evidence of changes you’ve made based on the things that keep happening to you. I see no changes.

“Have you considered a change in management?”

Jones turned to his manager and joked about his sacking.

“Yes, I have actually. A few times.”

Jones’ flippant nature seems to be the bedrock of his problems. His lack of preparation and whimsical approach may well have buried his career this time.

An inability to see past the end of his nose and take responsibility for his actions may have cost him the “immortality” we hear him speak of increasingly.

Talk of heavyweight title fighting has cooled and a ‘super fight’ with Brock Lesnar may now just be an opportunity missed.

But rest assured that Jones’ ‘the fairies did it’ argument won’t hold up in front of USADA.

‘I just want people to see me as a good fighter, not a disabled one’

Despite having cerebral palsy, mixed martial arts fighter Jack West aims to turn professional at the end of the year. By which point he says, his doubters will have been forced to accept him.

At the BST MMA Gym in the heart of Northampton town centre is where you’ll find ‘The T-Rex’ five nights a week, practising his skills and gaining respect with each passing fight.

As we sit bare footed on wrestling mats, the thud of blows being landed on a chained heavy bag resonates through a space whose sweat-soaked atmosphere captures years of primal aggression being channelled into physical prowess.

The man responsible for the noise is Jack’s main coach, former World Cage Warriors and British Tae Kwon Do champion Danny Batten, snapping a series of unrelenting low kicks into 180lbs of leather and sand.

West tells me: “My coaches and training partners are the best about. Technically, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better in the country.”

Physical pain

As well as being his coach, Batten also plays the role of sparring partner from time to time.

Attesting to his ferocious abilities, West speaks of the pain he often endures after training.

“With my condition, I have restricted use of my right side with little range of motion. It’ll usually cause me pain after training, but I’ve never known any different.

“Submission wise, because I don’t have full extension of my right arm, anything on that side I’ll tap to immediately, unlike my left arm where I could possibly twist and wriggle out. I’m not going to risk it.”

‘People don’t want to fight me, and I get it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them’

Despite being born with a hemiplegia of the right side, West has managed to make a name for himself in the amateur ranks of MMA.

With a record of three wins and one loss so far, it’s hard to deny his talent, although some try to.

“People don’t want to fight me, and I get it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them. Losing means they got beat by the guy with cerebral palsy. Win, and it’s only a guy with cerebral palsy. There’s little to gain from their side.”

His solution to this problem? “If I keep working, at some point I’m going to be of the skill level where they’re forced to accept me.

“When I turn pro, I’m going to be there through ability not sympathy, and they’re going to have to fight me.”

Currently, there is no MMA organisation that has disabled-specific platforms for fighters. As a result, West has always trained and fought with abled-bodied competitors and says he’d not have it any other way.

“I don’t want to be known as a disabled fighter. I want people to say ‘he’s a good fighter’ regardless. I want people to see me as a good fighter in spite of my disability.”

Overcoming the odds

Ahead of meeting West, I was slightly nervous and unsure as to how I’d approach the topic of his disability. Rightly or wrongly, I adopted a position of sympathy.

My perception shifted dramatically when after a toilet break, I returned with two packets of dry roasted peanuts for us.

After passing West his and then woefully attempting to open mine, I felt a sudden rush of anxiety and thought ‘I should’ve opened the bloody nuts myself.’ I looked up to find him making light work of the wrapping, utilising his teeth and self-proclaimed ‘piston’ of a left hand.

“I call it the money-maker,” he tells me in jest.

“I know that sounds silly, but my condition is something other fighters don’t have. When we step inside the octagon together, I’m beating you even with cerebral palsy. I have an obstacle to climb that you don’t.

“I’m as good a fighter as anybody that I’ve stepped in there against. I have obvious disadvantages, but I make up for them in other ways. Fighting is what I’m best at.”

Researching cerebral palsy threw up a list of problems associated with the condition including poor co-ordination, stiff and weak muscles, bad posture, problems with balance –  all things you’d assume mitigate against a successful career in combat sports.

West is, however, made of sterner stuff. “Everything you’ve said there is true, but I’m overcoming it.

“I’m just as capable as everyone else. When I first started in MMA, that was exactly what it was – showing I’m just as physically capable as you lot.

“I’m actually good at sport. I can’t kick a ball to save my life, but I’m a good goalkeeper!”

Anxious

Having joined a boxing class with friends at the age of 13, West continued even after his mates lost interest. He then transitioned in MMA and found his “calling”.

“I loved thinking I was the man,” he tells me. “Playing sport (at school) people would say ‘sit down’ or whatever but I knew my potential. I knew I was strong.”

‘I’m not scared, and my mum sees that. She sees that I love it’

Now, if you were to ask most parents which sport they’d least like their child to show an interest in, MMA would probably be right up there. Add in a serious birth defect, and West admits his mother was initially extremely anxious about her son’s passion for fighting.

“When I began training at 13, obviously like most mums she was worried. Like most people, she was unaware that there is an art to mixed martial arts.

“Soon enough, she stopped worrying and just watched. Now she’s a fan of the sport.

“It’s like, if she saw I was scared, then she would be, too. But I’m not scared, and she sees that. She sees that I love it.”

No limits?

Although Jack’s situation is rare, he’s not the first disabled mixed martial artist to fight inside the cage.

Nick Newell, formerly of America’s XFX fight organisation, tasted success when he defeated Eric Reynolds to become champion of the world in their 155lb division, despite being born with a congenital amputation ending below the elbow on his left arm.

Newell is a hero to West, who takes much inspiration from his example.

“He’s someone I look up to massively. We’ve actually exchanged emails on various occasions and he’s wished me luck for upcoming fights and stuff.

“When I was younger, it was a dream of mine to fight him. I’d still love to. We’re basically the same weight.”

In 2015, Newell retired from MMA despite winning a unanimous decision in his final fight. West explained how following the American’s career opened his eyes to his own limitations.

“There’s a ceiling. It’s important to not be deluded about this. He knows, like I know, that there’s a limit to what we can do with our disabilities, and I think he’d reached his.”

Two fights prior to his retirement, Newell lost a bout to Justin Gaethje, a top fighter who currently poses a challenge to UFC superstar Conor McGregor’s lightweight crown. West remembers it vividly.

“It was tough to watch. He obviously took a proper beating, but it goes to show that there really is a gap, and that’s cool.

“I’m not ever going to get lost in the emotion of it and think ‘I’m going to be the next UFC lightweight champion’ or anything. I know what I’ve got.”

Newell held an impressive 9-1 professional record, with nearly all of his victories coming via submission. I, like most, interpreted this as Newell recognising his disadvantage on the feet (having one arm significantly shorter than the other). West’s victories, however, have come via KOs and TKOs.

“Stand-up fighting is what I’m best at. I hit hard, I know that. Everything I’m doing is setting you up to land my big left hand.

“I don’t want to use the ground and for people say I’m just using it because I can’t stand. I’m a good striker and they learn that quickly.”

Perspective

A habitual reader and appreciator of philosophy, West’s outlook and demeanour took me back, admittedly. Articulacy accompanied by a defiant aura, I had no qualms in telling him I felt he’d go far.

“That whole philosophy that Conor McGregor holds of ‘believe in your surroundings’ is one that I share and agree with wholeheartedly. This is a gift.

“You have to love yourself, and every part of you.”

I end our interview by asking where he sees himself in the near future.

“I’m looking to turn professional at the end of the year,” he replies.

“Then from there, I can hand on my heart say I’m going to be world champion. I believe that, absolutely.

“When I retire, maybe I’d like to start something to help others in my situation. I’ve been approached before about teaching a disabled class. That’s something I’d love to do in the future.

“Right now, I’m fighting.”

Notorious poster

As ‘Notorious’ debuts in cinemas, is McGregor losing the plot?

Conor McGregor’s rise from penniless Dublin plumber to UFC bill-topper is the subject of a new feature-length documentary Notorious.

It charts the four years between the Irishman’s UFC debut and his second fight with Nate Diaz; a mixed martial arts rags to riches tale which sets up an eagerly-anticipated third and deciding bout against Diaz in 2018.

‘Notorious’ serves as a testament to the 29-year old’s character, reminding us how far charisma combined with hard work and talent can propel a rising star of the octagon.

Having banked a reported $30m from his August match-up with Floyd Mayweather in the boxing ring, with his reputation enhanced by a decent display against the multiple world champion, the future looked bright for the 29-year-old.

However, McGregor’s recent fracas at the Bellator 187 MMA promotion in Dublin on November 10th has dampened that mood and suggested all may not be well in the Mac’s life.

Chaos

McGregor hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons after hurdling into cage at the Bellator event in his hometown to celebrate with the seemingly victorious Charlie Ward.

Referee Marc Goddard had appeared to stop the fight just before the end of the round, after Ward left his opponent John Redmond slumped on the canvas.

But Goddard proceeded to usher McGregor out of the cage, and Ward back to his corner, insisting the fight hadn’t finished.

McGregor made a beeline for Goddard, aggressively shouting and waving his finger whilst being held by officials.

After being removed, McGregor attempted another charge at the cage door calling Goddard a ‘savage’ and demanding the fight be stopped.

Damning footage later released, appeared to show McGregor slapping an official as he tried to remove him from the cage.

Stressed

This isn’t the first time Goddard and ‘The Notorious’ have clashed.

Last month, Goddard had to interrupt a fight between Andre Filli and another one of McGregor’s stablemates Artem Lobov, asking the UFC lightweight champion to sit down and to stop screaming instructions from cage side.

Later that evening, McGregor was filmed backstage consoling the defeated Lobov, calling Filli a ‘faggot’.

This comes after footage surfaced of McGregor acting out of character in a night club, looking visibly stressed as a club-goer reached out to touch him.

Rapid ascent

“The illusion of crazy is over,” McGregor tells his coach John Kavanagh in Notorious, moments after the weigh-in for his second fight against Diaz.

McGregor’s zero-to-hero timeline has certainly been short in scale – and he will make sure you’re aware of it – but it’s entirely possible that his rapid climb has not benefitted him entirely.

It’s ironic that, having adopted a nickname based on his notoriety, he now risks becoming a victim of it.

There is a chance that the huge amount of cash McGregor made in his boxing debut has upset the apple cart somewhat.

Having earned so much for one fight, how difficult is it to return to fighting for a lot less in a more savage sport with a greater risk of serious injury?

McGregor is expected to defend his UFC crown in the lightweight division shortly.

Tony Ferguson currently holds the interim belt, and UFC president Dana White has told the media that “this is the fight to be made”.

Will McGregor defend his belt further his claim to be the best mixed martial artist of all-time?

Or will he be swallowed by fame and the pressures that come with it?

For more information on Notorious, visit the film’s website.