Featherweight prospect James Gallagher had his heart set on participating in Bellator MMA’s return to London in May. However, as soon as the promotion announced plans for Bellator 180 on June 24 at Madison Square Garden in New York, the unbeaten Irishman declared his interest in competing at the historic venue.
“I’ll still take whatever Bellator wants to give me, but it’s always been a dream of mine to fight at Madison Square Garden,” Gallagher told Sherdog.com. “I want to follow the path that has been put in place by the greats. All of the greatest fighters have all fought at MSG. We saw Conor [McGregor] there in November and the reception that he got. Michael Conlan just made his pro boxing debut at MSG, and he sold the place out.
“When you think of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and legends like that, they’ve all competed there,” he added. “No one from my town, Strabane, has ever competed on a stage like that. It would make me very proud to represent my community and Ireland if I ever got the opportunity to fight there.”
Bellator has made Gallagher’s dreams a reality, as he will meet Chinzo Machida on the Bellator 180 undercard. The 20-year-old SBG Ireland rep upped his record to 6-0 in the Bellator 173 co-main event on Feb. 24, when he submitted Kirill Medvedovsky with a first-round rear-naked choke. Machida has his work cut out for him. The 40-year-old older brother of former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder Lyoto Machida, he will lean on the momentum of a four-fight winning streak that includes back-to-back knockouts against Mario Navarro and Jamar Ocampo under the Bellator banner.
When considering what kind of impact he could have on New York fight fans, Gallagher suggested that he could prove more valuable to Bellator in the United States. Bellator 179 on May 19 in London will feature a Paul Daley-Rory MacDonald headliner that appeals to a regional and international audience. “The Strabanimal” likes the idea of fighting on the big stage in The Big Apple.
“I think I’d get a bigger crowd in New York than I would in London,” said Gallagher, who has submitted five of his first six opponents with chokes. “I think, so far, Conor is the only Irish MMA fighter that has ever fought in MSG.”
The John Kavanagh protégé believes McGregor paved the way for him.
“For me to follow in his footsteps and to keep breaking new ground is a goal of mine,” Gallagher said. “The blueprint is there for me to follow.”
Should he get past Machida in June, Gallagher could find himself paired with fellow undefeated prospect A.J. McKee, who improved to 8-0 with a head kick knockout of Dominic Mazzotta at Bellator 178 on April 21. The two featherweights have engaged in a heated war of words in recent months and it only figures to escalate if they continue to excel.
“A.J. is going to happen eventually,” Gallagher said. “I definitely want to slap him at some point. The thing is, he really isn’t that good. I’ve thought about it, and I know there are better guys for me to fight than him. I would love to get a crack at him as well, though.”
Irish-American fans in New York have provided events held at Madison Square Garden with memorable backdrops. Celebrations that followed McGregor’s historic victory over Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 on Nov. 12 -- “The Notorious” one became the first fighter to ever hold UFC titles in two weight classes simultaneously -- managed to shut down one of the city’s streets. Gallagher credited the passionate support of New Yorkers for making fight cards at the iconic arena so special, particularly for Irish fighters.
“The pride that the New Yorkers have in their Irish heritage is amazing,” he said. “The kind of support we see for Irish fighters getting over there, they’re the kinds of receptions every fighter always dreams about. Those types of crowds give you something extra. They give you that added drive. They motivate you to get the job done, too.
“Without the fans, there would be no reason to have a show,” Gallagher added. “That’s why I always want to put on a show for the spectators. It’s all about them.”