BY MICHAEL DESANTIS
Piaras McGarry was fresh out of college in May, 2017 after earning his degree in engineering. He was set for a stable job as an engineer in Northern Ireland that he says would have become a very lucrative job once he built tenure. However, something didn’t feel right to him.
McGarry, 22 years old and well over six feet tall and 205 pounds, says he thought about how his future would look. Despite it including a reliable source of income, he didn’t want to spend his whole life working a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job.
“I was being led down a path in life that I didn’t want to go down,” McGarry says in his thick North Irish accent.
Instead, he looked towards his passion: mixed martial arts. He fell in love with the sport after watching a friend compete and vowed to become a fighter himself. McGarry then decided to put life as an engineer on hold in order to dedicate his time to training.
He also wanted to find the best training he could. And in order to do that, he said goodbye to his parents, grandparents and two younger siblings and left his life in Northern Ireland behind for Brooklyn. McGarry, now a Sunset Park resident, knew the risks that came with his decision, both financial and physical.
One month after graduating college and with a lifetime desk job staring him in the face, he sold most everything he had and hopped on a plane. He felt that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.
It didn’t come easy.
McGarry entered the United States as an immigrant with no bank account. He used what money he had to rent an apartment in Bushwick for $1,200 per month with a friend who had made the journey from Northern Ireland with him. They had no air-conditioning and shared a double blow-up mattress.
He and his friend took on work at a bar in order to make a profit. Unfortunately, the bar was failing. The Northern Irish duo was not compensated for their week’s worth of work by the owner.
McGarry’s fortunes changed soon after. He noticed a man outside the bar wearing a green shirt and hard hat. McGarry approached the man about a job. The two hit it off, which led to McGarry being hired as a project manager at FitzCon Construction.
There, he works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. He then goes to training every night but Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. He also trains for four hours on Saturday mornings. The 14-hour days are a lot of work, but McGarry says it’s worth it to pursue his dream of becoming a champion.
However, financially making it as a mixed martial artist is no easy feat. As an amateur fighter, McGarry is not compensated for fights. Only once a fighter turns professional do MMA organizations begin to pay them. But most amateurs feel the need to rack up roughly a dozen fights in order to gain the experience needed to perform well against professional competition.
Even then, professionals with only a handful of fights to their records don’t get paid more than about $1,500 per bout, according to multiple fighters at that level. They’ve says MMA can be a very financially risky sport to compete in.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest and highest-paying MMA organization, in which most fighters strive to compete, doesn’t pay more than $25,000 to those just starting out.
The UFC, like many other mixed martial arts promotions, generally pays the winner of a fight double the amount of the loser. New UFC fighters tend to make $10,000 to fight and another $10,000 if they win. If they lose a fight or two, they could be fired from the promotion. Fighters who are cut from the roster will then likely stand to make significantly less money with another promotion if they opt to continue their career, as the UFC can afford to pay its fighters more than other companies.
But McGarry has dreams of reaching the pinnacle of the sport: UFC champion.
“That’s what you’re going to be,” Rene Dreifuss, McGarry’s head instructor at Radical MMA on West 29th Street in Manhattan, told him at the lanky fighter’s first lesson at the academy back in April.
Dreifuss says it’s important to have lofty goals like McGarry’s, but also pointed to how unrealistic becoming a UFC champion is–even the sport’s very elite have fallen short. Dreifuss recounted a conversation he had with McGarry’s other MMA instructor, Ken Ng from Class One MMA.
Ng told Dreifuss someone had called him to ask how likely it was that he could be a UFC champion, something Dreifuss equated with someone approaching a high school basketball coach with dreams of becoming an elite NBA player.
“It’s possible,” Dreifuss says. “But it ain’t easy.”
Marlon Wiprud, McGarry’s training partner and a fellow amateur fighter, noted that McGarry can always fall back on his engineering degree if fighting doesn’t work out.
Dreifuss, though, says he can and will do his part to mold McGarry into a top-level fighter. But he says McGarry–and anyone else looking to be a champion–must have the hunger for it and the desire to make sacrifices. He says McGarry “150 percent” has those qualities.
Dreifuss also noted that despite a fighter’s best efforts and skill, MMA features risks to physical health that are largely uncontrollable.
“A career can get easily derailed by injury,” he says. “You could be the most talented guy in the world and get taken down the wrong way and shred your knee in so many places that it’s done.”
McGarry says he’s accepted the risks of competing in mixed martial arts.
“You have to be at peace with the chances of severe injury, having a bad back when you’re older or having [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy],” he says.
While the risks are ever-present in MMA, McGarry pointed out the potential of sustaining the degenerative brain disease exists at a higher clip in American football. Research by VA Boston Healthcare System (VABHS) and Boston University School of Medicine showed 99 percent of 111 deceased NFL players’ brains had been affected by CTE. No data on MMA fighters exists yet.
McGarry says the beauty of the sport lies in the necessary attention to detail in the techniques needed to succeed, which is what prevents it from being what critics call “a bloodsport.”
He began his amateur career in 2015 and has gone 4-0 but hasn’t fought since moving to New York. He’s waiting on Dreifuss and Ng’s approval, but he’s hoping to continue his career soon.
McGarry doesn’t have intentions of returning to live in Northern Ireland. He said he intends to spend his retirement in “a nice sunny house in South Carolina with a box of beer and a grill.” However, his MMA journey is only beginning.