An Interview With Bellator Strawweight Danni Neilan
By Arwen Sheridan
This September will see strawweight Danni Neilan making her professional debut at Bellator 227 in Dublin. She will be facing Sweden’s Camila Rivarola, who will also be making her promotional debut.
Neilan was very successful at the amateur level, including winning a silver medal at the 2017 IMAAF World Championships. However, MMA was not her first experience of competitive sport. Her first love was horse racing and all things equestrian.
Having spent most of her early years on horseback, at the age of 25, she decided it was time for a change.
The accomplished Irish woman was about to qualify as a physiotherapist at this time. Although she was on the precipice of a rewarding career, Neilan felt she needed something more.
“I had briefly heard of Conor McGregor, never really knew what it (MMA) was. I thought martial arts was like what Bruce Lee did. I was chatting to a guy on Tinder and he was a fighter. He was telling me all about MMA and fighting and I thought it was great.
“He encouraged me to join a martial arts gym, so I gave it a go. From there it was my second obsession in life, after the horses!”
Neilan assures me that the guy legitimately was a fighter, and wasn’t just trying to impress her.”
She spent six months training in Husaria in Naas, before moving to Canada, where she continued her exploration of combat sports. While she was in Canada, she went to one of Conor McGregor’s fights.
“I met John (Kavanagh) just as a fan. I said to him ‘I do MMA as well’ like everyone else says to him. I said ‘I’m going to be a fighter and I’ll be a fighter in your gym someday.’ He was really nice to me, but I sure he thought I was deluded.”
Within six months of that conversation, Neilan was back in Ireland, living in Dublin and training in SBG with Kavanagh. She was still very much a beginner at this stage, but within a few months her hard work was recognized and she was invited to try out for the Pro team. From there it has been one fight after the other.
In the same year that Neilan took Silver in the IMAAFs, she also won Female Fighter of the Year UK and Ireland, and was awarded SBG Amateur Fighter of the Year. Unfortunately, 2018 did not run as smoothly for her as she was plagued by injury.
Ultimately delaying her professional debut.
“The plan was always to get signed for Bellator. This contract has been in the pipeline for the last 12 months. It was just injury that held me back. They are happy to give me my pro debut on a big card, which is a bit scary. But I am definitely ready now.”
I was interested to ask Neilan if the weight cutting aspect of horse racing has translated to her MMA career.
“I spent 6 years in horse racing and I felt like I was yo-yo dieting a lot. I didn’t have a very healthy relationship with food. My weight was constantly up and down. When I went into MMA that’s when I actually got and stayed in shape. I have totally changed my ways now.”
Neilan has secured a four-fight contract in Bellator’s newly formed strawweight division. It is very unusual for fighters to be signed for such big promotions so early in their careers.
Neilan puts this down to two factors. Firstly, having John Kavanagh behind her, leveraging his relationship with Bellator to get the deal done. She also credits it to her success at the IMAAFs.
Speaking about the upcoming fight, Neilan exuded confidence.
“I know most of the people she (Rivarola) has fought. I am confident I am going to win this fight. Even though she has experience. I am physically bigger and I more dangerous than she is. She doesn’t fight with anything that I am concerned about. I am going to be more of a nightmare for her.”
Neilan spent 10 days training in AKA in Phuket as part of her camp for the upcoming fight. Back in Ireland she is splitting her training between SBG HQ “The Monster” and the gym she runs with her fiancé, Relentless Martial Arts, in Mullingar. Her fiancé is her striking coach and she boxes with Olympic Boxing.
Outside of this she has her brother Alex Neilan, registered dietician, helping with her nutrition and physio Anita O’Brien looking after her recovery.
“It’s a massive team of people.”
Undoubtedly Neilan’s own background in physiotherapy is a huge benefit to her in keeping healthy and moving well.
Neilan’s ultimate ambition is to get to the UFC and although this lofty goal fuels her, she no longer allows it to be the central focus for her career. Her goals are to be happy, to present herself well and to do herself justice.
“The very first night in Husaria, I said to myself ‘that Ronda Rousey one, I’ll be like her, I’ll be a champion.’ I barely even knew who she was, but I wanted to be a champion.
“I wanted to be the best there ever was, from day one. Then of course the last four and a half years have kinda changed my tune. I realised that I spent the first couple of years thinking about what would happen when I was a UFC Champion. I now want to enjoy all of it, and remember each fight.”
Her philosophy is mature and considered. She shows little sign of being fazed by the bright lights of the 3Arena.
“I am going to try and be a rock star, because you might never walk that walk again.”