James “Strabanimal” Gallagher: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

July 2016, James “Strabanimal” broke into the worldwide stage when he debuted in Bellator, a brash, good looking and charismatic fighter who had already developed a following in his home country came out the gates fast; and began to establish himself as not just a fighter on the rise, but a potential superstar. Much like SBG stablemate, Conor McGregor, the young man was polarizing, exciting and looking to be every bit as dominant as he was bold and brash;  but a crushing loss to Ricky Bandejas, derailed that momentum. And while Gallagher has found his way back to the victory circle, every win he picks up has inspired as much concern as it has confidence. Every opponent he has defeated has created just as many questions as answers. So today I am going to do an in-depth look at “Strabanimal”, exploring the good, the bad and the ugly of his physical tools, fighting style, camp and star power.

Business/Branding

The Good:

James Gallagher is a polarizing fighter, a guy who has true star potential because people feel so strongly for him or against him. That is what it takes for a fighter to be not just a name in the sport, but a fighter whose brand expands outside of the sport. So in a sense the business of “Strabanimal” is good, you can draw attention regardless of who he fights or where he fights; which is a plus in a sport still trying to find a firm foothold and an organization that has had a problem developing its own breakout stars. Unlike the Ultimate Fighting Championship that had a huge head start as far as establishing a presence in the minds of sports fans and casuals; as well as the benefit of having a seemingly endless amount of prospects, veterans, elite fighters and superstars all trying maximize their earnings and Q rating by fighting in THE biggest organization in North America, if not the world. Bellator needs any and all the help it can get, not in the form of UFC castoffs, or talented but straight laced fighters; but in the form of engaging exciting and charismatic people who can generate interest individually or as the foil to other up and coming fighters or established stars.

That was the business of Gallagher and it’s a good business to be in, but he is in the fight business and a lot of who he becomes and how big he becomes relies on his ability to engage in and win fights; which is where the more detailed aspects of the actual fight game come into play.

Fight Game

The Good:

The best thing about James Gallagher as a fighter is that for the most part he has an established identity as a fighter. Gallagher and his team have clearly established who and what he is as a fighter, they don’t veer away from his strengths. Everything he does is built to put him in position to take advantage of the positives of his game and minimize or mask the negatives of his game. On the feet Gallagher uses more of a minimalist approach leaning heavily on timing, mobility and distance management; his style falls towards that of a traditional martial artist, he is light on his feet and uses longer stances that allow him to close, maintain and extend distance. This allows him to exploit many fighters’ poor defensive footwork (backing up in straight lines, having chin up) and offensive footwork (moving in straight lines, leading with their strikes not their feet). Another traditional aspect of his style is low volume, James on occasion will throw flurries; but for the most part, attacking multiple levels and using small bursts of offense to create openings for takedowns, to get an opponent to over pursue so he can counter. Or he uses these things to disrupt his opponents ability to build momentum in regards to pressure, get in position for takedowns, or throw with power or in combination.

But what his striking ultimately does is create opportunities for him to get in position to showcase the strongest point of his overall game, which is his grappling. As effective as Gallagher has been on the feet, notice I said effective not dynamic or dominant, the point of his standup is to provide him a defensive buffer keeping him from being overwhelmed or broken down; while creating openings for him to get clean entries to SAFELY get clinches, tie ups, to attack singles or doubles or to get an opponent to pressure and setup reactive takedowns. Once on the ground James is a maestro, whether he secures a superior position, finds himself in a scramble; Gallagher has a supernatural ability to control pace of ground fighting exchanges and to extend ground exchanges.

https://twitter.com/Bellator_Europe/status/1312515293806116864?s=09

In layman’s terms when you hit the mat not only will he dictate the intensity and pace of the grappling exchanges, he will NOT allow you to get back to your feet or get to superior positions (i.e. top position). Mount, side control, working from guard or taking your back, there is no place to escape James; he will chip you up with short punches, elbows and the second you lose patience or seek to muscle your way out of or into a position he can and will submit you. Don’t believe me, check his records eleven wins, nine by submission in the second largest organization in North America and no worse than the second (maybe third) best mixed martial arts organization in the world.

Fight Game

The Bad:

As conceptually sound as Gallagher’s striking is, the fact of the matter is it’s very limited and requires very specific circumstances for him to be consistently effective. A lot of his success comes from the threat of his grappling as opponents don’t want him to have an opportunity to get his hands on them. The reason for this is because historically it is very hard to get away from James once he has made contact at all, much less once he has secured grips/position. On its own his striking is functionally effective, it makes things difficult and allows him to score points, what it does not do is allow him to build momentum, control/win exchanges or provide him with defensive positioning or techniques. That was exposed in his fight with former prospect Rickie Bandejas, where James flirted with pressuring, throwing power shots and combinations. While he had moments of success, he was unable to a) break Bandejas down, b) overwhelm him or c) maintain any sense of defensive responsibility. This led to him being chipped up, rocked and ultimately stopped. He had no safety zones, defined counters or technical answers when he didn’t fight at a very specific pace or distance.

Which brings us to the second chink in his armor. “The Strabanimal” may in fact be one of the finest technical and positional grapplers in Bellator; his game is equal parts technical and conceptual, which is why he is so able to be effective in so many instances on the ground. But when it comes to how he gets to the ground, it is in fact very limited. His wrestling is functional at best and often relies heavily on the traps set by his striking. Obviously striking sets up wrestling in MMA; but we have already discussed that his striking is limited in regards to versatility both offensively and defensively, which requires his wrestling to be of a better class because he won’t be able to get to or maintain certain spots to find these takedowns. This hasn’t been exposed, largely in part due to the less than stellar opposition he has faced in Bellator; but in his toughest fight when his striking failed him and he needed his wrestling to force the fight to the mat or to get him time to clear his head by controlling his opponent on the fence. When he needed it, when he was under duress, when he wasn’t in control he COULD NOT get the takedown and keep it and he couldn’t get clinch or tie up he needed to slow the fight, to clear his head, to win the fight.

The business/brand

The Ugly:

Gallagher has had one loss, and since then the level of his opposition has plateaued at best, regressed at worst. Beating top opposition doesn’t make you a star, but it sure as hell justifies your stardom and your push by the promoter. “The Strabanimal” hasn’t faced or beaten good enough opposition to have any of his hype or momentum justified. He simply hasn’t faced the biggest names and toughest guys in the promotion yet. The biggest stars in this sport or any, exploded by winning the big game or big fights; until Gallagher can follow suit, he can be a star but he can’t become a SUPERSTAR, and Bellator can’t ever maximize the stardom, charisma and marketability he does have. 

Fight Game

The Ugly:

James Gallagher isn’t a standout physical specimen, he isn’t a terrible athlete, he isn’t fragile like fine china; but the fact of the matter is he hasnt shown high end athleticism, elite level strength or dynamic striking power. This means that he has to fight almost strategically perfect fights because he can’t turn a fight with one shot, he can’t force his way into or out of certain spots using his physical gifts; worse yet he doesn’t have the durability to hold up under duress (ie when a fight isn’t going the way he needs it to go). All things being equal the name of the game is skills, when all things are equal; but when they aren’t athleticism, size, length and physicality are a must for you to ultimately become elite. Those things allow you to make mistakes, be technically limited or to fight strategically dumb fights because you have an equalizer. Fighters like Brock Lesnar, Holly Holm, Cyborg, Francis Ngannou, Ovince St Preux, Cat Zingano have been allowed to find their way in the sport because of their physical tools; they didn’t have to fight clean or perfect fights to win because their natural abilities allowed them to stay in fights until they found opportunities to win.

Gallagher has none of that, he is much more Kenny Florian or Miesha Tate; a fighter who will have to rely on excellent game plans, poise constant refinement and versatility (ie ability to adjust) to win fights. I don’t know that he has realized this or that he has the all round awareness, IQ or willingness to take the necessary steps to establish himself as that type of fighter. And you need all three to take that road to success; is the potential there, the talent, yes. But is the will to do what it takes to become that kind of fighter there…that I don’t know; the level of opposition, how they have matched him makes me have doubts

Gallagher is too brash to be hidden, and has too much star potential to be protected; at some point he is going to HAVE TO be moved back up and show that he can compete at the highest levels consistently and successfully. Wins over Chinzo Machida, Jeremiah Labiano, Cal Ellenor and Steven Graham aren’t what Hall of Fame careers are made of, these aren’t the type of fighters that stamp a fighter as a potential world champion. In the first fight he was exposed to adversity – he lost – and did so decisively. He hasn’t faced real adversity since and hasn’t faced opposition good enough to put him in adverse circumstances. To be close to what a McGregor, a Pitbull, a Nunes is he is going to have to remedy that; his resume will have to tell his story more than sound bites and video packages. Very soon we are going to find out if Gallagher is THE future of the sport or just another person who plays their part in the future of the sport.