Exclusive interview with Leah McCourt Northern Irish fighter and single mother who is making history in Dublin on Saturday night
Leah McCourt, bursting with life, is beside herself at being elevated to the headline event at Bellator Dublin on Saturday night against Judith Ruis. ‘The Curse’, the single mother from the Belfast council estate now makes history in becoming the first female to headline an event for Bellator Europe. Game-changer time for a star in the making.
McCourt has the whole bit. “It’s so exciting. It’s surreal and it doesn’t feel real at the minute. I’ve so much on. I’m so focused on the fight. I think after the fight I think I’ll appreciate it a bit more,” she explains, a bubbling mixture of enthusiasm and competitiveness.
Nor is it too much to cope with, after the injury to original headliner James Gallagher. “I don’t feel it is, no one puts more pressure on myself than me,” she explains in her lilting, I don’t feel pressure. I feel expectation for myself. It’s the same fight, same arena, same night – this just makes the occasion a bit more special now.’
The extra attention, indeed, has seen her thrive. McCourt clearly has a sense of occasion, the platform, and it has reflected in her social media posts in the build-up. “I always get quite a lot of media. I’ve always had to deal with that during my career. There has been a lot more. Obviously if it had been announced ten weeks out then it would have been less intense, but everyone wanted to speak me within two days. It has been a bit more hectic and manic. I’m getting up at 7am for my run, leaving Isabella [her daughter, 8 going on 18, says our fighter] at school and on the way to Dublin I’m doing three or four interviews on the phone. We’re just trying to fit everything in.’
The drive to the gym is a four-hour round trip. “It’s hard for my body to recover. I do a lot of saunas and ice baths. I’m doing a tough, tough session and then getting straight back in the car to drive home. Trying to do a lot of recovery.’
McCourt had never really planned on being a professional fighter. But she was always competitive – in everything she put her hand to, and I learnt this myself last year on a trip to Dublin. More of which later…
“I always did judo as a child, I’d always had a fascination with martial arts,” McCourt explained to Telegraph Sport. “I used to watch the Olympics as a child and I loved all the martial arts. I’m a judo black belt and I was competing for the judo squad, but I stopped that when I was about 12. I was horseriding then. The way I’m obsessed with MMA, I was obsessed with training my horses. I used to have ponies and I used to be the one who had the crazy horses. My time management and training, I’ve had that my whole life. After I had my daughter, I started learning striking and Muay Thai. The guys in the gym had heard about my grappling background and kind of threw me into the deep end. I had my first MMA fight about seven years ago up in Belfast. First female to fight in Belfast. It’s just been a crazy journey since then.”
That first night in her dressing room was a mental and emotional challenge. Like nothing before. “I remember sitting backstage thinking ‘what am I doing this for?’ I wanted to run out of the place.”
Then she recalls the fear: “I remember the fear. I remember being frozen with fear. I remember thinking what am I doing, this is crazy. I went out and performed. I just went into this zone. So little people will know what that feels like, that feeling of going into the cage. It’s a strange, intense feeling.”
Then the whoosh. McCourt explained: “Once I won, it was just addictive. It was that feeling of constant progression. I feel MMA brings the best out of me, physically, mentally. When I see a challenge I run towards it. If there’s a brick wall in front of me, I run through it. I want to test myself and get better and better.”
The bigger picture does enter for McCourt as to why she fights. She’s certainly no knucklehead. Without doubt the woman whom I tackled in a chess march is brain, brawn and beauty. “Maybe I’m searching for my purpose. The way I fell into it, I did feel it was what I was meant to do. God had a different plan for my life than I did. I wanted to be a professional horse rider, if I’m honest.”
But riding her own wild horses has been a more powerful challenge. At 18, she had daughter Isabella. “People say I was the easiest pregnant woman ever. I just took to being pregnant and took to being her mother like a duck to water. I can’t even remember what life was like before her. She’s such an amazing spirit and she’s so wise. I’m so lucky to have her.”
“She’s so proud of me. She loves her mom is on TV and people talk about her mom. I’m sure in her wee head she does maybe worry. As long as I bring home a gold medal. She will be cage side this week. My mum is coming down. They’ll probably be backstage during the fight and when I win she’ll probably come out and be in the cage.”
I suggest – as a compliment – to McCourt that she is a bad loser. She takes it another way. That trip last year saw your correspondent take Leah on in a game of speed chess. She had even been a champion in her younger years in Ireland. The mistake I made was to win the match, to get a check-mate over this fighter.
Bringing it up, McCourt responded: “Well, let’s just get something right, I didn’t technically lose that chess match. You’re ducking me. Pretending you’re at the Wilder-Fury fight. I am the most competitive person alive. I had just spent 24 hours brutally cutting weight. I was ushered into a room with about 20 cameras and you as fresh as a daisy. I was fighting the next day and that’s what was in my head. I was winning until I lost my concentration because you were taking ten minutes on each move.”
That’s how competitive McCourt is, and since that day in Dublin last October, she has called me out time and again on social media for a rematch. It will happen, in London, later this year, I have promised her.
“The more that comes in my way, the more fire is in my belly. It’s in me. I’m going to do whatever people say I can’t,” McCourt added. “99 per cent of the time I lose rotten in the gym. My confidence isn’t improving with every round because I’m sparring guys (men) that are a lot better than me, with more experience. It gets to me. It frustrates me. Mentally it’s very hard. They’re such high level guys and well rounded fighters. I have to be realistic that when I go in against those guys to take positives when I can, because I can be quite negative. Nobody expects more from me than I expect from myself. That can be a bad thing as well. It haunts me. I’m in the car left along with my thoughts a lot on the way home from training at the gym. I’ve got to keep positive.”
McCourt’s message for anyone who will listen is simple: “I feel God’s hand is the reason why I’m here and why I’m going what I’m doing. I really believe he has a path for everybody’s life and you have to lean into that, trust him and talk to him. It isn’t about me, or winning, or money. Fighters can be very selfish and self obsessed. I want to keep in my head that this is for a bigger reason that just me. If it’s God’s will, it will be done. God’s will will be done, not mine. I’m going to give 100 per cent in every area in whatever I do. If it is in his will it happen and if it doesn’t, I have trust there’s a reason it doesn’t happen. That does for everything in life.”
Final thing – her opponent, Judith Ruis. “She’s a grappler, she’s experienced. She’s fought on a lot of stages so probably won’t be that intimated coming over to Dublin. She’ll be in there to win. The girls, no matter what their skill base, they always come to fight. “I’ve got to be prepared in all areas. I want to go out and put a pace on her. Hopefully show my skill and my fight IQ, and that I am just a different level to her. But sometimes it is a dog fight and it can look messy. Just as long as I’m prepared in every area, I’ll be fine. I can’t wait to get in there. I can’t wait for the door to close and we’re there.”
The bigger picture for McCourt are the major names that Bellator has in its 145lbs division. Big, big names. Major nights. Cris Cyborg, Julia Budd, Cat Zingano. “Of course. They’re who I’ve watched before I even fought in MMA. They were the girls who were leading the way. The fact I’m even fighting in the same division as them, it’s so surreal. I’m at the very start of my professional career, but when those days come and I eventually get to challenge them all, it’s going to be amazing.”