“I pulled out of the fight. I didn’t even wanna be here, I didn’t wanna train. I was in a bad way…panic attacks getting sick…and now I’m back, now I’m winning.”
As I watched a very relieved James Gallagher retell his experience of severe panic attacks in the weeks leading up to his victory over Jeremiah Labiano at Bellator London 223, I was reminded once again of the fine line between success and failure, and the vital role that mental health plays in not only the outcome of a fight, but life.
While the driven 22-year-old from Strabane, Northern Ireland did not allow his demons to drive him from the sport he so loves, in part due to the timely support received from SBG coach John Kavanagh and team alike, I couldn’t help but imagine a very different outcome.
Had Gallagher, overwhelmed by the sudden waves of panic, stuck to his initial knee-jerk reaction to pull out of the fight, it is likely that the upward trajectory of his career would have taken a serious blow.
While such a late cancellation of a main card bout would have left Bellator head honchos unimpressed, not to mention deeply concerned about Gallagher’s reliability going forward if the truth behind his decision was revealed, the real threat to the longevity of his career would have been much closer to home — himself.
If stepping into the Octagon following two weeks of severe panic was difficult, attempting to return following a decision to pull out of this fight would have been the more daunting experience.
Instead, having pushed through the immeasurable discomfort that only someone who has experienced the vice grip of panic can understand, the ‘Strabanimal’ has now a positive marker to which he can refer if his anxiety flares in the lead up to another fight — one in which he faced his fears, fought (and won) when feeling at his worst.
Post-fight, sporting designer sunglasses and a wine denim jacket, Gallagher presented to the media as light years away from a man who had, in his own words, “lost control”, as he confidently discussed his next fight at the 3 Arena in Dublin, which he will headline for a second time this year.
With that in mind, it would have been easy for the featherweight to have never acknowledged his gunshot reaction to pull out of the fight, nor the terror he experienced in its lead up, which left his body so ragged that he needed to be carried out of the SBG gym on more than one occasion.
Difficulties with one’s mental health, while now more openly discussed in the general public, are still widely viewed as somewhat taboo in combat sports.
While the frankness of boxing’s lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and his struggles with depression have sparked conversation within the fight game regarding mental health, it can still be perceived as a chink in a fighter’s armour by not only a fighter’s opponent, but the public themselves – something which James Gallagher is all too aware of.
“Everyone’s gonna look and say ‘that’s a weak mind – he’s broke’,” He opined, “But I’ve got the strongest mindset in the f*cking game, and I’m going straight to the top.”
Gallagher’s suspicion that many will align his fear with weakness is further validated by professional boxer Anthony Joshua’s response to rumors that a panic attack had been at the root of his disquieting and uncharacteristic downcast demeanor upon entering the ring in his defeat to Ruiz earlier this month.
“I warmed up really well. I had no panic attack – I’m not that type of person, you know me.” He asserted in a self made video released days after his defeat to the Mexican.
When I heard the former heavyweight champion’s assertion that he was not the type of person to experience a panic attack, my heart sank.
While I’m sure Anthony Joshua didn’t intend to indirectly imply that only a weak individual would find their body overpowered by panic, I couldn’t help but feel that many sufferers would interpret it as just that.
This is a shame, given that anxiety and panic do not discriminate, ignorant to a person’s financial or societal status.
As we have seen with James Gallagher, a talented and handsome young man excelling in a sport he adores, everyone is vulnerable.
Panic is quite possibly the most debilitating emotion that a person can experience, and without the appropriate treatment and help, can severely impact the quality of a person’s life. The strength that it takes to sit with such feelings, and pursue your dreams despite their presence, is immeasurable.
Three months give or take out from his next bout, it is certain that in the weeks ahead, James Gallagher will scour within and assess with both his coaches and family in an effort to unearth the root cause of the visceral reaction he experienced.
Whatever the reason, I have no doubt that he will not allow such feelings to dictate his future. After all, his panic has now lost the two elements that gave it oxygen – that of surprise and power.
If I was ever sure that the young Irishman who has in many ways grown up in Conor McGregor’s shadow was set to be a World Champion, it is now. And so as The Notorious one once told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani
“Don’t be hatin.”
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 6/25/2019.