Book Review: Patrick Holohan’s ‘Hooligan’

By Jacob Debets Jan 9, 2020

Patrick Holohan’s Ultimate Fighting Championship tenure consisted of five fights—he went 3-2 in those five appearances—and was not particularly noteworthy when viewed next to the thousands of other careers that have unfolded in the Octagon. However, his recently published “Hooligan” (Gill Books, 2019) might just be the most compelling mixed martial arts autobiography ever written.

Written in the wake of Holohan’s election to the South Dublin County Council in May, with the assistance of Pundit Arena Co-Founder Richard Barrett, “Hooligan” charts Holohan’s rise from a neglected child growing up in an environment saturated by poverty, alcoholism and violence to headlining a UFC event in Dublin, having his career cut short due to a rare blood disorder and remaking himself as a gym proprietor and municipal politician.

The book is part personal confession, part insider account of the rise of Irish MMA and the crowning of Conor McGregor as the biggest star in UFC history. Throughout its pages, Holohan grapples with identity and alienation, his embrace by and ugly divorce from SBG Ireland founder John Kavanagh, a life-threatening illness he spent a decade concealing and rebuilding himself in the wake of a seemingly endless series of personal and professional tragedies.

“Hooligan” is a bold and unflinching account of how Holohan transcended destitution and trauma to become a pioneer in a fledgling sport and an elected representative in his hometown. It is a book about a fighter, in every sense of the word.

* * *

Round 1 of “Hooligan” is a book in and of itself, as Holohan recounts his childhood in the poverty-stricken suburb of Jobstown in the South of Dublin.

The son of an underemployed single mother surviving on social welfare and charity, Holohan’s upbringing is marked by a violent tribalism outside his home and a casual neglect inside of it. He describes frequent run-ins with neighboring clans, once returning home “covered in blood and with a piece of [his] ear missing” to his antidepressant-addicted mother, who “barely batted an eyelid.” His aunt is viciously and persistently beaten by his uncle, though the incidents were regarded as one of the preferable periods, as it meant they weren’t beating their offspring: Holohan’s cousins. His friends are drug addicts, arsonists and survivors of sexual abuse; Holohan counts himself as one of the lucky ones.

At 7, Holohan is immobilized by a brain clot and rushed into successive rounds of emergency brain surgery before plunging into a coma for three weeks. Two years later, he is diagnosed with a potentially fatal blood condition—Factor XIII Deficiency—after a routine tooth extraction left him choking on blood clots. He describes jailbreaking St Margaret’s Hospital, where he is left to languish by his family, with a mixture of sorrow and pride, morbidly aware of how easily he could have lost his life but amused all the same by the chutzpah of his 9-year-old self.

Lenadoon in Belfast, the home of Holohan’s Aunt Margaret, offers the schoolboy a modicum of discipline and routine. However, its proximity to the sectarian violence between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Irish Republican Army comes with its own barely comprehensible traumas. Holohan describes witnessing his neighbor burn to death in the house next door, maimed men appearing at his doorstep, rubber bullets and riots. Back at home, his mother is the victim of a “sham marriage” and the pre-teen Holohan is banished from his bedroom into the landing and spirals into an alcohol- and drug-induced depression, until he tortures his new stepfather into leaving. He later relocates to Raheen with his aunt and cousins Liam and Dan, but he is devastated by the loss of his grandfather, the most influential father figure of his young life.

His teenage years are slightly more conventional, with Holohan navigating high school, sexual maturity and infidelity, purchasing his first car and making ends meet financially as a grafter and occasional purveyor of stolen goods. Nevertheless, these years are also marked by tragedy, as Holohan copes with the suicide of a close friend and the sexual assault of a former girlfriend. He enters adulthood with a son on the way and a newfound passion in mixed martial arts, with an odyssey of suffering behind him.

* * *

The sheer volume of trauma the young Holohan witnesses or endures in his formative years and into young adulthood, from the oppression and violence perpetuated by British imperialists in Belfast to the unrelenting anxiety of Jobstown, make the beginnings of his mixed martial arts journey at Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym in Round 2 of “Hooligan” almost anticlimactic.

Holohan recounts meeting “Master Splinter” Kavanagh quietly training his Ninja Turtles; the “crazy Icelandic guy” Gunnar Nelson, who was dangerous by reputation but polite and approachable; Aisling Daly, the 5-foot, pink-haired strawweight who lights him up in sparring and briefly sent his self-esteem into free fall; and the obsessive, magnetic McGregor already anchoring local events with just two fights under his belt.

He describes the Spartan beginnings of SBG and his early success as an MMA fighter, with an obvious and endearing pride: running the 6 p.m. jiu-jitsu class, racking up first-round submissions on the regional scene and having his nose broken by McGregor’s left hand during a particularly competitive spar. There are also the beginnings of a rift between Holohan and Kavanagh, his surrogate father, and the emergence of Holohan’s in-cage alter ego, “The Hooligan,” who channels every ghoulish memory of his childhood and motivates him to overcome his next seemingly indomitable adversary.

Holohan’s rise through Ireland’s regional scene has all the staples of your conventional contender story: the ad hoc matchmaking and less-than-scrupulous promoters, the precarious weight cuts and financial insecurity, the crippling self-doubt and perpetual renunciation of personal interest for “the good of the sport.” However, what sets it apart from the average fighter bio is that it’s set against a backdrop of deeply partisan values internalized by the young Holohan navigating riots in Belfast. When he is matched opposite Neil McGuigan, a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in his sixth career fight, he described being transported back to his childhood “witnessing the death and destruction that these men caused” and is electrified by hatred. Later, he vividly recounts the various kinds of discrimination he is subjected to due to his Jobstownian heritage and his desire to challenge those prejudices.

Like Holohan’s childhood, there is a sense that he is forever on the precipice of total self-destruction. A scrap at a pub in Wexford and a subsequent conviction for assault with a deadly skill threatens to derail his dreams of a better future, only to be overturned in a bizarre twist of fate involving a visit from the Queen. Before his fight against Artemij Sitenkov at Cage Contender 14, he tempts fate by gunning down the Motorway at 100 miles per hour, his internal monologue imploring him to end his life and save him from any more disappointment. When he finally gets his big opportunity on Season 18 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he leaves his fibrogammin medication behind, astronomically increasing his risk of a cranium bleed for the sake of hiding the blood condition that would end his career if disclosed. A longstanding back injury leads to a sequence of serious medical emergencies, while his capitulation to Josh Hill on “The Ultimate Fighter” sends him into a spiral of self-loathing and depression.

However, Holohan, shepherded by his alter ego and—one can only assume—a particularly vigilant guardian angel, overcomes these challenges and makes it to the UFC, standing at the vanguard of the Irish Invasion into the Octagon and becoming the first Irishman to get a victory on Irish soil with his submission of Josh Sampo at UFC Fight Night 46 in Dublin. It’s a sorely overdue catharsis, paid for in full.

* * *

Round 3 of “Hooligan” centers on the remaining four fights of Holohan’s Octagon career, which brutally unravels when his blood disorder is discovered by UFC doctors. It also details his trials building up his own SBG gym with Kavanagh and their eventual estrangement; meeting his partner, Chelsea, and starting a new life together; and his unlikely foray into municipal politics.

These are parts of Holohan’s journey with which MMA fans are more likely to be familiar, though his vivid retelling of events makes for a compelling read with plenty of information not previously on the public record. He dissects each of his fights and their aftermath with devastating clarity, from the euphoria of beating Shane Howell and Vaughan Lee to the ugly, ruinous losses to Chris Kelades and Louis Smolka. He also addresses the misconceptions surrounding the UFC’s pay structure—“People thought we were earning millions, but we weren’t”—and his simmering disaffection towards the UFC’s 50/50 payment clause, which meant a loss cut his pay in half. Holohan recounts his deep frustration and obsessive attempts to secure medical clearance necessary for him to continue competing—at one point, he considered training as a doctor and signing his own waiver—but ultimately finds something approaching acceptance and closure.

Elsewhere, Holohan rails against Kavanagh’s “Win or Learn” philosophy and describes an increasingly aloof coach with one too many responsibilities, unwilling to shoulder any blame for Holohan’s main event loss to Smolka and ostensibly unperturbed by the premature end to his UFC tenure. He speaks mournfully about opening a gym with Kavanagh and a third-party investor in Tallaght, which leads to an ugly, drawn-out divorce that sees Holohan strike out on his own with SBG Dublin 24.

A staunch and unwavering McGregor supporter, Holohan also shares insider accounts of the meteoric UFC rise of “The Notorious” Irishman and the lengths the then-featherweight champion went to assist him in navigating his premature retirement; they included McGregor’s offer to “un-retire” and fulfill his media obligations circa UFC 200 if Holohan was allowed a swansong. He also shares some of the wisdom McGregor imparted on the way up. “Money doesn’t change people,” McGregor told him. “It reveals them.” One can’t help but consider those words in light of McGregor’s conduct in recent years.

In the final chapter, Holohan chronicles his foray into politics after being approached by longtime friend and honorary Lord Mayor of Tallaght Cathal King to run for the left-wing Irish Republican party of Sinn Fein in the Tallaght South Constituency. He describes the campaign, polling day and the elation of being elected, though is disappointingly sparse on his priorities beyond remaining transparent and putting the public interest first.

The narrative arc of the book, from “council estate to councillor,” is nevertheless a satisfying conclusion to a story defined by Holohan’s enduring ability to beat the odds.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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