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Northern Irish Mixed Martial Artist Leah McCourt has targeted a return to the Bellator cage this summer in Los Angeles but admits there is uncertainty surrounding any potential events in the summer.
“There’s been talk about July and August in Los Angeles,” says the 27-year-old.
“Bellator are owned by Paramount Studios. They have a cage at their on-site studios so they could set up there.
“I don’t care where I fight and I’ve fought all over the world. I just want another fight soon.”
In 2016 the Bellator featherweight was crowned IMMAF amateur world champion in Las Vegas and she says the experience of that tournament will help her prepare for any upcoming behind-closed-doors events.
“You can hear every punch, it’s a bit more nerve-racking because there is no crowd to drown anything out,” she adds.
“It’s just another challenge we’re going to have to overcome.”
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However, the Northern Irish featherweight admitted there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding a possible return to the sport.
“I’ve been talking to Bellator all the time but with travel bans it’s just a waiting game when we can get into certain countries.”
Although unaware at the time, McCourt’s last fight – a unanimous decision win over Judith Ruis in February – was one of the last large arena shows in the UK or Ireland before lockdown was introduced.
“I went out with a bang,” jokes Leah, adding it was great experience to headline an MMA event in Dublin.
However, the Saintfield native isn’t worried about what type of environment she fights in next.
“After the fight you think ‘wow, look where I am fighting’. However it’s going to be the same excitement and challenge for me even if I am fighting in a studio.”
McCourt was set to face Janay Harding at Wembley Arena earlier in May but that fight was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
She was also eyeing up a spot on the upcoming Bellator Dublin card featuring Peter Queally and Patricky “Pitbull” Freire, but she doubts it will go ahead in an indoor arena because of social distancing and travel restrictions.
‘Home schooling more difficult than MMA’
McCourt is renowned for her exhausting work ethic.
Her busy schedule includes a daily four-hour round trip to train with Owen Roddy in Dublin, while also committing to strength and conditioning training in Belfast and providing self defence classes for women.
As if that wasn’t tiring enough, she also has to balance her training with parenting her daughter Isabella.
McCourt recognises this is the first opportunity she’s had since she started fighting to taper her training, but admits she finds it difficult to ease off.
“I want to be competing and I’m constantly setting a different goal,” she says.
“As soon as something is done, I’m thinking ‘what’s next?’ – I want to be pushing myself.”
However, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt is thankful for the break and says she has been enjoying her extra time with Isabella.
“I’ve been relaxing, letting my body and mind reset because I’m always under constant stress and pressure,” she says.
“I do feel recharged and ready to get back at it. Everyone said I needed to take a step back and give my mind a break and this is the first time I’ve been able to do it.
“However I’m still training twice a day – I have a boxing bag in my garage and a treadmill in my kitchen. I’m making it work.”
The time at home has also given Leah a chance to study the fight game more, but she admits one of the biggest challenges she has is home schooling Isabella.
When asked which is more difficult, fighting or home schooling, McCourt jokes that stepping inside the cage is definitely an easier task.
Advice to other fighters
McCourt admits she struggled for the first couple of weeks of lockdown: “I had to have a word with myself,” she says.
She told herself: “This isn’t that awful. You’re in the house, you can make things work.
“You can find a way or make a way, and there’s always something you can be doing.”
McCourt has encouraged everyone, not just fighters, to exercise not just for their physical health, but mental health also.
“I know when I don’t train, I don’t feel great. I get so much energy from training and I feel better about myself,” she adds.
As for the professional fighters, although sparring and close contact training are off-limits, the former amateur world champion believes improving as an athlete is down to more than just physical preparation.
“You can study tapes and work on your body, flexibility and mobility.”
“Fighters are injured all the time, so our bodies are getting a break rather than being hammered and pushed everyday.
“There are so many positives you can take from it.”
McCourt is taking advantage of the additional time at home by watching and reading about other sporting greats as a source of inspiration, adding she was enthralled by ‘The Last Dance’ documentary about basketball legend Michael Jordan.
“I loved it. I listen to a lot of interviews with great players and sports people. In camp when I’m cutting weight I listen to interviews to get inspiration,” she says.
As with any professional athlete, time is often the toughest opponent. To lose a year of competitive action could have disastrous consequences on a fighter’s career, both physically and financially.
“I think it’s going to be a threat for a long time, you’re always going to have to be wary of it but you can’t sit and live in fear,” McCourt says.
“I’m not going to limit my opportunities and goals. We’re obviously going to be very careful and take every measure to make it as safe as possible, but I’m not going to let it hold my career back.”