Aisling Daly, better known as Ais ‘the bais’, is now retired from professional MMA fighting, but she is still very active at coaching the new generations of fighters, with a special eye out for the women. Tania Presutti had a chat with Ireland’s first MMA World champion and female UFC Fighter, about being a woman in a man’s sport.
Being a woman isn’t always easy, and some career choices are harder for women than for men. That goes for firefighters, gardas and not surprisingly professional Mixed Martial Arts fighters. Aisling Daly defied all the odds stacked against her, and accomplished a successful career as a MMA fighter.
“I was very headstrong and young, you know, 18 or 19 years-old, and becoming a world champion and professional fighter, was just what I wanted to do. It didn’t matter what everybody else was doing or saying, I guess in a way, I had blinders on, and was just really focused.”
While her close family always supported her choice, the early stages weren’t without critique and questions about her choice of career. “Some people would say, why don’t you get a real job, a steady income and so on. It wasn’t until later in my career, when I started winning fights, those voices were quiet. I guess that I proved I was serious and I was good at it (fighting). My mom was always very supportive of me. She would always say that everything in sport is down to you. You have to give your youth to it and go back to education at a later stage.”
It wasn’t by accident Aisling Daly got into fighting, as a 10-year-old kid in Dublin, she was presented with three choices for after school activities in the local youth club: Basketball, Karate or art. She quickly determined that Basketball wasn’t for her; while she liked it, she realised that she probably would never grow tall enough to become a successful basketball player and since she ‘stunk’ at art (her own words), Karate was the only and right choice for her.
“I always liked physical sports, so karate was a great activity for me,” Aisling says about her youth, her big passion became BJJ (Brasillian Jiu Jitsu), which she found through her karate trainer. “He was training up at SBG with John Kavanaugh at the time, and would sometimes roll out some mats after karate class and teach us some BJJ. I was immediately taken by it.” After training both karate and BJJ, Daly took the plunge and switched to BJJ and then on to SBG (Straight Blast Gym).
It was in SBG she found and fell in love with MMA too. “My coach, John Kavanaugh, wasn’t really keen to put me into fights at first. He made me train more and much harder than the guys at the same level. Like if there were any Blue-belt guys who wanted to compete, he was like ‘Yeah sure’, but with me, he made me do all these extra things. John was like: ‘I’m not going to send you home to your mum all beat up’. He wanted to make sure I was well prepared for fighting, before he even let me take a fight, so in that sense I got treated very differently from the guys in the gym.”
Aside from John Kavanaugh making her jump through extra hurdles, Aisling never felt she was treated differently in the gym by her teammates. “I was one of the original SBG members, so when MMA started to take off slowly, I was already part of the furniture so to speak, and the new guys who started would automatically know, that if they wanted to be a part of the team, Ais was there, had done the work and ‘worn the t-shirt’. I had been there a long time before them. So the respect was already there.”
Knowing that this isn’t always the case when it comes to gyms and the often male-dominance that exists in the gym environment, Aisling is now running female only BJJ classes (aside from teaching kids and mix beginners classes), where she hopes to bridge the gap between a ‘safe training environment with other women’, to join the mix classes. “I think it’s a good way for a lot of girls to start learning with someone their own size, cause if you start in a mixed class, a lot of times, if you have two beginners – a man and a woman – the man will almost always assume that he knows more about fighting than the woman. And he’ll try and correct her or out-muscle her in the drills.”
Aisling’s way to combat this is to try to install confidence in her female students, so they can stand up for themselves and be selective with their training partners. “I tell them, don’t ever be afraid to say no, I only want to roll with people my own size. It also comes down to the fact, that you won’t have longevity in the sport if you don’t take care of yourself. Some of my girls will go on to the mix classes, maybe start to compete, others will stay with the ladies only class. Both are fine with me.”
Daly says for her own MMA career, there were never any women to train with. “There would be one coming to the gym every now and then, and in the beginning, I would really try and make an effort to pair up with her and make her feel welcome. But nobody ever stayed, I eventually realised that no matter what I did, I had no influence on their choice. And when I became professional I just couldn’t sacrifice my training time to partner up with new beginners, just because they were women. So there was a part of my career, where I wouldn’t do it. I’d be friendly and welcoming, but I had my own fights to train for and that was my priority. You could say now, I’m back to square one again. I’d swoop up the beginner and say ‘let’s roll. BJJ is my favourite sport, and if I can pass along my passion to another person, I’m like ‘this is my gift to you’.”
Since her mom was her biggest supporter (“even though, she call my BJJ suit a Karate suit at times”), Aisling has some advice for parents whose child is looking to get into fight sport.
“I think it’s important to find the right gym, the right team and the right coach. You want someone who is behind you, who makes you feel welcome and part of the team. MMA is an individual sport, when you step into the cage to fight, but getting there, preparing for that fight, that takes a team and with the right team, you can go far. I think, to me it’s important, that the gym is looking after you, like the trainer is keeping an eye out to avoid reckless sparring situations, and keeping it technical, and genuinely care about your wellbeing and safety. You need to know, when you look behind you in the cage, that the people in your corner want the best for you.”