Irish MMA champ Leah takes Europe by storm
Fighter Leah McCourt keeps clocking up the medals, but she’s not finished yet.
Just 18 months after fighting her first Mixed Martial Arts bout, mum-of-one Leah has already taken home two European gold medals and a world bronze.
The 23-year-old’s most recent win was a gold last week at the MMA European amateur championships in Birmingham in a year when she’s also won top spots for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
But don’t call the sport cage fighting – it’s a turbo-charged mixture of wrestling, judo and boxing which is only fought inside a net to prevent grappling competitors falling out of the ring explains the champ.
Leah after winning gold at the European Championships
Each win is taking her closer to a professional career but Leah’s determined she’ll only go pro when the time is right in one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
The judo black belt is an elite athlete, training twice a day as well as working as a charity fundraiser for Mencap and raising five-year-old daughter Isabella.
She’s usually up and working before breakfast time but that’s what makes a champion says Leah.
“To fit everything in I’m up at 5.30am to train, then I get Isabella to school, I go to work and then train again in the evening after I’ve got her to bed,” she says.
“I love competing and I love working hard.”
The only way to succeed, she says, is to treat it like a professional sport.
“It’s the most extreme way to test your body.”
After taking up judo at the age of seven she now combines boxing, strength and conditioning, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing.
With encouragement from her gym mates she took the brave step into competition, but assures fans that it’s not as brutal as it looks.
“I get punched in training all the time – if you didn’t like it you wouldn’t do the sport.
“I don’t really think about getting hit. You are reacting all the time, but it does take a certain sort of person to be able to deal with it.”
Incredibly Leah only took on her first opponent in a competition in June 2014 held in Belfast’s Ulster Hall when she had the fight won in less than three minutes.
Since then she’s won gold and bronze at the European and World Brazilian Jiu Jitsu championships, as well as her recent MMA win.
Most of her competitions have been self-funded but sponsors Walsin came on board this year to help cover travel costs – without that she’d struggle to compete.
Leah’s meteoric rise through the ranks of the sport has helped build its profile in Northern Ireland and she’s helping to win support for government funding.
Modest Leah says it’s also taken a team to get her into the top flight among world-class athletes.
“I work with Niall Greenan at Iron Fit on strength, boxing with Donard McNally, conditioning with Ian Young, MMA with Pat McAlister and the Feed Me Company have given me three meals a day.
“I have such amazing support from family and friends as well.
“You can only be successful if the people close to you help you. I feel blessed,” says Leah.
The next step is training for the World Championships in Las Vegas after a break, when she can share her big news with budding sportswoman Isabella.
“It’s great to be home and relaxing for a while after a really busy year.
“Isabella is really proud of me and she’s doing really well too – she’s got her red belt in judo.
“I’d love her to keep it up, and if she wanted to follow in my footsteps that’s fine, but just as long as she wants to do it,” says Leah.