Made in Munster: Up close and very personal with the Limerick legend of Mixed Martial Arts

Limerick's Catherine Costigan is a very smart spokesperson for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), as Pat Fitzpatrick discovers in this frank and open encounter.

Mixed martial artist Catherine Costigan gives journalist Pat Fitzpatrick a practical demonstration of the 'Arm Bar', a popular hold in MMA bouts. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Mixed martial artist Catherine Costigan gives journalist Pat Fitzpatrick a practical demonstration of the 'Arm Bar', a popular hold in MMA bouts. Picture: Jim Coughlan

Catherine Costigan doesn’t look like a professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. She’s polite, bright and gossipy, a good laugh, with none of the bolted-on bravado we’ve grown to expect from some others in the fight game.

“I’m not a very good thrash-talker, that’s not me”, the 39-year old Limerick fighter reveals in her interview with Pat Fitzpatrick as part of the Made In Munster series for the Irish Examiner.

But she knew from a young age that this is where she wanted to be. “I didn’t fit other sports, but something clicked when I walked into Dermot McGrath’s kickboxing class at 14, I had the feeling this is the right place for me. Even though there were 15 boys in the class thinking what is a girl doing in this club!”

McGrath taught her how to fight those boys quick and smart, to avoid getting hurt. He also told her she would be perfect for the newly emerging MMA discipline and she set about learning moves such as The Guillotine, Rear Naked and Arm Bar, to force opponents into submission.

These aren’t fake violent names – the Guillotine is an attempt to cut off your opponent’s air supply; Armbar is about convincing her you will break her arm if she doesn’t submit.

Does she get frightened before a fight? “It’s the scariest thing! Two or three hours beforehand I’m thinking why didn’t I listen to my mother, why don’t I have kids and be a housewife? For me there is a fear – if I can’t understand it, I need to battle through it.”

Costigan, who now runs Pankration Kickboxing MMA in Limerick with Dermot McGrath, doesn’t hide from the violence, but insists that it is not at the heart of the sport.

You might say my sport is violent, but I’m not a violent person in any way. [...] We teach the kids not to be violent, to show respect and support each other.

“Violence is in human nature, it’s in us. It’s how you battle it and handle it. You might say my sport is violent, but I’m not a violent person in any way. For 20 long years, we’ve been trying to put a positive spin on the sport through our actions and words in Pankration Kick-Boxing academy. We teach the kids not to be violent, to show respect and support each other.”

What do her parents think of her career choice? “Dad loved Bruce Lee – he thought he was Bruce Lee! My mother understands, but doesn’t agree. She knows I’m chasing the dream. ”

It hasn’t always been easy, chasing the dream. 10 years ago, she travelled to Pisa in Italy to represent Ireland, only to find that no opponent had turned up in her weight division. “The president of the organisation turned to me and said, ‘here have an orange’”, says Costigan incredulously. “I was after cutting to 48kg – he didn’t know what it’s like to be in Italy, full of pizza! It takes a lot of hard work to get successful.”

Made in Munster: Up close and very personal with the Limerick legend of Mixed Martial Arts

It has taken a toll on her personal life. She married her partner McGrath in her twenties, but the pressures of competing took its toll and they have since split, remaining good friends and still running the business together. “We just got on with it, we accepted it, and developed another plan”, she says, quite matter-of-factly.

She has also received a few odd requests via social media from men. “You’d get some guy on social media saying, ‘all I want is you to hit me or do the holds on me’ If you were stuck for sponsorship you might consider it, but wait until your mother hears, you’d get murdered! I haven’t got enough time to beat up some random person, to be honest.”

Costigan took some time out recently to help her mother in a fight against cancer. “I was her corner woman, she was the fighter. She attacked it head on, like a fighter would, she did it beautifully. There’s winning or losing in fighting - in cancer, there’s just winning or nothing else after that. There were a few fights offered during that time, but I couldn’t do it.

“We were sitting in the consultant's office one day, two sisters came out, it was obvious one of them just got very bad news. She said, ‘Well I better spend all my money quickly, because I’m not leaving it to you’, and the whole place just burst out laughing, they were crying and laughing, there was nothing else to do. Mum was very lucky, we were very lucky.”

Costigan is 39 now, is this the end of her nine-bout career?

“No, because I lost last time out and I don’t want to leave it like that. I’m not going to listen to people saying, you’re 40 in November, you’re past your prime. I still have a hell of a lot of fight in me. If I’m going to tell my kids to be tough and brave, then teacher has to do it too.”

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