Cage Warrior Graham Boylan left Cork at 18 with no Leaving Cert and no money, just an attitude. Now he is the CEO to Europe’s biggest MMA organisation and provider of UFC fighters, having brought on stream the likes of Conor McGregor.
You might not have seen him before but he helped you see them. Conor McGregor, once a plumber just like him. Cathal Pendred. Michael Bisping, the only British winner of a UFC title. In all Graham Boylan and his Cage Warriors operation has brought through 94 fighters to the UFC, establishing itself as Europe’s primary pathway to the NBA of mixed martial arts, its farm league, its conveyer belt.
As Boylan himself puts it, “If you’re from Europe and you want to get to the UFC, Cage Warriors is the way to go.”
That route isn’t easy. McGregor’s first fight on a Cage Warriors bill was this month nine years ago, in Boylan’s old stomping ground, the Neptune Stadium, where he and an 80-person team return tonight for another promotion that will be beamed live into sitting rooms and bedrooms from Alabama to Australia.
McGregor lost that Cage Warriors 39 bout to a Donegal-born fighter calledJoseph Duffy; within 16 seconds of being taken to the mat, McGregor was tapping out, submitting to an arm-triangle choke.
If there’s one thing that has been just as testing as trying to navigate your way in the Cage Warriors with all its snakes as well as ladders, it’s been the path tobecoming its CEO. Nothing about it was straightforward; only in hindsight could you connect the dots.
What you have to first know about Graham Boylan is that he’s from Cork. And not just any part of Cork but its northside. And that he’s not just from the northside but he’s a North Mon boy. Went to school in the Mon and played basketball for the Mon, both school and club.
“I think we grew up quicker in the Mon, got streetwise quicker. In an environment like that, there’d be a lot of ball-hopping, a lot of slags, so you learned to spot bullshit a mile away. And then in the basketball you had the rivalry between ourselves, [Blue] Demons and Neptune, trying to get one over the other. To this day it wasprobably the most competitive sporting environment I’ve ever been.”
He hated the classroom. Other than some aspects of maths and history, he’d just tune out and daydream of what he was going to do out on the basketball court or hurling field once that bell sounded. If he wasn’t one of the class messers and thus had to sit towards the back, he’d have been first out the door.
In a way he was; he’d quit school after his Inter Cert to become an apprentice plumber. James Wills, who would have backed and chaired The Mon club at the time, took him on but then at 18 in the summer of ’95 he went to London on atwo-week holiday, his first time ever away. It was so much fun he cut it short midway through to declare to his mother and friends that he was going there for good.
“I sold my car to one of my mates, sold my motorbike, took my plumbing tools and a bag of clothes and with a hundred quid in my pocket fecked back off toLondon. My mother wouldn’t talk to me for six months. But mentally, Cork was too small for me.
"I just wanted to get away and see things and London and the nightlife just blew me away. It wasn’t two o’clock in the morning and everyone piling out onto the streets at once, beating the crap out of each other.”
Not long after that plane touched downin Heathrow, reality landed with it. He managed to get a job plumbing across north London, working for a man from Crosshaven he’d met on the rip, but most of the £20 he was making a day was going on the rent of his tiny room and the little TV which gave him something else to stare at other than the wall.
"All I wanted to do was come home. And the only thing that stopped me were the voices in my head of everyone who’d said, ‘You won’t last two weeks there, you’ll be back.’ I couldn’t have them say, ‘Told you so. Stupid move.’ “The fighter in me just wouldn’t let me go home. So I just started chasing wherever I saw gaps.”
While working in a bar for a while in ’96, Boylan came across an ad in the paper. Security was becoming a big thing in corporate London and this particular agency were hiring.
Growing up where he had, Boylan knew how to take care of himself, stand his ground. For as cool an exterior as he’d present, if you wanted a fight, yeah, he’d fight, actually be happy to do so. “Many’s a time I was in the middle of the circle with the whole school waiting at the top of the gate. Could have been over anything. A couple of lads kicking a ball to each other in the schoolyard and me kicking it away from them.”
Even in those first few months on the site in London he was that way. There were still no cordless drills in those days, so you needed access to a power socket. No power, no money. So if you happened to be there with 30 English fellas on the 10th floor and there were just two power outlets there, well, what else did you think Paddy was going to do when they wouldn’t give him one?
He got the job. First gig was manning the front gates of the offices of these massive developers. A year in, this guy pulls up. Let me pass, I’m a director. Boylan: Can I see your card, please? And so it went on. I don’t need a card! Well, I do. Do you not know I am?! Actually, I don’t.
“At one stage I said to him, ‘Look, if you are who you say you are, then you should be happy that I’m not letting you in, because I’m doing the job you guys are paying me to do.’”
It’s how Boylan’s employers would look at it too when they received the complaint. But the director needed some satisfaction too. So Boylan was taken off that beat and put on another.
That next gig was manning the offices of a television news and entertainment channel for the London area.
Soon he was befriending its staff, including the cameramen who alerted him of a vacancy in their department. Boylan had long been intrigued by cameras; an uncle used to shoot wedding videos. After been given three days’ notice of an interview, he went to a book shop and bought everything he could on the subject. Enough of it stuck and was spouted out at the interview for him to land the job.
He started out just signing out cameras but then one evening someone cried off sick. That left only Boylan. Would he go along with a reporter to a war memorial march? “Wherever I saw Sky News and BBC go, I’d follow and just put my cameras above them. I raced back to the station, gave them the tape, went back to my desk and was thinking, ‘I’m going to get fired.’ Then the editor came in. ‘Graham? Great shots today.’”
He’d shoot the Spice Girls at the height of their fame, be backstage at concerts, Ronnie Wood’s 50th birthday party. As you can imagine, a Ronnie party was no ordinary party. After shooting for 15minutes, Boylan put the camera under a chair and joined in on the festivities. It was only when he got to the door he realised he’d left £30,000 worth of camera under the chair. Thankfully everyone else had left it there too.
The internet was only catching on around then in the late ‘90s, and after one of the newsroom technicians introduced him to it and the powers of Yahoo! Boylan was all on board. When the channel were offering redundancies, Boylan used the money to go back to college to study computer science.
There he’d spot and chase another gap. Most students hadn’t computers of their own. So he’d start going to fairs, buying computer parts at bargain rates. His flat became like a computer shop. And soon students in Middlesex University had their own computers. And Middlesex University no longer had Graham Boylan as a student.
By his mid-20s, Boylan was making a good few quid buying and flipping properties but like a lot of people of his age, he chose to head to Australia for a while, where he’d do some surfing, plumbing and plenty of personal training. The outdoor lifestyle there just lent itself to it and Boylan was in his element, reading up on the body and working the pads with people like he used to spar with as a boy.
After his visa ran out he returned to London. Back to the grind of plumbing to go with the personal training. Then a few Canadian buddies he’d met in Australia messaged him. They were having a reunion in Vegas, taking in an UFC fight. Care to join? Boylan declined. Too busy.
“I was taking down a chimney breast in a house at 3 o’clock on a Saturday morning and I stopped to get some food. And I was sitting on some bricks, covered in soot, eating a McDonald’s burger and the lads were messing with me. ‘Are you sure about Vegas?!’ And I was like, ‘What am I doing?’
“The following weekend I was in Vegas. Had a blast. But on the plane back I said, ‘What am I working my balls off for? I’m making very good money but I’m not happy. I don’t want to keep coming home covered in shit.’
"And so I got a notepad and wrote out the pros and cons of my life and what were the things that made me happy. And from that I realised it was sport.
"The basketball and hurling when I was a kid. The gym. Training people. Helping people. So I decided, ‘I want to create a life where everything I’m paid is coming from sports.’”
The plane got in on a Monday morning. That evening he saw his accountant, got a valuation for his plumbing work and sold on the business to the two guys working for him. And by the Wednesday he was heading to Bath to do an eight-weekpersonal training course.
Upon his return from the course, Boylan researched and visited every gym incentral London for a week. One stuck out — there, that’s where he wanted to work. So he did. Within six months he was the busiest personal trainer in the place.
He loved the work — but not his cut, so, being a Mon boy, he stood his ground. I want a bigger — fairer — slice. No way! Fine. And so he just went downstairs, locked the office door, downloaded all his clients’ contact details onto a USB stick and left. Eighty percent of the clients joined him. Soon thereafter he was running his own business, One Life One Body, just under someone else’s roof.
He could only keep seeing and chasing other gaps. While Boylan was toying with the idea of having an MMA fight of his own, a client put him onto Jess Lowden.
Then when Lowden was called up to the UFC he sent Boylan the way of Paul Hines. Six months into their partnership, Boylan stopped training dead one morning.
“I said to him, ‘Paul, you’ve just said it again. I keep hearing this phrase, “You need a cage. We need a cage to teach you stage craft.” Can we just go and hire one?’ And he said, ‘No. There’s no cages in London.’ And all night that stayed with me. So the next day I came back and said, ‘What if I get a building and put a cage in it?’”
It was as much the idea of a businessman as an MMA fanatic. Because there was a gap in the market — every MMA fighter and trainer in London wouldgravitate to a gym with a cage.
Three months later the MMA Clinic was up and running in Islington, Hines coaching MMA, Boylan doing personal training. The projection was just to have six classes a week. Eight months later it was running 48 a week. Today it has five gyms.
Over the years Boylan had every kind of client wanting him to personally train them. Actors. Celebrity hairdressers. A lot of people working in the city. People coming back from injuries in accidents.
What he never had before was a call from the Jordanian embassy asking if he would train a member of the royal family who was in town. Mon boy asked where. They said their place. He said his. So they came to his, liked what they saw. A year later they were telling him that they wanted to buy the almost-defunct Cage Warriors franchise and him to be a consultant. Boylan said grand so. Then on the day the sell went through, they told him they wanted him to be CEO.
In the handover they were given just three cardboard boxes, containing old video tapes of old show. That’s all Cage Warriors had at the time. But that’s when all the dots connected.
Whenever one of the television providers said could he broadcast live the next Cage Warriors event, he said yes, he could. Because he knew from his days as a cameraman what would make good camera angles and a good broadcast. He knew from his computer science days how to design websites.
He knew from fighting and sparring himself with Jess and Paul who the fighters and coaches were. He knew from his MMA Clinic days how to market a brand. He’d come up with a way to make a living out of sports.
Funny, as much as McGregor’s world has changed since he lost to Joseph Duffy in Cork in 2010, a lot else about him hasn’t, according to Boylan.
His ground game is still lacking.
And his nature hasn’t really changed either. “He’s still the same — brash, confident, outgoing, in your face, but respectful behind the scenes.”
Boylan’s old world has changed. He’s brought events to Chechnya, Lebanon,Ukraine, flown in fighters for presidents and kings and billionaires that he could write a book about but this is just an article. In 2020 he and his girlfriend will base themselves in California all the while he tries to expand Cage Warriors into more of mainland Europe.
But still, on a weekend like this it all comes back to Dot One. The Neptune Stadium, where he used to go as a teen and see North Mon square off against Neptune, which will be ablaze with lights and screens tonight. Cork. And his mom, May, who for all the money he could fork out on some hotel room, he’s stayed with the last couple of nights.
Why not? London worked out not too bad after all.