Desmond fighting fit after his sojourn into the cage arena

Leigh Desmond is back from an amazing turn on his sporting path

A GAA player missing a year of action is nothing new these days.

Travelling or injury are the most popular reasons, but cage fighting? It’s fair to say Youghal’s Leigh Desmond is in a very small minority.

Having balanced hurling and football with his new interest during 2011, after the East Cork club lost that year’s Cork County Premier IHC final to Courcey Rovers, he took a sabbatical. While he is now back in the maroon and gold, he does not regret his deviation.

“It was a decision that I had made beforehand,” he said. “I was involved with Cork for a couple of years and played a few league games but just hadn’t made the breakthrough, for whatever reason. I had been doing a lot of kick-boxing and I was approached about going fighting.

“I’ve always loved a challenge, people were saying, ‘You can’t go cage-fighting’, but I said I’d give it a bash. Have I any regrets? No, I don’t.”

Youghal, under the management of former GAA President Christy Cooney, seek a way back into contention in the championship as they face Ballincollig in a second-round clash in Páirc Uí Rinn tomorrow evening (7.30pm).

After being reeled in by Valley Rovers in the opening round, Desmond hopes that a similar attitude to that which helped them to the 2011 decider — after losing to Ballincollig in the first game — can help them, while he is also getting better as he readjusts.

“Fitness-wise I was fine, but touch and sharpness, things I would have done off instinct, were gone,” he said. “My first game back was against Aghada, I got a goal and a point but I was very rusty, dropping balls. I was asked to go and play with Imokilly too, and there was a ball I knocked down the line, before I’d have been thinking about what I’d do next but here I was having to focus fully on the pick-up to make sure I got it right.

“The things I would have done with my eyes closed were gone, frustration was the main word, but it’s getting there.”

Constant improvement is the maxim he lives by, though it is a mindset born of tragedy.

“When I was a young, I had a brother who took his own life,” he said. “It was due to drink and drugs and stuff, it was a tough time for the family. You’d see for the year or two after the effect it had on my parents, and I decided then to go another road.

“He had loads of ability and he really could have achieved something but he wasted it, and I just said that I’d go out of my way to be the absolute best person I could be. I wanted to know that, whatever I achieved or didn’t achieve, there was no more I could have done.

“That’s where the desire still comes from.”

That desire — he has not missed a weights session in 10 years — is apparent in all areas. He is currently close to agreeing a sponsorship deal with a supplements company which would allow him to become an ambassador, giving talks to teenagers on maximising their opportunities.

It also helped him to make quick progress on the cage-fighting front.

“I went up to Dublin for my first fight and won it with a knockout in the third round, there was a buzz that came off it that I was thinking, ‘I could get used to this’. I still believe there’s no buzz like it, the only reason that I’m not still fighting was that it was difficult to get down the weight before a fight.

“I have a fascination and an obsession with being in the absolute best shape I can, it’s not just a championship season thing but all year round. That’s what it’s like for the MMA fellas, and I wanted to see if I was good enough. It was a personal challenge.”

He is sanguine about his time on the Cork panel. Having been brought in under Gerald McCarthy, he experienced the last strike but doesn’t think it affected his chances. If there was one regret, though, it came in 2010.

“I had been playing centre-back for Youghal that year and we had a quarter-final against Inniscarra the same weekend as the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny,.

“We had an A v B game in Ballinacurra, I did quite well and Denis Walsh pulled me aside after and said that they had considered bringing me into the panel but it’d be a nuisance to get the Youghal game moved.

“Just to be there and witness a championship day — even if I hadn’t played — would have been huge, and to miss it for a game that could easily have been moved, that was a blow.”

He moved on, and while he had been putting a Recreation and Leisure qualification from Cork IT to good use as a personal trainer, there was another leftfield journey, into the fire brigade.

“You’d look at it go, ‘He spent so many years in CIT getting the personal training qualifications and then you come out and get a job where you don’t use it’,” he said. “It wasn’t a waste though, it probably stood to me in my interviews that I was fit. If my aim is always to be in the best shape I can and you’re in a job where someone might benefit from that, that’s a bonus too. Realistically, I haven’t had to fight anything dramatic yet. ! The one bad one was a car crash, but you deal with these things, that’s part of the job.”


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