UK MMA on the rise: An interview with gym owner Ryan Lawson

UK MMA on the rise: Derby gym owner Ryan Lawson on sport's popularity spike following UFC event

Infliction MMA owner Ryan Lawson
It's been a long road to succes for Lawson (pictured above) Photo: Sam Allen

MMA fever swept the nation for the first time in three years when UFC returned to the UK for a London event on 23 March at the O2 Arena.

10 British fighters competed on the night in front of a sold-out crowd in what was a historic night for the UFC and the UK MMA community.

It was so much of a success that a second London event of the year was announced and is set to take place at the O2 once again on 23 July.

Starting from the bottom

The sport’s popularity is undoubtedly on an upward trajectory now, but it has been a long road to success and Ryan Lawson, 36, knows better than most.

Speaking at his own MMA gym, Infliction, located in Derby, Lawson reminisced about his MMA journey and how his fiery passion for the sport was ignited early.

“Since I could walk, I was training,” said Lawson. “I hold numerous black belts across different styles [of MMA].

“Going through school, I always thought about it as a career path, but I never believed I would be able to make any money from it, so I turned to other avenues.

“I worked various jobs before eventually setting up a village hall, which turned into my first full-time training centre.”

Lawson had to work hard to get to the point he is now, battle through injuries and doubters to pursue a career in a sport that has fought for a long time for its current reputation.

The 36-year-old continued: “We’re now at three full-time centres, and with all the staff we have onboard and students, it is a fantastic way to live.

“The journey has had its ups and downs, I started pursuing this career path 15 years ago, and I broke my leg the week of the first session I taught.

“Even at that point, I started to doubt whether I had made the right decision.

“When I set up my first gym, I had a lot of people telling me it wasn’t a proper job, and that only motivated me further to prove those people wrong.

“From day one I’ve been tested, and it has been a rollercoaster ride, but not one I would change a single bit.”

Accessing the next generation

Even today, with the sport rapidly gaining popularity across the nation, some of the stereotypes and misconceptions persist. It is still not accepted as a suitable skill for the country’s younger generation to learn.

As an experienced gym owner and multi-discipline coach who has worked in fight gyms across the country, Lawson believes a culture change is needed to bring about progression.

“These archaic stereotypes still exist in this country; the sport wasn’t and still isn’t taken seriously enough by many people.

“Americans are born-and-bred wrestlers, Brazilians born-and-bred in jiu-jitsu, and Asian fighters in taekwondo and Thai boxing, whereas we specialise in anything in this field.

“Kids in this country are taught football, swimming, dance or gymnastics, and that is the status quo for our culture.

“That is starting to change and the fact I have been able to run this business for 15 years shows that it is not a flash in the pan, with more and more fully-professional gyms starting around the country.”

What can the UK learn from the US?

High-profile organisations such as the UFC coming to the UK have brought a lot of new eyes to the sport, yet the level of facilities and coaching for fighters based in the UK is still not comparable to that of the USA.

Lawson is thankful for these events’ exposure and says it is now time for the leg work to be done to ensure MMA’s current hype does not go to waste.

“Now, MMA in this country is structured, and you can’t set up a gym without basic knowledge of each discipline.

“UFC events have shown that you need to learn all the disciplines at the highest level of the sport, so as a gym, this has allowed us to expand what we can offer to tackle the greater demand.

“However, our gyms would look poor compared to the ones in the US, which we should be aiming for because careers can be made from it.

“As gym owners, we need to leave our egos at the door and be prepared to share knowledge and fall under guidelines of a governing body, because if we all did that, this sport would take off!”