At the 2017 IMMAF World Championships, Ireland’s Ciaran Clarke proved that medals are not the only way to achieve defining success.
In fact, the 22-year-old was among the biggest achievers in Bahrain as he realized the extent of his growing potential and accomplished a triumph that was more personal to him than that of a spot on the podium.
“I had a the time of my life over in Bahrain,” he told IMMAF.org, “the treatment we got off everyone involved was unreal and it felt like the Olympics in the arena, walking out with your country’s flag and the crowd chanting, I loved it. I learned to never doubt yourself ever and that anything is possible if you believe in yourself. I don’t need a gold medal to realize what I’m capable of. “
Selected by the Irish MMA Association (IMMAA) to compete as one of 30 athletes in the Men’s world lightweight bracket, Clarke picked up momentum in the opening round of bouts against Brazil’s ominous Muay Thai specialist, Vitor Souza. His takedowns were on point with a high rate of success – the Brazilian was simply unable find his rhythm as Clarke continued to time his shoot and counter attack, again and again.
Clarke’s performance set the tone for his next bout – a contest he had hungered for since March. The experienced amateur was in action that month at the 2017 European Open in Sofia, Bulgaria. There he encountered Swedish standout Tobias Harila, who eliminated Clarke in the quarter-finals with a forceful TKO stoppage.
Now in Bahrain, the pair were in line for a second encounter at the World Championships where Harila stood as the number-1 seed.
“I took a few months off from fighting after the Europeans, just to focus on getting better. I think it showed in my performances and I couldn’t wait to fight, to show how much I improved.”
The 2017 World Championships were not short of upsets as former medalists, champions and top ranked contenders found themselves eliminated by underdog opposition and enigmatic newcomers stepping up to the international level.
Clarke entered into this group of breakthrough performers as he upset Harila to eliminate the man who, on paper, was the gold medal favourite. The SBG Ireland product maintained his relentless grappling offence, completing one takedown after another to avenge his defeat and secure the biggest triumph of his amateur career.
“It was my biggest win to date, not just because Tobias was the number-1 seed coming into the tournament, but because I lost by knockout to him in the quarterfinals of the Europeans. I said to myself: ‘I’m gonna get him back’. When I got the win over him, I was delighted because I had demons coming into the fight after what happened the first time, and I overcame them. I could have came home with a medal and lost to Tobias again and that wouldn’t have been as satisfying.”
Clarke’s exit from the 155lb division came in the quarter-finals against Vitali Andruhovich: the Belarus representative who went on to earn the silver medal. The closely contested bout was decided by a split-decision. The clash of styles and diversity of Andruhovich tested Clarke to react with his own more varied approach.
“I heard Vitali was a sambo guy and one of the lads on the Irish team had seen his fight. He was going for takedowns so I thought this is my chance to show my standup, because my first two fights were strikers. I’m smart, I’ll take it where I feel it’s best to win – I’m a complete fighter I can fight anywhere.
“Things changed [against Vitali], he wasn’t going for the takedown, so I had to adapt, I still controlled him in there walking him down, landing strikes and got a takedown in the 1st and 3rd rounds, which I think I clearly won. I thought the 2nd was close too but I’d give it to him. The judges thought differently and I was gutted because I feel I was the best guy there.”
What’s most fascinating is how different the end of 2017 could have been for Clarke. Initially, he was never set to make his way to Bahrain until a late withdrawal from the Irish team opened the door for him to step in on short notice.
Clarke took the leap and reintroduced himself with great effect – an exemplar of the IMMAF talent development platform. He is an athlete who last year lost a unanimous decision in his first bout of the 2016 World Championships; this year he’s beating the top ranked contender. Worldwide opposition will undoubtedly take note of the new challenge that lies ahead, should he appear on the 2018 European Open competitors list.
“I’d love to have another chance to get the gold at the Europeans this year, who knows. I love the IMMAF tournaments, getting all those fights in a few days, it’s every fighter’s dream.”