Irish grappler Tom Halpin has been making a real name for himself in nogi circles. He currently has a 2-1 record for Polaris and will undoubtedly be back on one of their cards soon.
He’s known for his attacking style, winning 4 out of his 5 fights at the ADCC European trials earlier this by submission (RNC x2 and kneebar x2).
He’s also something of an anomaly in world class jiu-jitsu, having never consistently trained at one of the top tier gyms. Instead he has largely been self-lead, supplementing his training in Ireland with stints here and there at Cyborg’s Fight Sports Academy in Miami, Florida.
I caught up with Tom as he trains there now for the biggest grappling tournament on the planet.
Hey Tom! How are you? What’s it like in Miami right now?
Hey Ger, Miami is great. I’m very happy with preparations for ADCC. It’s the ideal training situation here to be honest. There’s multiple competitors training here, with dozens of high level black belts on the mats each day. Combine that with a sole focus on training and resting, I feel my game has significantly improved in the last few weeks.
You’ve got the biggest competition of your career coming up at the end of the month. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling very grateful to be able to display my skills on the biggest stage in the sport. It’s definitely the biggest competition of my career but the funny thing is that treating it as a big deal won’t help in any way. I just like to relax and treat it as any other competition, at the end of the day there’s much more important things going on in the world. I take the training very seriously, but always remember to enjoy competition day. Competing is a privilege and I find that reminding myself of that always helps me have a strong performance.
Can you describe your feelings winning the ADCC European Qualifiers in Poland early this year? There seemed to be a lot of emotion on your face!
It was definitely a long, emotional day. I weighed in at 9am and had 5 tough matches, the last of which I finished around 8 hours after the first. I’m a huge film fan and the whole day had that epic film feel to it, especially with the exciting finish in the final. I think that contributed to burst of emotion, along with the relief of winning.
You made it look relatively easy against some pretty talented guys, plenty of finishes. What is it about your game and mindset that you think sets you apart from a lot of others?
It might have looked easy but it felt different in the match, it’s always a struggle against competitors of that level, there’s a lot of intensity. I think my game and mindset are quite unique in that I have strong fundamentals and defence but use a very attacking style. I’m lucky to have always had a calm and clear mind during competition so that complements my style very well and gives me time to think. I’m always trying to improve it, and visualizing the competition setting in the training room seems to help a lot.
You’re training for ADCC right now at Cyborg’s Fight Sports, how did this relationship come about?
I’ve known Cyborg since I was a 19 year old blue belt. A great friend and training partner of mine back home was one of Cyborg students, and recommended me to travel and train in Miami. I went and loved the training and lifestyle there, so I kept going back each summer. I always improve a lot here and gain so much confidence and experience. I’m very thankful for all the help Cyborg and the team give me here.
How do you think your style matches up against the rest of the field for ADCC? Some very big names there. Anyone you’d like to draw or avoid?
I think my style matches up very well with the other competitors, and that my mindset will give me a bug advantage. I’m looking forward to the competition, I think my division is one of the most exciting with no clear favourite and a good mix of old school competitors, young up and comers, gi world champions, and nogi specialists. Expect a lot of surprise results.
The one knock against some of the guys at 66kg might be a lack of takedown ability or wrestling pedigree. Is this something you’re focusing on in camp?
Wrestling has definitely featured in the camp, along with connecting standing and ground positions, but the focus is always on myself and how I can improve my game and connect my strong positions in unique ways, instead of focusing on others weaknesses. That keeps training fun and satisfying, and usually gets me the biggest improvements.
What’s the intensity like in training there? Is it hell for leather stuff?
The training is very intense, but always intelligent training with specific goals. I never want to tire my body out without some improvements to show for it, so having clear and simple goals for each session keeps me on track no matter how intense it gets.
Who’s your favourite training partner out there and why? What do you look for in a training partner ahead of a big competition.
One of my training partners from home came out here for a few weeks to help me prepare. It’s a huge help to always have a good drilling partner who also knows your game, that way I never have to waste time explaining different drills or reactions that I need to practice.
Flograppling just released their latest rankings. You came from nowhere to go in at 12 at 66kg. Any thoughts on your placement? What do you think of the guys ahead of you?
It’s definitely flattering and a good indication of how far I’ve come, but as a competitor you always want more, it’s a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. A couple of years ago that would have been a dream, but now I already want to climb higher. I’m expecting a strong performance at ADCC so hopefully I can jump up a few spots.
As we get closer to the competition date, what changes in your training, if anything?
Nothing changes too much with training besides the usual taper that starts about 2 weeks out. I also focus on more mental training and yoga during this time to try and get my body and mind working together as best they can. Concentration is very important so I train that like any other skill.
You’re from Limerick city in Ireland. A big sports town, but not known for producing Grapplers. How did you get into BJJ?
I was always into sports as a child/teenager but as I was getting older I was a lot smaller than some of my friends and it was difficult to make a jump to a higher level. I loved MMA and the weight-class aspect along with it being an individual sport really appealed to me, it was all about the skill instead of other factors. When I started MMA I found that I had some talent for the ground game and it was also my favourite area, so I gave up MMA to try and become a good grappler, still trying to this day and it’s more fun than ever.
What do you think about Irish scene right now? It feels like there’s going to be an explosion of Irish talent on the European stage very soon.
I think the Irish scene is very strong for the number of practitioners we have, we definitely love combat sports. I think in the next few years there will be a few more high level Irish black belts, and I hope the sport can grow a lot around the country. There’s a lot of room for more clubs in some of the smaller cities around the country.
What would be your three big tips for the average person training a month out from a competition?
Enjoy the nerves and think of them as excitement, competing is a rare experience that most don’t have, so why not enjoy it and learn about yourself. Don’t overdo the training, think of rest as a training session too. Have a plan and practice connecting your strong positions together in training, this will give you a lot of confidence for the competition.
Lastly, what should we expect from Tom Halpin at ADCC 2019?
Expect a strong performance and some nice submissions as usual.
Interested in learning more about the man behind the 2019 ADCC tournament, Mo Jassim? Grappling Insider writer Charles Levinson recently wrote this excellent piece on him. Check it out here.