From Competitor To Leader, How Jo Doyle Galvanised Women’s MMA Talent in the UK

MMA competitor Joanne Doyle (pictured above, left) was among the most consistent achievers of the UK national amateur MMA team from 2016 to 2018, yet it was a distinct lack of women’s talent within the national lineup that motivated the former European Open gold medalist to adopt a leadership role and introduce new opportunities to young up-and-comers.

Representing Team UK, Doyle won the 2016 IMMAF European Open championship in the featherweight division, advancing to the final with two victories before taking a split-decision win over future world champion Julia Dorny. Doyle would go on to earn bronze at the IMMAF World Championships in 2017 in addition to a European Open silver medal in 2018.

It was the 2018 European Open in Bucharest that marked the turning point of Doyle’s involvement with her national team. Doyle represented the senior national squad as the only woman within a group of 10 athletes. It was clear that women’s talent was not being engaged. However, the invite to lead a rejuvenated women’s team was the opportunity for Doyle to build new bridges and pathways, and she began to galvanise prospects from across the nation.

“When I was offered the position I jumped at the opportunity,” Doyle explained. “I knew there was a lot of female talent in the UK, they just needed the right support. Having competed at numerous IMMAF tournaments I felt I could give advice from a position of experience.”

Doyle knew the talent existed, including a number of potential rivals on the national circuit. Nevertheless, her ambition was to create the best possible team to represent the nation. It was a simple yet effective approach of informative outreach and inspiration through the expression of a collective benefit for all involved.

“I knew most of the amateur fighters in the UK as I was always looking for opponents for myself, as promoters struggled to match me,” she explained. “I simply messaged them to attend the trials, where they expressed the same problems that I had with local shows. Speaking with the athletes I could explain the tournament format and that they would get multiple fights on their record.” 

Less than six months following her appearance as the UK’s only woman competing at the European Open, Doyle had constructed a women’s contingent of six athletes for the 2018 World Championships alongside fellow women’s team coaches James Doyle and Mark Spencer. Top standout Megan Morris emerged to sensationally win the junior bantamweight title and earn a nomination for junior athlete of the year.

Doyle celebrates with Megan Morris and fellow coach Mark Spencer following World Championships victory.

The women’s evolution only continued. The 2019 European Open headed to Rome, now with a lineup of 10 women representing the UK.

“It felt amazing!”, Doyle recalled. ” I was really proud of how all the team came together to support each other, even if they were in the same weight category. From our first tournament as a team we picked up medals and titles which continued the momentum we had built at the trials and training days.” 

With Doyle now serving as the women’s team coach, the nation’s representatives bound for Rome included the athletes listed below. As a nation, the UK would would reach an incredible second place in the junior European Open medal table, picking up 7 medals (3 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze), 3 of which were secured by the women’s team including champions Milly Horkan, Izzy Mitchell and silver medalist Shannon Troup who was forced to withdraw from the final for medical reasons. Megan Morris and Melissa Mullins each secured a silver medal in the senior European Open divisions with the UK team firing on all cylinders and collecting medals across the board.

Lexi Rook joined UK team as a champion prospect and remains undefeated on the UK circuit.

Junior Team Athletes (ages 18-20)
Strawweight – Liv Taylor – Sunderland
Strawweight – Shannon Troup (1-1) – Edingburgh
Bantamweight – Milly Horkan – Middlesbrough
Lightweight – Izzy Mitchell – Manchester
Senior Team Athletes (18+)
Flyweight – Levi Steedman – Manchester
Bantamweight – Charlotte Brown – Rochdale
Bantamweight – Lexi Rook – East Sussex
Featherweight – Melissa Mullins – Coventry
Strawweight – Marie Spencer – Yorkshire
Flyweight – Megan Morris – Blackburn

The dissolution of the UKMMAF ushered the new English MMA Association (EMMAA), with the existing national team and majority of coaches remaining unchanged, now as Team England, who would secure 4 medals at the 2019 Junior World Championships with Milly Horkan (pictured below) adding world championships gold to her European crown.

“I think the sport has grown to a point where more women are interested in taking classes be it jiu jitsu or kickboxing,” Doyle added.“I think certain projects can draw numbers such as ladies only and beginner classes. It is essential as a coach to recognise the goals of a student as some want to keep it recreational and others may move towards competition.”

While further elevating the national team and setting off on a prestigious international pathway, Doyle’s team of prominent standouts hail from across a countrywide talent pool. Doyle’s vision has came to fruition with a fine example set for how informative outreach and enthusiasm can build bridges that see inspiring results within a fragmented national scene. While continued work is required to support and sustain the Team England’s development, these fresh role models have taken to the stage with potential to inspire participation in MMA for women from all walks of life.

By IMMAF.org lead writer: Jorden Curran

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