“For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad” — GK Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

Last week celebrations of Irish heritage were enjoyed worldwide on St. Patrick’s Day, which, as we discussed in the lead-up to UFC Fight Night 38, also happens to also fall on Muay Thai Day.

It’s a colorful fighting history in Ireland, to say the least. The medieval Celtic warrior Colan, referenced in “The Ballad of a White Horse” above, is actually pictured by author GK Chesterton with both a harp and a sword. (As you might guess, he prefers the sword.)

Fast forward a few years to today. Brennan Ward, an Irish-American mixed martial artist who uses the moniker “The Irish Bad Boy” for his bouts, doesn’t play a harp, but he sure makes a lot of noise, and he’s got a heck of a fight on his hands on Friday. Ward fights Bellator Middleweight Champion Alexander Shlemenko for the title in two nights at Bellator 114, and here’s why I’ll be watching.

An NCAA Division 3 All-American wrestler with extensive judo experience, Ward earned his title shot by earning TKO victories in both bouts of Bellator’s Season Nine Middleweight Tournament last year.

Despite being brought in as a late replacement, Ward was confident in his interviews. He describes himself as motivated by fighting itself: “I got into this for fun,” he tells Frank Trigg in a recent chat. Prior to his tournament final bout with Mikkel Pardo back in November, he described his opponent as “having no chance.”

But Pardo won the first round of their bout, stifling Ward’s takedown attempts and landing the more effective strikes. Ward, who describes himself as having “grew up boxing with my Dad” (who, in fact, still coaches Ward) turned the tide in round two with a straight left. Ward hurt the Dane with a series of body punches next, and eventually earning the stoppage with straight punches to the head at 1:59 of the stanza.

In his earlier tournament bout, against Justin Torrey, several picturesque hip throws by Ward brought the bout to the mat where he attacked with viscous ground-and-pound. A bloodied Torrey was saved from further punishment at 2:31 of the second round.

They’re only four years apart, but the 25 year old Ward seems a baby next to the champ Alexander Shlemenko. Ward is only 8-1 in MMA: with one bout in 2008, and then eight bouts in the last two years. Luck of the Irish or not, he would seem to face long odds against “Storm” Shlemenko, who was profiled last year here at Caged Insider. The Russian is riding high on a twelve fight winning streak, improving his record to 48-7 in a decorated ten year career.

Shlemenko is known for his highlight reel knockouts as much as his disciplined fighting acumen — not to mention his own colorful interview style.

In last year’s “Russian Invasion” special from Bellator, Shlemenko boasted:

“I have one advantage in the cage: Siberia. I train in the elements; in the wind and snow. When it’s 30 degrees below zero, I’m out there because it sharpens a man’s mind and body until he’s a razor in the cage. I hate the cold, but I love the heat of combat. I may not be the fastest or the strongest man, but I have one thing other men don’t: iron in my heart and soul.”

The bout pits an established veteran vs. a youthful challenger, and two great fighting traditions besides. At a time when the MMA market can sometimes feel over-saturated or stale, this one feels unique. I’ll be giving it a look, and I hope you do too.