IN AN INTERVIEW prior to his win against Jose Aldo in December 2015, Conor McGregor referenced Rocky IV to illustrate the extent of his newfound wealth.
McGregor, the biggest earner in the brief history of mixed martial arts, jested that life has been so good since he rose to prominence in the Ultimate Fighting Championship that he now has a robot to make him coffee every morning.
The lightweight champion, whose convertible BMW sports car can often be seen parked in front of Straight Blast Gym’s Irish headquarters on the Naas Road, is at one end of the UFC spectrum. At the other end are the newcomers, one of whom can be found in a much less extravagant vehicle behind the rear of the gym.
In November, John Phillips became the latest fighter representing SBG to be acknowledged by the UFC when he signed a contract with his sport’s leading organisation. As he awaits his first outing in the octagon, the 31-year-old from Swansea has been living in a camper van.
“I have a mortgage back home so it was too expensive for me to rent here,” Phillips explains. “I sold my car and got the van instead. It’s warm, I’m getting my sleep and I’m a few feet away from the gym. I’ve got a TV, I’ve got my food in my fridge in the van and I can use all the facilities in the gym. A bigger van would be nice but this is serving me well for now.”
Phillips departed Wales just over a year ago to make one last attempt at securing a place in the UFC, the promised land of mixed martial arts. Professional athletes are often forced to leave Ireland in search of an elite training environment in their respective field, but when it comes to MMA, it’s been one-way traffic in the opposite direction recently.
Phillips has arrived at SBG from the UK, Finnish featherweight Makwan Amirkhani is back to prepare for his next UFC outing in March, Romanian middleweight Ion Pascu was a new addition earlier this month, while others have come in from places like France, Italy and the US, including Olympic wrestling gold medallist Helen Maroulis.
“When I was at home I had too many distractions and it was starting to become a chore to train,” Phillips admits. “I wasn’t enjoying it. There was also a problem with a lack of training partners. I would just turn up at the gym and do my own thing.
“I also had to go to a separate gym for every discipline — judo, jiu-jitsu, boxing, wrestling, weights, the lot. Here it’s all under one roof and all at the top level with big numbers of training partners. I’m always enjoying training now. I’m having a good laugh while working my backside off. I love it here.”
Phillips had actually decided to quit MMA early in 2015. Having made his professional debut nearly a decade earlier, he still felt no closer to reaching the top. A brush with the law earned him a short stint in prison and he had spent nearly two years out of the cage when a friend managed to convince him to tape up the gloves again.
“When I came out of jail I was fat, I had no motivation and I sat on my ass for 12 months,” he says. “I got to a stage where I had enough of MMA. I didn’t think I was going anywhere and I ended up falling out of love with the sport.
“My training partner Mike Edwards was pushing me to fight but I couldn’t be arsed. He told me there was a tournament coming up and there was 10 grand on offer for the winner. Mike got me back into it, even though I was still out of shape. I could barely do a round.”
Phillips went to Paisley, Scotland and gave his bank balance a £10,000 boost by overcoming two opponents in one night. But the most significant development came later that evening.
One of the fighters he defeated was Straight Blast Gym’s Charlie Ward. Phillips got talking to John Kavanagh after the fights and the SBG head coach told the Welshman that the door of his Dublin gym was open if he fancied experimenting with a new training environment.
“John told me to come over for a week to see if I’d enjoy it,” Phillips recalls. “To be honest, I wasn’t too bothered at first. Even though I won the tournament I still had no desire to go full on with MMA again. But again my mate Mike Edwards guided me in the right direction. He told me I had nothing to lose by going over there for a week, so I did.
“When I came over I could see straight away the level of training, the quality of the training partners and the quality of John as a coach. I could see he wasn’t a bullshit guy. He’s a genuine trainer who looks after you. I decided after the first day that I was going to stay and make a real go of it.
“I sat down with my fiancée and we agreed that I’d give it one last push. I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t. I hated the thought of being an old man and telling my kids or my grandkids that I could have been somebody if things had been different. Either way, at least I could say that I gave it my best.”
Phillips’ first outing as an SBG fighter yielded the most significant win of his career. Cheick Kone, the defending middleweight champion for British organisation BAMMA, was on a run of eight consecutive wins when he faced Phillips in Dublin last February. However, the Frenchman’s first title defence lasted just 65 seconds as Phillips called on the boxing credentials he had been honing since his teens to seal a knockout victory.Source: BAMMA/YouTube
Boxing has been left behind now but Phillips narrowly missed out — twice — on a place on the Welsh team for the Commonwealth Games. He has trained with former WBO cruiserweight champion Enzo Maccarinelli and was offered the chance to turn professional with promoter Frank Warren. Under the watchful eye of Paschal Collins, Phillips has been sparring recently with undefeated Irish heavyweight Niall Kennedy.
While life at Straight Blast Gym got off to a promising start, Phillips initially wondered if his arrival would be met with hostility by some of the other fighters. In addition to getting the better of Charlie Ward, Phillips scored a submission win over SBG’s Chris Fields in a Cage Warriors title eliminator in July 2012.
Phillips: “When I came over I probably had the assumption that there might be a tense kind of atmosphere. I definitely had my guard up. I was thinking: ‘Right, let’s fucking go!’
“My attitude to training was always that you should train like you fight. I would go all out just like I do in a fight. I thought that was normal. It’s what I had always done. It was not uncommon for me to spar and knock out eight-to-ten people per session. That’s the attitude I brought here. It’s all I knew.”
But John Kavanagh quickly altered his approach. An advocate of minimal-contact sparring, Kavanagh explained to Phillips that rendering team-mates unconscious wasn’t acceptable on his watch — although the newcomer took a while to grasp Kavanagh’s concept of “updating the software without damaging the hardware”, as he calls it.
“John pulled me aside and said: ‘Look, you can’t spar like that. It’s not how we do it here. No one wants to train with you when you’re like that. They won’t help you then. That’s how a team works. You help each other.’
“I was struggling to get my head around what he was saying. I don’t know whether he knew that I had an interest in animals, but he broke it down to cats. He said: ‘Look at cats. Do you like cats?’ And I was like ‘What the fuck are you on about?’
“He said: ‘Cats, like lions and tigers. You see them play-fighting all the time, don’t you? But they never try and kill each other. They play-fight to sharpen their tools so that when they do have to fight or make a kill, it’s easy.’
“Then it sunk in and made sense to me. He asked me if I’m always carrying injuries into my fights, and I was. It’s because I was killing myself in training every day, so I was fucked by the time I had to fight. That opened my eyes and changed my approach.
“To come back to the original point, I actually get along with Charlie better than anyone here. We go out and have coffee and food together all the time. We’ve become good friends.”
Phillips was due to make his first defence of the BAMMA title last September against Andy DeVent. He felt that another win would finally earn him UFC recognition. However, those aspirations were thrown off course when his pregnant fiancée suffered a miscarriage as the fight approached. The day before the bout was scheduled to take place, Phillips weighed in at more than 13 pounds above the limit [185lbs] and the contest was subsequently cancelled.
“I had to be there for her so I was missing training and my head wasn’t where it needed to be for a fight. I was out of shape but I felt fit enough to fight and I knew I could make weight,” says Phillips, who was heavily criticised for missing weight so drastically.
“But when I came in to cut weight they had no sauna available so I couldn’t get the weight off. People slated me for that but I didn’t say anything about my fiancée because I didn’t want to make excuses. It was my problem, I didn’t make weight.”
Phillips managed to get back on track a fortnight later by winning on a smaller show in Swansea to take his professional record to 21-6. However, he worried that his failure to make weight for BAMMA might cost him the chance to be the first Welsh fighter signed by the UFC.
When the UFC staged a show in Belfast in November, Phillips was away for a friend’s stag weekend in Newcastle. He watched from a bar as his compatriots Jack Marshman and Brett Johns emerged victorious from their octagon debuts.
Marshman’s win was a particularly bitter pill for Phillips to swallow. A fellow middleweight boxer who Phillips believed he had the measure of, Marshman’s impressive debut was made more difficult to stomach by the fact that he picked up a ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus worth $50,000 for his second-round TKO of Magnus Cedenblad.
Phillips responded by calling out Marshman via a video which picked up significant online traction. Geared towards grabbing the UFC’s attention, Phillips also embarked upon a social media campaign based on a series of photographs and videos which depicted him sitting beside a phone, waiting on their call. In December it finally came.
“I was happy for Jack. I still am,” Phillips insists. “But at the same time it was a kick up the ass. It was a blessing. We watched the fights in a bar in Newcastle and it ruined my weekend. I was burning inside. That should have been me, I thought. I’m thankful to Jack. I was proud of him as a fellow Welshman but I know that I can do it if he can.”
Phillips locked up his camper van and headed home to Wales on Christmas Eve, before returning to Dublin to resume training on 27 December. He spent New Year’s Eve in the van, watching a movie and speaking to his fiancée on FaceTime. The plan is for the sacrifices to be justified by the rewards before long.
“My fiancée is great. She’s understanding,” Phillips says. “She knows that this is where I need to be to progress my career and make something for both of us. If I had to sleep in the car to make this work I would. John [Kavanagh] and a few of the fighters have offered me a place in their houses but this is the way I want it to be.”
It hasn’t always been the case, but Phillips now believes he’s ready to do things the right way. He knows there are no shortcuts to the top and there are still improvements to be made. With 18 (T)KOs from 21 wins, his boxing calibre can pose a threat to any opponent. But it’s in the exchanges on the ground where Phillips has holes to fill in.
“I think that side of my game is improving all the time,” he says. “I feel good in any situation and I’m a lot calmer on the ground. Before I used to think I was beaten as soon as I was taken down, but now I’m confident that I can submit people or get back up. My takedown defence is a lot better too. If I can keep that going I honestly think I can be a UFC champion.”
Should that day come, an upgrade on the camper van might be required. His current residence will suffice for now, but it does have its drawbacks.
Phillips: “When I got the van I bought this kettle that you plug into the cigarette lighter. But it was only when I went to make a cuppa I found out that the bloody thing took an hour to boil!”
If Conor McGregor’s robotic barista is looking for extra work, there’s a vacancy at the back of the gym.