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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 21 June, 2018

Seery's swansong provides welcome respite from theatrics elsewhere

The veteran Dubliner will hang up his gloves after tomorrow evening’s UFC bout in Glasgow.

IF THE ABSURDITY of this week’s press conferences in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and London forced you to retreat into hiding, the good news is that it’s safe to re-emerge.

Although it has subsequently been overshadowed, UFC Fight Night 113 takes place tomorrow in Scotland and it’s set to be a significant occasion for one Irishman. Twelve years after he made his professional mixed martial arts debut, Glasgow’s SSE Hydro Arena will play host to Neil Seery’s farewell fight when he takes on Alexandre Pantoja.

Neil Seery Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

With the exception of Conor McGregor, no Irish fighter has spent more time in the UFC’s octagon. While Seery has been a fan favourite in his own right, the 37-year-old from Finglas is more cult hero than celebrity superstar — and that’s just how he wanted it.

Until he was given a chance by the UFC back in 2014, the prospect of Seery competing on the biggest stage in his sport had always seemed unlikely. But when the opportunity came, instead of merely proving that he wasn’t out of his depth, he went on to show that he deserved to compete with the best in the world.

“I don’t know if people understand — maybe they do now at this stage — but the amount of work that goes into competing at this level is huge. It happens away from the cameras so people aren’t aware of it but I’ve given this absolutely everything and I can walk away happy knowing that I did,” he says.

Educated in the old school of MMA where a couple of casual midweek training sessions were occasionally interspersed with Saturday night fights in small halls, Seery has seen plenty of changes in the sport over the course of a career which began in 2005.

Having spent almost a decade fighting for three-figure financial rewards on the regional circuit in the UK and Ireland, Seery eventually settled in a weight class that suited him and defied the odds by becoming the first ever Cage Warriors flyweight champion in June 2013 — just 15 months after his coach, Andy Ryan, talked him out of retiring.

“What I used to do in the early days was fight and then go drinking,” Seery recalled in a 2015 interview with The42. “I’d barely be out of the cage and I’d have a pint in my hand. To me it was just about getting in and having a fight, and that was the end of it. Because the UFC wasn’t really a thing in Ireland at the time. Not just for me, for anybody.”

Neil Seery in action Jon Delos Reyes Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

He added: “I remember fighting Andreas Lovbrand [in 2007] down in Galway and we were being put up in a shed out the back of a place. There were four beds in the shed and this woman sent us out there; she said that’s where they were putting us up. So we walked into this shed and there were two other lads in there… who turned out to be Andreas and his coach. That’s the way it was.

“It’s totally different now because you’ve got so many critics watching you and there’s so much pressure. Fans are all over Twitter letting you know what they think. Back in the early days, you were fighting in GAA halls and there wasn’t even 200 people there.

“I enjoy social media for slagging and stuff, but when it’s about the fighting side of things and it gets serious, I’m not into that. It’s not me. I’ve no interest in calling anybody out or being a dick to anybody.”

His Cage Warriors triumph put Seery on the radar of the UFC and the call-up came the following March when the organisation needed a replacement opponent at short notice to fight Brad Pickett.

Seery wasn’t victorious but he won plenty of admirers by taking the British veteran the distance. Three days after putting on a show for 15,000 people at London’s O2 Arena, the father-of-four returned to his job as a warehouse operative near Dublin Airport.

Excluding this weekend’s swansong, Seery went on to compete five more times for the UFC. There were further losses to top contenders such as Louis Smolka and Kyoji Horiguchi, but the wins are what he’ll cherish when it’s all over. Phil Harris and Chris Beal were both seen off, but the highlight came in his hometown in October 2015.

At Dublin’s 3Arena, Seery submitted Jon Delos Reyes in the second round. He was rewarded with a €50,000 ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus, which took his entire pay for the fight to $82,500 — more than what he had earned in his entire career until that point. The extent of his extravagance? A second-hand recliner chair he bought on eBay for €40.

“It’s not going to be life-changing for me, that’s for sure,” Seery said at the time in relation to the bonus. “I probably have everything I want; my house, my kids, my family. To be honest, and without it sounding like bullshit, nothing else matters. I don’t give a rat’s arse about money. Once I’m healthy and my family are healthy, that’s all that really matters to me.”

It’s been a race against time for Neil Seery ever since he graduated to the UFC. He was already 34 by the time he joined the elite. While his full-time peers could afford to base their lives around training and recovery, Seery’s priority was raising four children and running a warehouse. Only after those boxes were ticked could MMA be attended to.

Fame and fortune were never tangible, but Seery continued to compete nevertheless. Fighting for the enjoyment, the challenge and the fact that the day when he’d no longer be able to do so was appearing more vividly on the horizon. Pursuing his passion while seeing a bit of the world and picking up a few decent cheques was merely another bonus.

“I haven’t been a massive star in Ireland, like Conor [McGregor] and some of the other fighters who like the media side of it and who put themselves out there. I haven’t done shit like that,” Seery told us in November 2015.

“But I’ve achieved things that the vast majority of people haven’t and never will. I’ve done it and I’m still here. So I am really happy. If I stood up here now and said I’m finished with it, would I be happy with how I’ve ended up? I’d gladly say yes.”

Neil Seery Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Over the past few days days, Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor embarked on a four-city media tour geared towards increasing pay-per-view revenue for their 26 August boxing bout. It featured three press conferences too many, but ultimately they’re on course to achieve their aim of reaping unprecedented financial rewards.

Their theatrics provided sufficient entertainment for many, but eventually the business of sportsmen has to be about sport again. Neil Seery’s retirement is a timely reminder.

At the end of a week in which trash talk and posturing shaped the MMA landscape, the last hurrah of an unsung hero of Irish sport is just what the doctor ordered.

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Paul Dollery

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