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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019
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'I believe I've put more into this game than probably anybody in Ireland'

We sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with Neil Seery, Irish MMA’s perennial underdog.

IT’S A FAIRLY miserable November evening as I make my way north in a taxi from Dublin city centre to Finglas.

This is a two-birds-one-stone journey to the Team Ryano gym to interview UFC duo Paul Redmond and Neil Seery, although the heavy evening traffic delays my arrival.

I’ve told them I’ll be there for 5pm but it’s almost half-an-hour later by the time I ascend the stairs to the gym floor in their unit of the Finglas Business Park. It’s Seery who spots me first: “Ah, here’s the smelly Cork bogger now. What time do ya call this?”

Redmond then chimes in with his views on my home county, before I eventually receive a more cordial greeting from head coach Andy Ryan. The welcome is always warm at Team Ryano but they have to get the slagging out of the way first.

_MG_9072 Neil Seery, Paul Redmond and Andy Ryan. Source: Dolly Clew

Redmond is on coaching duty this evening, putting some of the gym’s younger fighters through their paces. As soon as I arrive, however, Ryan steps in to take over the class and pardons the UFC featherweight to give me a ten-minute chat which focuses on his hopes for a successful 2016.

I then wait for Seery to do the same but my tardiness means that I’ve missed my agreed slot, so I’ll have to be patient. After finishing some jiu-jitsu, Seery then helps to oversee a sparring session for one of his team-mates, Chris Boujard, who’s preparing for an upcoming fight.

It’s an exhausting shift for Boujard, who’s faced with a fresh opponent for each round. During the one-minute intervals, he understandably slumps with his back against the cage as he aims to catch his breath.

“Stand up straight, Chris,” Seery barks from outside the mesh perimeter. “Recover but stay on your feet. Deep breaths, stay upright and get ready to go again.”

His body is telling him otherwise but Boujard duly obliges. Neil Seery may be the smallest man in the gym, but aside from coach Andy Ryan, nobody here commands more respect than the first Team Ryano fighter to make it to the UFC.

inpho_00829037 Neil Seery trades punches with Phil Harris en route to his first win in the UFC. Source: INPHO/Rodrigo Romos

When he’s finally ready to finish up, Seery tells me that it’s a shame I arrived late because he was planning to head down the road to his local pub after training to watch the second-half of the match.

Due to the demands of training and competing, Seery seldom has the opportunity to watch Liverpool play while enjoying a pint of Guinness. Having fought less than a fortnight ago, however, he’s unlikely to be in the octagon again for a few months so this is one of the rare occasions when he’s not under pressure to keep his weight down.

We agree to do the interview at Seery’s local instead. Keep that Cork accent quiet though or they’ll kick us both out, he jokes… I think. Shortly afterwards, Seery calls for a couple of drinks as I stand beside him at the bar, trying to play it cool and act like I’ve been here before.

When we sit down, he discusses his most recent bout while keeping one eye on the TV as Liverpool secure a 1-0 win over Rubin Kazan in the Europa League.

His second-round submission of Jon Delos Reyes at UFC Fight Night 76 at Dublin’s 3Arena on 24 October was arguably Seery’s most complete display to date, he admits, as evidenced by the fact that it earned him a $50,000 ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus.

inpho_00984294 Neil Seery goes head-to-head with Jon Delos Reyes at the UFC Fight Night 76 weigh-ins. Source: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Initially, however, our conversation doesn’t flow due to the regular interjections from the other punters in the bar. Seery grew up nearby and he now lives with his partner and four kids just a stone’s throw away. He recognises every face here and vice versa. They all take the opportunity to say hello.

Congratulations on the win, Seery. You looked great. Are ya back training already? How are the kids? When’s the next fight? You’ll be the champ next year. Will McGregor beat Aldo?

“Who’s this?” asks one lad, nodding in my direction.
“He’s a reporter,” Seery responds.
“Make sure you write something good about him,” I’m told. “He’s a great man and he’s doing us proud.”

That’s the general vibe from everyone here. To them, first and foremost, he’s Neil Seery the local fella who manages a warehouse out by the airport. Then he’s Neil Seery the UFC fighter, but there’s no distinction between the man behind the two roles.

Twelve days earlier, this same bar was full as those in attendance watched Seery’s win live on TV. Throughout the course of our discussion, congratulatory pints of Guinness arrive at the table from anonymous donors. Occasionally there’s even one for the unfamiliar culchie.

inpho_00984082 (1) Media duties for Neil Seery before the UFC's recent visit to Dublin. Source: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

“I haven’t thought about it one bit,” says Seery, when I ask him about the impact the $50,000 bonus could have on his life. It brought his entire salary from the fight — in addition to his purse, win bonus and Reebok sponsorship — to $82,500.

He’s been fighting professionally for 10 years but that figure is greater than what his combined career earnings were until that point. If money was Seery’s main incentive, the gloves would have been hung up a long time ago.

“It’s not going to be life-changing for me, that’s for sure. 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.

“I still have a mortgage of €140,000 so it’s not filling any holes. It was great to get it and a lot of people think it’s a hell of a lot of money, but it’s not. Before the fight I built an extension on to the back of my house so it’ll help to pay for that.”

The only significant purchase Seery made since his UFC Dublin windfall was a recliner chair. A top-of-the-range one would have been nice, but instead he found someone in Blanchardstown, via eBay, who was offloading one for €40. That’s the extent of Seery’s extravagance.

Seery has been on the roster of MMA’s largest organisation for almost two years now. He continues to work full-time too, starting each morning at 6.30am, but he still manages to train every day — twice, more often than not — as well as transporting his kids between their various sporting activities at Team Ryano and Erin’s Isle GAA club, on top of the many other obligations involved in being a parent.

inpho_00987459 A guillotine-choke by Neil Seery as he secures victory against Jon Delos Reyes. Source: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

On the back of the recent boost to his bank account, would Seery be tempted to put his warehouse job on hold for a year in order to put more time and energy into MMA? Train full-time, just like the majority of his opponents are doing, and see how high he can climb in the UFC’s flyweight division?

It would be a big risk, Seery explains. He fought three times this year but there’s no guarantee that he’ll do the same in 2016. Injuries can alter the landscape and, at 36 years of age, he can’t afford to take anything for granted.

“I would like to do that; take next year off. But it’s not an option. It could be an expensive year. It would be great if you could put your mortgage on a freeze for a year and take that big bill out of the equation. And at my age, there’s a chance that the next fight could always be the last. I never look beyond the next fight.

“Like everything, it’s going to come to an end. Physically, my body feels great. But how much damage can your head take? Even though I’m not taking a lot of damage in fights, the demands of training, the mortgage, raising kids, the whole lot of it together… it can put a lot of stress on you.”

Neil Seery is a very rare example of an athlete who’s still improving despite being in the twilight of his sporting life. During the first-half of his career, he lost more fights than he won, accumulating a 7-8 record by competing in a variety of weight classes that he had no business being part of, and generally taking a careless approach to the game.

The past five years have been in stark contrast, however. Seery pulled his socks up, got settled at 125lbs and started investing the hours in Andy Ryan and Team Ryano. Since November 2010, he’s been stopped just once and his record in that time reads 9-3.

Seery lost to UFC Dublin headliner Louis Smolka via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27) in Las Vegas back in July, but the recent victory against Jon Delos Reyes got him back on track.

inpho_00987457 (1) Neil Seery making his way to the octagon at UFC Fight Night 76. Source: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

“I’ve never felt as good as I did going into that last fight,” he says. “If I had fought Louis Smolka in Dublin, I believe I would have beaten him. He is a talented young fighter but I think I have things in my game that can beat him.

“I struggled over in Vegas; it was a long trip and it’s a hard place to go and fight. I still lasted three rounds. I don’t care what the judges said, no way was it 30-27. Now Smolka is after coming halfway across the world and he stopped Paddy Holohan, who’s a good fighter. I know I can hang in there with the best of them. There’s no one in the flyweight division I fear.

“I’m not going to challenge [UFC flyweight champion] Demetrious Johnson any time soon. But I believe strongly and I guarantee, hand on heart, that if I had made it to the UFC when I was younger, I’d be up in title contention in the flyweight division. But time isn’t on my side.

“I’m not going to fool myself, I’m not getting caught up in people telling me that you’re never too old. That’s bullshit. Young fighters are coming through and they’re different class. They’re hungry too.”

Vegas for UFC 189 — which was headlined by Conor McGregor’s defeat of Chad Mendes — was an underwhelming experience for Seery. Competing over there, in the fight capital of the world, is a bucket-list aim for combat sports athletes. Seery was no different, but having now seen it first-hand, he’s in no hurry to return.

“It was one of them that I wanted, but when I got there I couldn’t wait to get out of the place. It’s hard over there. To fight there, it’s different. The air is different, the food is different, there’s just no ending there. It’s hard to sleep in Vegas. When it came to fight night, I just felt so tired. It just took it out of me.”

His next fight has yet to be scheduled but London on 27 February would do nicely.

“I don’t really want to travel far anymore. I’m at my best when I’m closer to home. I think I perform better when I don’t have to travel so far. London would suit me down to the ground.” 

Neil Seery Post-fight celebrations for Neil Seery at UFC Fight Night 76. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

One of Seery’s oldest friends arrives at the table. I ask, is Neil still the same fella since he joined the UFC?

“Of course he is. He’s just after getting 50 grand, but if he wants to talk to you on the phone he’ll ring and tell you to call him back so that it doesn’t cost him money.”

Reflecting on the last time he was finished in a fight, Seery agrees that he has made remarkable progress in the meantime. On 23 February in 2012, he was submitted in just 55 seconds by Lithuanian opponent Artemij Sitenkov in Kiev.

It was a major setback. Going into the fight, 32-year-old Seery had begun to gather momentum as a flyweight thanks to a couple of good wins over respectable opponents. But that night in Ukraine at Cage Warriors 46, his target of fighting in the UFC had never seemed so far away.

“If someone said after that fight that I’d go on to win three fights in the UFC, they’d have been laughed out the door,” says Seery, who initially planned to retire in the immediate aftermath of the defeat.

474466_355920161094824_180882854_o Artemij Sitenkov submits Neil Seery with a kneebar at Cage Warriors 46. Source: Dolly Clew

Nevertheless, just over 15 months later, Seery had won four bouts in succession en route to being crowned the Cage Warriors flyweight champion. He never got the chance to defend the belt either. When the UFC needed a flyweight to fight Brad Pickett in London in March of last year, Seery got the call from matchmaker Sean Shelby.

I’ve asked Seery in the past if he’s proud of how far he has come, but he usually evades the question. This time, however, there’s a breakthrough.

“Yeah, I am,” he admits. “I never really took the time to look back at it but I did last week because I was hanging up some pictures in the house. I sat back and thought about it for a bit, and I realised that yeah, I have achieved a lot in this game.

“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.

“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.”

When he sees how some of his peers have benefitted from embracing the media aspect of being a UFC fighter, are there any regrets about how he has gone about his business?

“No regrets about that at all. There’s nothing at all that I’d change. Not a thing. Even back in the day when I lost a load of fights against people in different weight classes, I’d never take it back. It was an achievement in itself to keep going.

“I’ve been beaten, humiliated, in MMA; many times. I lost fights in arenas full of people in just seconds. I could easily have walked away but I kept coming back. The natural reaction for most people would have been to put their hood up and hide away. I kept going.”

So what’s the secret to the success of his comeback story? How does he account for going from being humiliated in February 2012 to making his UFC debut just two years later? There’s surely more to it than just hard work.

_MG_5585 Neil Seery celebrates after defeating Mikael Silander to win the Cage Warriors title. Source: Dolly Clew

“Yeah, it’s not just hard work. A lot of people in this game think that they’ve got what I’ve got, but they haven’t. I might not be the most skilful fighter in the game, but I have one thing that I believe most people haven’t got… and that’s heart. The determination to keep going when things aren’t easy. I can put my hand on my heart and say that.

“A lot of people can look great in the gym, but not all of them can get out there when it matters and perform, and then turn around and take all the dog’s abuse that you get on the internet afterwards. The internet is probably one of the worst things that was created. There’s another reason why I’ve never put my name out there.

“When you put yourself out there, you have to be prepared for the fall as well. If you keep your mouth shut and keep driving on quietly, there’s not much of a fall. You might lose a fight but you won’t have to put up with a load of stick from people you don’t know.

“There’s a lot of fighters out there shouting about how they’re this and they’re that, but then they end up walking away with their tails between their legs and they go hiding for months. I don’t need to hide.”

For Seery, the increased social media scrutiny is an unsavoury aspect of the recent growth of mixed martial arts in Ireland. The messages he receives are mostly positive, but not always. And although it’s something he doesn’t enjoy, he’s more than capable of handling it if needs be.

Seery cites an example of a tweet he received in the aftermath of his most recent win, which congratulated him on the result while simultaneously letting him know that he was too old to go any further.

“I can look after myself in any exchange, whether it’s talking or fighting,” he says. “But that stuff, to me, is just pure garbage. I’m 36 years of age; of course I’m too old. I’m not disputing that. But you’re being analysed by someone who wouldn’t know where to start if you asked him to throw a punch or a takedown. Fuck that.

“It doesn’t matter whether I’m 21 or 36, I’m in the gym every day putting in the hours, while these people are probably playing with themselves on the internet. It was the same for Cathal Pendred. The amount of abuse that man gets is unbelievable.

“It goes to show the heart and mentality he has to keep coming back and still be here. A lot of people in his position would have been gone. They’d have taken down all their social media accounts and disappeared off the planet. He’s a man who’s got a 4-2 record in the UFC and he’s listening to that abuse from people who have probably never been in a gym in their lives. It’s unbelievable.

“If you don’t find Cathal exciting to watch, boo-fuckin’-hoo. He has what matters when it comes to walking into the cage. Heart. A lot of people shit themselves when it’s time to fight. I’ve seen it. They just decide that they’re not going out. White-line fever; they can’t pass that line when the time comes. But it’s just something you have to deal with.”

That distasteful element of Irish MMA supporters are in the minority, although they did bring some negative press to UFC Fight Night 76 when Louis Smolka celebrated his win against Paddy Holohan under a shower of beer, which was thrown into the octagon by a handful of members of the crowd.

inpho_00984293 (1) Neil Seery weighs in for UFC Fight Night 76 in Dublin. Source: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Seery: “You’ve got these fucking idiots who pay €6.50 for a pint, only to throw it away. If you didn’t want that pint, I would’ve taken it. Idiots. They left a slightly bad taste on what was a great show.” 

Conor McGregor and Cathal Pendred are the only Irish fighters who have won more UFC bouts than Neil Seery in the past 16 months, but Seery’s presence in the eyes of the public is much more reticent in comparison. The limelight isn’t for him and it never will be.

Nevertheless, he is beginning to receive more recognition. He’s often described as a working class hero, a dark horse. Even when the bookmakers fancy his chances, Seery seems to be the underdog. He was never expected to make it this far, yet he continues to defy the odds by progressing even further. The kind of sportsman Ireland has always been drawn to.

In spite of his enormous popularity, McGregor’s boisterous approach isn’t for everyone. It’s crucial, for the widespread growth of MMA in this country, that the audience has a wide variety of personalities to choose from. Some they’ll relate to more than others. The story of Neil Seery’s unlikely rise to the top is gradually being told more often and the casual followers are finally starting to put a face to the name.

Neil Seery Neil Seery after his 'Performance of the Night's display at the 3Arena. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

A major factor was his recent fight in Dublin being broadcast live on Irish terrestrial television, which was a first for Seery. Most of his UFC bouts to date have only been shown on ‘Fight Pass’ — the organisation’s online broadcast platform — which is the sole preserve of the more hardcore fans.

“There’s been a lot more attention since the last fight and it’s because I got one bit of luck this time. It was somebody else’s misfortune [an injury to Joe Duffy saw his fight with Dustin Poirier cancelled] which meant that I was bumped up to the main card, which went out on every TV in Ireland,” Seery explains.

“So it was the first time for a lot of people seeing me fight. I felt sorry for Joe but it was a great opportunity for me. It opened a lot of people’s eyes to what I’ve put into this game. I believe I’ve put more into this game than probably anybody in Ireland.”

Seery has never courted that support; that acknowledgement and acceptance from the fans. But now that it’s increasing, is it something he appreciates?

“It’s nice to have that, but you can ruin it for yourself as well. The first time somebody asked me for a selfie, I actually thought they were taking the piss out of me and I told them to fuck off.

“But it comes with the territory. Irish people are either with you or against you. Some people would rather see you fall than make it, so I’m happy that the support is there. It’s great.”

At this stage, I’ve taken up enough of Seery’s spare time so it’s time to wind down the conversation. As we do, a minor scuffle breaks out at the other side of the bar, with the two protagonists swiftly given their marching orders.

“What happened there?” Seery asks one of the bar staff.

“Two fellas started going at it because one of them poked the other one’s girlfriend on Facebook.”

“See!” Seery says to me. “Didn’t I tell you the internet was a load of bollocks?”

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Paul Dollery

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