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INPHO/Ryan Byrne Irish UFC flyweight Neil Seery.
Defiant in the face of defeat: Seery reaffirms status as exemplary ambassador for Irish sport
The 36-year-old’s popularity continues to grow in spite of yesterday afternoon’s result in Rotterdam.

IF YOU WERE partial to a bet and weren’t familiar with Neil Seery, given the opportunity, your mortgage, life’s savings and the contents of your child’s piggy bank would have been deposited in a bookmaker’s till within the opening minute of his bout at UFC Fight Night 87 in Rotterdam yesterday.

Seery was making a substantial step-up to face someone of Kyoji Horiguchi’s calibre. Odds of 7/2 made the Irish flyweight the biggest underdog on the 13-fight card. Seery was more honest than any observer in acknowledging that his chances of victory were slim.

It was immediately evident that Seery was sharing the octagon with a standard of opponent that he hadn’t encountered before. Eleven years the Dublin veteran’s junior, Horiguchi sensed immediately that his speed and movement would keep him a couple of steps ahead of the 36-year-old. He didn’t hesitate to demonstrate as much.

With just 21 seconds on the clock, Horiguchi closed the distance in the blink of an eye and mowed Seery down with a precise, yet powerful, left hand to the chin. Seery desperately covered up as Horiguchi pounced in an attempt to secure the quickest victory of his six-year professional career.

At that juncture, few would have fancied Seery’s chances of making it out of the exchange, let alone to the end of the round or even the finish line of the contest itself. For most fighters in such an ominous situation, the ensuing panic contributes to their inevitable downfall. But that’s where Seery distinguishes himself from his peers.

Remaining calm and composed, he recovered and was soon back to his feet. Horiguchi felled Seery again shortly afterwards — in fact, he landed several potential one-punch knockout shots over the course of the first round alone — but again the Irishman appeared to be in no danger of being stopped.

Seery’s resilience almost defied logic, as fans expressed their awe on social media at his ability to withstand punishment. Horiguchi quickly realised that although he was unlikely to leave Rotterdam without his sixth UFC win, this particular victory was going to require his best efforts for the full 15 minutes.

At times, Seery resembled Boris The Bullet Dodger from Snatch, with Horiguchi performing his best Vinnie Jones impersonation. Bullet Tooth Tony kept firing. Boris kept coming back for more. Seery probably knew that victory was out of reach from early on, but that never deterred him from pursuing it.

The judges deservedly awarded Horiguchi a unanimous-decision win which levelled Seery’s record in the UFC to 3-3. He’s been beaten as often as he’s been victorious on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts, but Seery has never surrendered.

All three of his defeats have come via decision — against Brad Pickett, one of just two men to have overcome Demetrious Johnson, the UFC’s most dominant champion; Louis Smolka, who’s being tipped to fight for the flyweight title within the next year; and Horiguchi, who was one second shy of going the distance with Johnson just over 12 months ago. Only the elite have stamped Seery’s record in red, and they’ve been made to earn the right to do so.

Seery may not be a household name but, regardless of the result, he emerges from every contest having earned more respect and an abundance of new admirers. Even when the bookies occasionally fancy his chances, Seery appears to be the underdog, which is something that resonates organically with Irish sports fans. Defiant in the face of defeat, while never relinquishing hope of achieving the desired outcome against the odds.

In modern sport, heart and determination are praised a little too readily. At the highest level of professional competition, they’re surely minimum requirements. As an audience, we’re almost surprised when a team or athlete displays a semblance of resistance to defeat. But Seery redefines those characteristics. It’s not merely resistance, but a stubborn refusal to accept defeat even when it’s inevitable.

Roy Keane won’t thank us for lauding another moral victory for the plucky Irish, but there’s so much more to this equation than meets the eye. While Horiguchi, a full-time fighter, relocated from Japan to Florida to join American Top Team — one of the biggest and most successful teams in MMA — in the build-up to yesterday’s bout, Seery’s preparation was in stark contrast.

Seery also has a full-time profession, but as a warehouse manager, not an athlete. His 6am starts allow for mid-afternoon finishes, at which point he can resume life as a fighter while simultaneously helping his wife to raise their four children. It’s a demanding daily routine but Seery wouldn’t have it any other way. And he couldn’t afford to either.

For his submission win over Jon Delos Reyes back in October, Seery was awarded a $50,000 ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus, which took his total purse for the fight to $82,500 — more than he had earned in his 26 previous professional bouts combined.

“I’m getting up at five in the morning. I’m running to work, I’m cycling to work. I’m getting home, doing what I have to do and I can still train and fight at this level,” Seery explained to Andrew McGahon of Severe MMA in an interview in Rotterdam last week, during which he sounded a word of warning to the increasing number of young Irish fighters throwing all their eggs into one basket by devoting their lives to MMA in the hope of emulating the achievements of Conor McGregor.

Seery, who trains at Team Ryano in Finglas, added: “It is horrible. I’m walking into the gym the same way as everyone else is going into the gym. You see, nobody has any jobs. Everybody’s there scratching their arses, crawling out of bed — they’re strolling into the gym at 12 o’clock and they’re not leaving until 7 o’clock at night. Like, what the fuck are they doing? They’re watching other people train because you can’t possibly train for that length of time.

“So I’m just trying to put it to people to say: ‘Here, look lads, you have to have some sort of income. You have to have something. Nobody’s saying that you can’t be the best. Just get out there, enjoy your training, but you have to have some other financial security.’ You can’t depend on the social welfare because they’re guaranteed to cut you off,” he laughed.

Seery is worshipped by his younger team-mates, who are learning from his experiences, achievements and mistakes as they aim to carve out a career in the sport. Written off as a regional journeyman no more than four years ago, Seery was never supposed to make it this far. He could have sacrificed his job in a last-ditch attempt to reach the UFC. Instead, he bullishly persevered until he was rewarded for his endeavour.

SevereArt / YouTube

Even in the twilight of his career, Seery is still improving as a fighter. At his age, he’ll run out of gas before he ever enters the world title picture, but in many ways, being in contention for a UFC belt would slightly diminish what makes Seery unique. He has never spoken about challenging for material honours, be they sporting or fiscal.

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“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,” Seery told us last November when quizzed about his plans for his $50,000 bonus.

“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,” he said, before admitting that the extent of his extravagance was a second-hand recliner chair that set him back €40 on eBay.

A glance at the past week’s offerings from his Twitter timeline will reveal that life in the UFC for Neil Seery is about enjoyment, not rankings or earnings. Accepting that every fight could be his last, he’s determined to make the most of the ride while he can. But don’t mistake that for a scarcity of the will to win. When you’re investing as much effort as Seery is, the taste of victory is essential sustenance.

Seery was warned that he’d be a lamb to the slaughter by accepting a fight with Kyoji Horiguchi, but in a sport where many boast of a willingness to face any opponent, anywhere, at any time, Neil Seery is one of the few who has remained true to his word.

“You can’t put out statements that you’re willing to fight anybody in the division and then turn fights down when they come your way,” Seery told The42 last week. “I took the fight and didn’t think any more of it. Yeah, a lot of things aren’t in my favour — age, record, he’s a lot quicker — but at the end of the day, it’s just a fight; one man against another.”

He added: “I like getting in and competing against the top lads. The minute you stop having fun is when you should wrap it up and head off. I don’t think it’s a game that you can get into and plan to become a millionaire because it works out like that for very, very few people.”

The landscape of mixed martial arts in these parts has been dominated over the past fortnight by tedious soap operas based on empty retirement threats and fantasy cross-code superfights, but yesterday, for 15 minutes at least, Irish MMA was about MMA again.

Not for the first time, Neil Seery was a breath of fresh air. And hopefully not for the last.

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Fifth loss in a row for Irish fighters in the UFC as brave Seery falls to Horiguchi

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