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'What could I have achieved if I came to this a bit younger? I would have been a UFC champion'

Neil Seery reflects on his career as he gets set to hang up his gloves in Belfast in November.

Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

WHEN YOUR TIME is dominated by a full-time job and the demands of raising a young family, mastering the work/life balance can be a sizeable challenge.

Add competing at the highest level of a professional sport to that equation and you’re surely left with an impossible task. However, one of Ireland’s most successful mixed martial arts athletes can provide evidence to the contrary.

The UFC in 2016 isn’t supposed to be for guys like Neil Seery. 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 around Ireland and the UK, Seery has seen plenty of changes in the sport over the course of a professional career which began in 2005.

In this instance, however, there’s an element of ambiguity when attaching the word “professional” to Seery the fighter. It might be a full-time commitment in the UFC, where he has resided since March 2014, but his roles as a warehouse manager, a husband and a father to four children have ensured that MMA has never been able to force its way to the top of his list of priorities.

Nevertheless, he has still managed to find the time to train twice daily, as well as adopting to modern methods of strength and conditioning, nutrition and strategising for opponents that are now a minimum requirement, but which were absent in the early stages of his career when the approach was much more primitive.

Back then, in the days when footage wasn’t available to study on YouTube, it was generally a case of showing up and setting eyes on your opponent for the first time when you entered the cage or the ring. And if he didn’t turn up, a scramble around the hall on the part of the promoter would usually be enough to source a substitute.

inpho_00829039 Source: INPHO/Rodrigo Romos

The money, if there was any, was so paltry that most of it had been put back behind the bar by the time the show had ended. The financial rewards in the UFC haven’t been substantial enough to allow Seery to walk away from his full-time job, but with a base salary of approximately $20,000 per fight, it’s an indication of how far he has come in the meantime.

“That’s how much work I’ve put into this,” Seery says. “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.”

Seery will fight fifth-ranked flyweight Ian McCall at UFC Fight Night 99 in Belfast on 19 November. When the bout ends, he’ll be a former fighter. McCall is the highest-ranked opponent that Seery will ever have faced. That the challenge has come at the very end is quite fitting for a man who was just a few months shy of his 35th birthday when he finally earned a place in the UFC alongside the best fighters in the world.

Seery confirmed this week that the McCall fight will be his last. When it’s all over, he’ll have competed seven times in the UFC — a claim that can only be shared by one other Irishman, Conor McGregor. Having lost to former title challenger Kyoji Horiguchi in May to go to 3-3 in the octagon (16-12 overall), he’ll hope to finish with a winning record in the UFC at the expense of McCall, who has designs on a rematch with champion Demetrious Johnson.

“I actually went back training straight after I fought Horiguchi,” Seery explains. “I was doing a bit of jiu-jitsu and stuff like that for a while. But the difference was that I decided to spend a lot more time during the week with my wife and my kids, and I was really enjoying it. I was enjoying heading out with them during the week instead of just heading to the gym all the time.

Neil Seery Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“That then sort of paved the way for retirement. My situation has never been about money, I think everyone knows that by now. It’s always just been about competing at the highest level. Now I get to compete at the highest level against a fantastic fighter and bow out in Ireland. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Seery’s improvements in the last three years have been remarkable. Time has caught up with him now, but instead of wondering what might have been had he reached this level 10 years earlier, he’s just grateful that he made it this far at all.

However, after achieving this much in spite of his family and professional commitments elsewhere, while competing against younger rivals who have devoted their lives to the sport, Seery is adamant that there would have been no limit to what he could have achieved if the circumstances had been different.

“I believe — 100% — that I would have been a champion in the UFC. I don’t think many fighters in the UFC have got the kind of heart that I’ve got. There are some fantastic fighters in the UFC and I believe I can compete with any one of them — even today,” he insists.

“I’ve never gone into a fight thinking I can’t win. I know I can fight, I know I’m a fighter, and that’s what I tell myself every time. I don’t know how I’m going to pull it off but I know I can do it and I know I can break my opponents. That attitude is just something that I’ve always had since I was growing up.”

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

His heart and durability have always earned him praise, but Seery’s skills are often unfairly looked. It may have taken him some time to bring them to a level worthy of UFC recognition, but since he’s been there the Finglas native has proven himself to be much more than just a workhorse. His boxing, for example, is among the best in his division, while his competence in the grappling exchanges has improved immeasurably.

Whether that combination of steely determination, crisp striking and stubborn takedown defence will be enough to get the better of McCall remains to be seen, but he’s ready to ensure that his American opponent has to work hard for the result — just as Horiguchi, Louis Smolka and Brad Pickett did over the distance. And if Seery does pull off the upset, it won’t be enough for him to reconsider his decision to retire.

“No way,” he says. “My mind is made up. If people think I’m going in there with the mindset that I’m going to lose just because I’m going to be walking away afterwards anyway, they’re mistaken. I’ll be giving this fight 110%, just like I always do. I might be retiring but the hunger to win is stronger than it’s ever been. I want to do everything I can to walk away with a win.

“If you get into that mindset of ‘I wonder what I could do next’ then there’ll always be something else. If you beat Ian McCall, maybe you can win another big one. Or if you lose, you want to get a win back and go out on a high. You can’t think like that or you’ll never be able to walk away. This is it. The result won’t matter.”

Seery’s family will be in attendance at the SSE Arena in November when he brings the curtain down on a career that they can all be proud of. The 37-year-old’s children train in various martial arts at the Team Ryano gym in Finglas, where their father has turned himself into a fighter fit for the biggest stage in the world. If they’re keen to follow the same path, Seery won’t stand in their way.

Neil Seery Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“People will make their own decisions either way when they’re old enough to do so. If you tell them ‘no’ they’re going to do it anyway, and if you encourage them and say ‘yes’ they’ll probably end up not doing it. Kids are like that, as are people in general,” Seery says.

“Once they’re happy, that’s all that counts to me. Obviously you don’t want to see anybody getting hurt, especially your own kids, but that’s the reality of it. I’ll look out for them and use my own experience to help them as much as I can, but if they really want to pursue something I’ll be 100% behind them, whatever it is.”

For Seery, MMA was no more than a hobby until he realised after 15 professional fights that he was capable of putting it up to some of the best on the European circuit. What he wanted was a challenge and a bit of enjoyment, but he departs with memories of fighting in venues like the MGM Grand, a 30,000-capacity football stadium in Sweden and — most importantly — Dublin’s 3Arena, where his performance earned him a $50,000 bonus last October.

“I’ve met some fantastic people through the UFC who’ll be friends for life. It’s been a hell of a journey. I’ve fought in Vegas, Stockholm, London and in a packed arena in my hometown twice. Very few people get to do stuff like that,” Seery says.

“Will I be emotional before the fight? I don’t think so. Afterwards I’m sure I will because I’ll have my family there with me. But until then all I’m thinking about is Ian McCall. He’s a very skilled fighter who’ll be in the cage with me, trying to hurt me, and I’m not going to let that happen.”

Neil Seery Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but neither can you teach a fighter to develop courage, resolve and a relentless will to win. Seery possesses those attributes in abundance and they brought him all the way to the top in the twilight of a career which was mostly spent at the bottom.

He was on the verge of calling it quits when he was submitted by Artemij Sitenkov in February 2012 — which remains his last stoppage defeat. The result was seen as one setback too far for a fighter who had lost as many fights as he’d won at that point, yet two years later he was making his debut on the biggest stage in MMA.

“I’ve always said to myself, ‘Just keep going, keep going, keep fighting’ — even if people tell me to stop. I’ve lost fights in the UFC but nobody has stopped me. What could I have achieved if I came to this a bit younger? I would have been up there with the very best. And I still am.”

‘Now is the right time’ – Ireland’s Neil Seery set to retire after UFC Belfast fight

Neil Seery added to the bill for the UFC’s November return to Belfast

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Paul Dollery

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