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“I’m in a good place again and my best days are ahead.”

24/10/2013

CWFC middleweight Che Mills (Photo: Dolly Clew | Cage Warriors).

IN THE welcome refuge of his Dublin hotel room, Che Mills tried his best to remain focused on the task at hand, in spite of the events of a forgettable afternoon.

Mills spent weeks working as hard as he had ever done, preparing to grasp an opportunity that had all of a sudden vanished because of half-a-pound of excess weight. A shot at CWFC welterweight champion Cathal Pendred was supposed to represent Mills’ first step on the road back to the top, but it was an unexpected obstacle that was about to send him on a detour.

With Pendred’s gold no longer there to aim for, and his body struggling to recover from an arduous weight-cut, a lethargic Che Mills under-performed and found himself at a complicated crossroads. It was the second time he’d been there in the space of just a few months.

“It was my fault at the end of the day because I was the one who missed weight, so I can’t complain. I don’t like to make excuses, but in the first round especially I didn’t feel myself at all,” he says, reflecting on that Cage Warriors 55 loss in the Irish capital back in June.

Mills, a shy and reserved character who has never been one for playing mind-games or trash-talking with his opponents, found himself playing the unfamiliar role of the pantomime villain in Dublin. Dethroning Pendred in his own backyard was already going to be a sizeable task. By missing weight, Mills had now got the fans on his back too. The ‘Mentions’ column on his Twitter account didn’t make for pleasant reading that weekend.

“I’m not going to lie; it was stressful. I’m not really a bad guy as such, but it felt like I was because of what some people were saying. That kind of stuff does get to me sometimes, but you’ve just got to remember that their opinions don’t really matter. The ones who matter are the people who have stuck by me through good and bad.

“But the situation did impact on my state of mind going into the fight because I was focused on winning the title. Then, all of a sudden, after all the hard work, it was a case of knowing that I wouldn’t be the champion even if I won. It was very emotionally draining actually.”

Mills tangles with Cathal Pendred during their CWFC 55 bout in Dublin in June (Photo: Dolly Clew | Cage Warriors).

Missing weight and falling short against Pendred was the latest chapter in what has been Che Mills’ annus horribilis. He began 2013 by trying to come to terms with the passing of his father in December. Seven weeks into the new year and he had been cut from the UFC.

Mills was scheduled to face Matt Riddle at Wembley Arena in February, but his preparations had been scuppered by his father’s death. Nevertheless, he decided that withdrawing from the bout wasn’t an option. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s a decision he regrets. His body was ready but his mind was elsewhere. An off-colour Mills was outwrestled by Riddle in a split-decision defeat (which was later declared a no-contest following Riddle’s failed drug test).

Eight months on from the bout, when asked if he should have pulled out, Mills says: “Yes, I think so. But I don’t make excuses. At the time I thought I was ready and that everything was fine. In a strange way it kind of kept me going, but I realise now that I was focused on the wrong things.”

The defeat was a setback, but worse was to follow just a week later. The UFC confirmed the release of 16 fighters on February 20. To Mills’ surprise, he was one of them.

“I was a little bit shocked, if I’m honest. It was only one loss on the trot and my only other UFC loss was against Rory McDonald, who’s top five in the world. I can’t say I saw it coming. I thought I was close to being in the firing line but I definitely expected to get another chance.”

The manner in which he learned of his dismissal didn’t make things easier.

“I actually found out from Twitter and I wasn’t sure whether to believe it or not. I basically woke up, checked my Twitter and thought that has to be a mistake, a misunderstanding. But a few hours later my manager phoned me and confirmed that it was true. It would have been nice to have been told before finding out from other people on the internet but, rightly or wrongly, that’s obviously how it’s done.”

A few days of soul-searching was to follow. The Gloucester native had got a taste for life at the summit, but now it was gone. However, walking away from the sport was never really an option. Within a fortnight he penned a five-fight deal with Cage Warriors.

“I just love it too much. I’m still young enough – just about! – to carry on and be successful,” he says. “It was a big setback at first, but what else was I going to do? Fighting is what I do and that’s not going to change at this stage.”

The first outing on his new CWFC deal didn’t quite go according to plan, but according to the man himself, we’ll be seeing a new and improved Che Mills when he makes the move up to middleweight to take on Faycal Hucin tomorrow evening at CWFC Fight Night 9 in Jordan. With the burden of an enormous weight-cut no longer an issue, Mills has seemed at ease throughout the week at Amman’s Meridien Hotel.

Relaxing in the hotel lobby, sporting the shirt of his beloved Celtic FC just hours after watching them pick up a big Champions League victory against Ajax, Mills admits that this bout represents the start of the next stage of a professional career that began 10 years ago.

“It hasn’t been the best time lately but now I’m feeling like I’m in a good place again; like I’m ready to put it all behind me and move on. I don’t feel like I have to prove myself to others anymore, only to myself.”

He turns 31 next week and his time with the world’s largest promotion has come and gone – for now, at least – so the general consensus is that we’ve already seen Che Mills at his peak. But he doesn’t agree. In fact, Mills is adamant that there’s much better to come.

He says: “People can only form their opinions based on what they see, but they don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes and how hard I’ve been working. Personally I believe I’ve still got my best days ahead of me. I feel like I’ve been doing wonders lately in the gym and it’s really boosted my confidence. I believe I’ve grown, but now the onus is on me to show that.”

His next objective is to become Cage Warriors middleweight champion, but what’s his motivation to keep going? Mills has already been at the top, with the majority of fans and pundits already writing his career’s obituary. But therein lies the incentive.

“I don’t like losing,” Mills says. “I might not show that openly, but deep down inside me I absolutely hate losing. That’s the biggest drive for me at the moment. If people think I’m past it now, that’s fine with me. It’s all extra motivation.

“Do I want to be this ex-UFC guy that everyone beats? I understand that people will see me as a stepping stone but I know I’ve got a lot to offer, so I won’t be that guy. I don’t want to be the guy who fought for the UFC a few times but ends up working in ASDA for the rest of his life.”

When Che Mills wakes up tomorrow morning, beating Faycal Hucin won’t be the first thing on his mind. He’ll be phoning his family back home in England, who’ll be celebrating his son’s first birthday.

“I felt a bit bad when the fight was first announced but me and the missus agreed that I’ve got to work. At this stage a win would probably be the best birthday present I could give him.”

Annus horribilis may yet have a happy ending.

Interview by Paul Dollery.

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