“This is make-or-break for me. I can’t afford to take another step back.”
THE grey sky over Kiev reflected his mood. There were no celebratory beers after last night’s fight, just a cocktail of frustration and disappointment. A strong after-taste still remained by the time he woke to pack his bag for the flight back home to Ireland. Home to his family, bearing news of the ninth loss of his professional career. A six-thousand kilometre round trip for a fight that didn’t make it out of the first minute. No stitches or broken bones, just a bruised ego. At 32, was it time for Neil Seery and MMA to go their separate ways?
He knew what Artemij Sitenkov would be looking for, yet he could do nothing to prevent it. Seery was pinned to the cage and his Lithuanian opponent did what he does best, transitioning for a kneebar and forcing Seery to surrender after just 55 seconds of their Cage Warriors 46 contest. Seery had big plans for 2012, but losing in such a manner as early as February wasn’t part of the script.
“That defeat set me back a long way and, to be honest, I was going to walk away from the sport,” Seery admits, reflecting on the bout. “I got so wound-up after that. I was disappointed in myself, but mainly I felt that I had let down my club and Cage Warriors. They were after bringing me over to Ukraine for a big fight and Andy Ryan (Seery’s coach) had put a lot of work into me, so I was disappointed for them more than anything else. It felt like I hadn’t even been in a fight. To lose like that was very frustrating and I just felt like walking away.”
But, as has often been the case, Andy Ryan was the voice of reason. Seery took some time to deal with the loss but his coach stayed in touch and wouldn’t allow his most experienced fighter to sign off on his career in such disappointing fashion. Ryan knew there were plenty of good days left in Seery yet. Before long, Ireland’s top flyweight was back on the mats at the Team Ryano gym on Dublin’s northside and thoughts of retirement had been put on hold. But the pain of the Sitenkov defeat lingered.
Artemij Sitenkov submits Seery at Cage Warriors 46 in Kiev.
Had Seery drawn a line under his career at that point, he’d have been proud nevertheless of a journey that began seven years earlier. MMA in Ireland has come a long way since then and Seery admits to being raw and naïve – to say the least – going into his debut. He can go as low as strawweight now, but his first taste of professional MMA was a bout contested at 165lbs. “It was mad back then, crazy days. It’s a totally different ball-game now,” Seery says.
With a background in karate and boxing, Seery was more than capable of holding his own if the fight stayed standing. But how good was his ground-game? His pro debut answered that question.
“As soon as I got taken down my corner had to throw in the towel,” he laughs. “I couldn’t get out of there. I was disgusted that they did but it was for my own good because I probably could have been hurt.”
Seery’s jiu-jitsu was a problem, but he knew exactly where to go to solve it. At Team Ryano, competing in MMA became more than just a hobby or something to laugh and joke about afterwards over a few drinks.
“I moved up to Andy’s gym, started putting on the gi and that was a major turning point. I was with Andy for a good while before they put me in to fight. My early losses were by submission, which was just down to really bad jiu-jitsu on my part. I knew Andy’s was the place I wanted and needed to be. So I took a step back from the kickboxing and started concentrating on my ground-game.”
Seery’s introduction to karate and boxing came about during his late teens, when he was in danger of following a turbulent path. Often “up to no good” with his mates around the Dublin suburb of Finglas, he found himself without a school to attend at the age of 15.
“I got into some serious trouble as a youngfella, the extent of which I couldn’t even talk about. It was that bad. I got into some nasty messes with some nasty crews. There are people I was friends with back then who are now dead. Things were that bad and that’s not an exaggeration at all. The people I hung around with, we were constantly up to no good. But I eventually went my own way, luckily for me. If I hadn’t done I might be dead now myself.
“I was actually thrown out of school so I hadn’t much of an education behind me. Then I had to go and work in slaughter houses. I got the job and started training, and they were decisions I made myself. I distanced myself from everything, especially the stuff that was getting me into trouble. Work and training took over. It was probably just a case of having the mental strength to cop myself on, because I definitely needed to.”
It’s not quite the clichéd tale of a reformed character being put back on the straight and narrow by the miracle of sport, but Seery’s interest in karate – and later, boxing – certainly helped to fill the void that was left by bringing an end to the antics of his youth. According to the Dubliner, moving into full-time employment at such a young age also instilled in him an unyielding work ethic that has allowed him to become one of the top three flyweights in Europe, while simultaneously holding down a full-time job and raising three children – aged 12, 8 and 2.
“From an early age I got into a mindset of just getting things done when they needed to be done, and that still applies now. People always ask me where I find the time for it all and the answer is I really don’t know. I just get it done. I work for an electrical company and it probably helps that I start at half-six in the morning and finish at half-two. The kids are very active so they’re training when I’m training. They’re as busy as I am. They’re doing karate at the same club I started in. They’re into a lot of sports so they have something on every night. That’s important because it keeps them off the streets and involved in as much activity as possible, so they don’t end up how I did.”
Seery’s work ethic has also been key to how he has rebuilt his career over the last 12 months. A week on Saturday he’ll be at The Helix in Dublin to face Mikael Silander in a bid to become the first ever Cage Warriors flyweight champion. On the corresponding weekend last year, Seery was at the same venue to take on Mark Platts in his first bout since the loss to Artemij Sitenkov had him considering retirement.
“It was Andy Ryan who changed my mind, more or less. He always seems to keep me on a steady road. Win or lose, he’ll keep ringing me up after a fight to check to see how I am. He stayed on top of me to make sure I didn’t venture away. I’ve experienced pretty much every kind of scenario in MMA fights, so going into the Mark Platts fight I just decided to stop putting pressure on myself and let everything go. I want to go out, be exciting, perform for the crowd and give everybody that steps into the cage with me the toughest fight they’ve ever had, whether I win, lose or draw. That’s the mentality I have now. You can either walk away or get your head back down and start working.”
By his own admission, Seery’s overall record of 12-9 “isn’t that good”, but it requires further investigation before a clearer picture emerges. Since making his flyweight debut against Phil Harris back in May 2010, Seery has embarked on a 5-2 run, the losses coming against Sitenkov and Harris, who’s now plying his trade with the UFC. Having overcome Niko Gjoka, Mark Platts, Karl Harrison and Paul Marin, no flyweight has had more success than Neil Seery under the Cage Warriors banner.
From left to right: Team Ryano’s Andy Ryan, Neil Seery, Paul Redmond and Rich Edgeworth.
Seldom can any sportsperson claim to be hitting their peak on the wrong side of 30, but Seery believes he’s one such example. Currently on a three-fight win-streak, seeing off Silander in Dublin next week would see him put together a run of four consecutive victories for the first time in his career.
“I’m going into this fight injury-free. This is make-or-break for me. There’s nowhere I can go from this, bar forward. I can’t afford to take another step back and start rebuilding again. I need to go out and put on the performance of a lifetime. I could become the first ever Cage Warriors flyweight champion and that’s motivation in itself.”
Turning 34 in August, what’s the major incentive for Seery to keep striving to improve? At the moment it’s Cage Warriors gold, but is a coveted shot at the UFC also an objective?
Seery: “Whatever comes, comes. I don’t look that far forward. Maybe I’m a bit old for it at this stage anyway. But my goal is to go into each fight and get another win. I don’t set goals beyond that. That’s my motivation, not the UFC. There are better fighters than me who are being cut from the UFC at the moment.”
So for now Neil Seery’s sights are fixed firmly on the co-main event at Cage Warriors 55 and the challenge he’ll face from Finnish 27-year-old Silander. Between them the pair have 20 wins, only six of which have come via decision. The signs don’t point to this one lasting the distance, and Seery agrees.
“From what we’ve seen of his fights, he likes to stand so hopefully he’ll come out and stand with me and we can make it an entertaining fight. If he takes me down I’m comfortable off my back. I’m prepared at this stage for everything he has and hopefully we’ll get a good fight out of it. I’m going to stand there and try to knock him out. I’m sure he has the same intentions as me. One of us is going down, but I don’t think it’s going to be me.”
Mixed martial arts in Ireland has gathered significant momentum over the past year, with Dublin’s SBG camp flying the country’s flag with major success on the international stage. But the fighters at Team Ryano on the otherside of the River Liffey are now ready to step into the limelight and show that there’s even more to Irish MMA than Conor McGregor and Cathal Pendred.
It’s now or never for Neil Seery. If the luck of the Irish brings him a 13th professional win, the pain in Ukraine will be a very distant memory.
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