Peter Carroll: Reluctant hero Neil Seery tasked with restoring the pride of the 'Fighting Irish'

The morale of the Irish mixed martial arts community is at an all time low.

UFC, MMA, Neil Seery,

Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Last month, the tragic death of João Carvalho after his bout at TEF 1 in Dublin led to broad debates about the legitimacy of MMA as a sport.

Following on from that, Conor McGregor came out with the short end of the stick after his public standoff with Dana White, which resulted in his removal from the main event of the UFC 200 event. As if that wasn’t enough, a rare blood disorder led to fan favourite Paddy ‘The Hooligan’ Holohan retiring from the sport at just 27 years of age.

The growth of the sport in Ireland has been meteoric since McGregor claimed an emphatic first round victory in his UFC debut back in April 2013. The majority of those who consume the sport on the island have been exposed to it since ‘The Notorious’ made his debut, but there has been no big win for the scene since the Irishman’s 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo back in December.

At the peak of Irish MMA’s success, the island boasted eight fighters on the UFC roster. Just half of that number remains on their books today.

Image: Cathal Pendred, now retired, at UFC Fight Night Dublin, 3 Arena. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Less than three weeks after McGregor tasted his first defeat at the hands of Nate Diaz at UFC 196, former Cage Warriors flyweight champion Neil Seery was booked for a matchup of a lifetime. The Finglas native bit UFC’s hand off when they extended the invitation to meet Kyogi Horiguchi in Rotterdam on May 8th, despite his belief that many others in the division passed on the same matchup.

At his best, the Japanese 25-year-old is spellbinding.

His karate style allows him to control the distance between him and his opponents as he leaps in and out of his attacks. The only time he has tasted defeat inside the Octagon came when he fought for the flyweight title last year against Demetrious Johnson, a man who is considered the pound for pound greatest fighter in the world at the moment.

Although some people might find the Dubliner’s 16-11 record off-putting, he has a skillset that has proved to be both effective and exciting under the bright lights of the world’s biggest stages. A karate and boxing proponent since his young teenage years, not one of Seery’s UFC opponents has managed to trade shots with him without eventually succumbing to his power and diving in for a takedown.

Seery has been the counterpoint to the swagger and affluence portrayed by McGregor. A full-time worker on top of his fighting career, the father of four competes for fun and he sees his purses as nothing more than a bonus.

Having shunned the limelight for a number of years, the 37-year-old stalwart has become somewhat of a cult icon for the Irish fans over the last twelve months. 

Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Reluctant Hero

Even after he had secured a world title under the Cage Warriors banner, Seery wanted nothing to do with the added media attention. When he saw a camera crew entering Team Ryano with the hopes of shooting an interview with him a few years ago, he slipped out before they even got the chance to set up their equipment.

His unrelenting aggression as an Internet troll rivals that of his output when he trades leather in the Octagon. His tongue-in-cheek jibes at training partners, media members and fellow fighters have won him a host of new fans.

It’s not all about his humour though, when a lot of the old heads from the scene were embarrassed by the behaviour of fans at last year’s UFC 189 World Tour leg in Dublin, Seery was the first to take to social media to criticize them.

In a world where fighters are replicating the braggadocious manner of McGregor, Seery has pointed to the contradiction that exists in the way that a lot of his peers present themselves.

“People think once you get to the UFC you’re made for life,” he told Fightland last month. “I’ve had five fights in the UFC, I’m about to have my sixth, but there’s not a chance in hell that I’d be able to pay my mortgage for the year and support my family off that.”

Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The Team Ryano man’s successful outings in the last two UFC events in the Irish capital drew some of the biggest cheers of the night, which underlined his transformation from unknown quantity to cult icon.

UFC have noticed the elevation in his stock too, and his placement on the top of the ‘Fight Pass Prelims’ is evidence of that. The promotion are really trying to push their ‘Fight Pass’ network at the moment and Seery proved to be a substantial draw last January when he bested previously unbeaten American Chris Beal in a bout that had exactly the same billing as Sunday’s contest.

Opportunity Knocks

If he has his hand raised on Sunday night, Seery’s win will be up there with the biggest victories any Irish charge has taken inside the Octagon. Time might not be on his side, but Seery could certainly open himself up to more clashes at the top of the division should he claim the win in the Ahoy Rotterdam arena.

Yet, it has never been about winning or losing for Seery. Asked this week about how much a win would mean to the Irish, Seery claimed that a “good fight” would mean more to them that a victory.

“Good fights will get the Irish fans cheering again,” he said after he arrived in Rotterdam on Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose a good fight because the fans appreciate them so much. You could go out and guillotine someone in a second and people will cheer for a second, but if you can have a good fight for 15 minutes, they’ll cheer forever.

“I don’t care whether I win or lose, once I perform the result doesn’t matter. I want to have the fans on their edge of their seats and I think that’s what I’m capable of.”