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Stevie Ray leaves for Lanzarote today to relax, embrace the vitamin D and remove from his mind all thoughts pertaining to mixed martial arts. He won't think about his fight this past Saturday, a decision win over Joe Lauzon, and he won't think too much about his next fight, potentially a slot on the UFC's Glasgow card in July, either. Instead, Stevie Ray will enjoy the company of his 'missus' and their daughter and go through the healing and unwinding process all fighters must go through following an intense three-round battle.   “I've got some bumps and bruises,” he says. “I'll see how I feel.”   Moments after defeating Lauzon in Nashville, Ray was congratulated by UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby and informed of the UFC's desire to get him on their upcoming show in Scotland. It was important, though, Shelby said, for Ray to feel in the right frame of mind for a quick-turnaround. Glasgow is, after all, just 12 weeks away and Ray was victorious but banged up. He is also, however, Scottish, which is to say he will do everything in his power to make sure he's ready for July 16.   “Right now I'm thinking let's do it – main event in Glasgow,” he says. “Shelby approached me after the fight and it was really good what he said actually. He said obviously they would like me on the card, but he wants me to take a week or so to see how I feel. He knows I'm going to be like 'let's get on it' but it was quite cool to see he was looking after the safety of the fighter as well. He said, 'Look, you were in another tough fight there. Go and take a week off and come back to me in a week or two and let me know how you feel.'”   No one who watched Ray's bout with Lauzon would begrudge him a break, that's for sure. Dominated and nearly submitted by a rear naked choke in round one, the man from Kirkcaldy pulled himself together, listened to the sage words of advice from his cornerman, James Doolan, and capitalised on Lauzon tiring down the stretch. Three rounds and fifteen minutes later, both lightweights believed they'd done enough to win. But it was Ray who had his hand raised.   “I wasn't sure (I'd get the decision),” he says. “It was tough calling it at the time but I remember thinking, well, he won the first round, the second round was close and I couldn't remember how that went, and the third round I definitely won. I thought it could go either way. I was prepared for that. Having said that, watching it back I do believe I won the fight.”   The Lauzon win marked the fifth of Ray's two-year UFC career. It follows an upset victory over fellow Brit Ross Pearson in November and has him eyeing up those 155-lbers higher up the rankings. Bigger paydays, too.   “I think I'll start getting the recognition now,” says the 27-year-old. “I think the lightweight division will be on notice. That was obviously a big fight on the main card. It was in the States. A lot of the fighters would have been watching it and thinking, this guy is legit. That's what I want. Like McGregor said, 'I'm not here to take part, I'm here to take over.' I know it's a tough process to get to the number one spot but in the long run that's what I'm looking to do. I want to be the champ.   “Short term, I hope I've done enough in the UFC for them to say, 'This guy deserves to get paid.' When I fought Ross Pearson I took the fight on short-notice and helped the UFC out. Ross Pearson, even though I beat him, would have got paid way more than me. I've just fought Joe Lauzon and he would have got paid way more than me as well. That's understandable. They've been in the UFC for something like ten years. They've had a lot of fights. But now I've beaten both of them, I'm probably due to renegotiate a contract. I'm hoping to get some of that money.”   In truth, Ray, 21-6, seemed unlucky not to walk away with a 'Fight of the Night' bonus for his momentum-swinging scrap with Lauzon at UFC Fight Night 108; were it not for the action-packed and surprisingly competitive main event between Cub Swanson and Artem Lobov, Ray would have bagged an extra $50,000.   “I was gutted about that and kind of had it spent in my head already,” he says with a laugh. “With me having eleven months off last year I obviously spent a lot of my money and ended up in a bit of debt. I've been smart with my money, I've bought a house and got nice cars and stuff like that, but I've not been able to actually live the dream yet. I deserve to treat myself to this and that. That's what I'm hoping will happen next.”   First, sun, sea and normality.  

Amanda Nunes and Nina Ansaroff may be he most incredible love story in UFC history, but it wont be complete until they're both packing championship gold     It's an extraordinary love story – the like of which fight fans have rarely ever seen. Or perhaps even understood. They say that unity is strength. The union between Amanda Nunes and Nina Ansaroff, her partner in life and love – and fighting, has become an unshakeable bond that can't be broken. Harmony. Devotion. A life of fighting fueled by athletic desire and emotional balance.   But the start of their four-year relationship was tough love, not real love. At their first meeting, in a gym in Miami, Nunes set about Ansaroff, a new training partner, like she did Ronda Rousey at UFC 207. Ansaroff was knocked from pillar to post by the Brazilian bruiser known as 'The Lioness'. She was just “another body” for Nunes to destroy.   Yet rivalry turned to friendship, which has melted to love. They are now inseparable. And formidable pioneers. Their partnership has not always public or talked about, but it has underpinned the rise of Nunes to the top of the UFC's bantamweight ladder. It hasn't been easy. So much in life is down to chance, but Nunes and Ansaroff are convinced they were destined to be together. Soul mates for a cause. And for each other.   Getting to this point as a UFC champion has been some journey for Nunes, struggling to make ends meet, the youngest of three sisters by a single mother in Pojuca, a small town 41 miles from Salvador – the capital of Bahia, in Brazil. She was always a hyperactive kid, who, it appears, may have had a problem with stillness and focus. Ivete, her mother, recognized this. From playing as a striker in local football teams, to fighting in the streets, Amanda was addicted to a physical life and sports.   Given her restless nature, and propensity to fight, her mother took Amanda to capoeira classes, where she learnt the traditional dance and martial art brought to Brazil by African slaves. She coaxed her into karate classes, boxing gyms, and the young woman began to flourish as an athlete.   Her progress was helped by the fighting spirit in her genes. They were a tough family. Amanda’s uncle, Jose Silva, was a vale tudo fighter, even cornered on occasions Amanda's mother, who had also trained as a boxer. At 16, Amanda enrolled in jiu-jitsu, influenced by her sisters, Vanessa and Valdirene, who were also practitioners of the gentle art, under Ryan Franco.   Look back on Nunes' journey, and the women in her life have always been behind her fighting ventures. Older siblings could see that little sister had an electricity which needed fueling. Her mother recognized a fire. And that continues today with Ansaroff in the corner for Amanda, in fights, in the gym, in domestic bliss.   ***   The first great leap forward for Nunes, prior to coming to the USA, was a move to Salvador, as the only woman living and training in Edson Carvalho's gym there. Amanda cleaned the mats in the morning, trained all day, immersed herself in the art form, grappled and sparred with men. And held her own. She was treasured.   It was here where she became 'The Lioness', given that Carvalho's logo was two lions, and Nunes was the only female in that gym. Competing in grappling and MMA tournaments, Nunes had a run of success. But it was no way of making a real living, so she turned to MMA in 2008, losing her first fight to Ana Maria India. In 35 seconds, Nunes learnt that it was not a brawl, but an art form.   Undeterred, she bounced back, developing a reputation as a knockout artist, aggressive and heavy-handed. It was her mother, Ivete, who had always encouraged her to make her opponents feel her power and spite early in a fight. That has never changed, of course.   After reaching 5-1, Salvador was no longer where she belonged. It was now to America, where Nunes aimed to seek her fortune on the bigger shows. She moved to New Jersey, then to Miami, being spotted by Scott Coker to compete in Strikeforce. In Miami, at the MMA Masters gym, her life was to change forever. One day, in walked Nina. They became training partners. At the time, Nunes had “no social life", she recalls.   She trained, ate, slept and rinsed again. She lived in the gym. She was also the only girl there – until Ansaroff's arrival, the Floridian of Macedonian descent having come there from American Top Team, to train with her.    ***   Nunes admits she was “really aggressive” with her new training partner and tried to “hurt her”. Nina, of course, is several pounds lighter, and Nunes, looking back says she saw the new girl as “a punching bag”. Ansaroff could have just walked away and gone back to ATT, but she was tougher than that. She insisted on staying. Their friendship grew, as did their respect for each other as fighters. And people.   Then something clicked between them. A chemistry far stronger than fighting styles. A mutual attraction that blossomed into a deep love. “From there, we literally haven't left each other's side for four years. It's been great,” explained Nunes. There were funny moments early on, too, with the language barrier. They began communicating, for example, by Google Translate on their iPhones. “We started like that,” recalled Nunes. “I had my phone and I'd write, 'I like you… I want to kiss you... Can I go watch a movie at your house?'”   They were the first amusing forays towards a woman who had everything for her, and a deep understanding of her being made of the same fighting spirit. They giggle recalling those first heady days. “We like to be with each other all the time, now,” adds Nunes. “Since we met each other, we never spent a minute apart.”   Soul mates. Training partners. Surely there is no greater relationship, no deeper bond? But it was not a public pairing, in the traditional sense of a couple in fight sports, like Miesha Tate and Bryan Caraway, and others. At UFC 200, though, the moment that Nunes emerged as the holder of UFC gold, a kiss and an embrace said it all.   Nunes had busted up Tate, bloodied her and submitted her foe, and then arose as champion from a rear naked choke. Champion in front of the world. And seconds afterwards, as their lips met, no words needed to be spoken. When the entire ATT team emerged from the T-Mobile Arena and into a tent erected outside to host the post-event media conference, there was a unity between the two women that was self-evident that night.   They might not think it, see it or even be aware of it, but their relationship drew questions to Nunes about being the first openly gay UFC champion. “We never really talked about that aspect because it is what it is,” says Ansaroff. “But we now get lots of emails and messages from young women who are a struggling in their own lives, with their own sexuality, and we realize we can help. But I wouldn't say we were really deeply aware of issues in the LGBT community.”   Yet they have become role models, and both women are embracing that. They are pioneers through endeavor, admired for the qualities they show in their brutal mixed martial artistry. We can but admire.   Nunes was honored with an Equality Visibility Award in Los Angeles last year, an accolade that “recognizes individuals who have brought greater awareness to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights issues.” She was accompanied at the awards, of course, by Ansaroff. “When people find out how strong and powerful love is, then this world will be a better place. I want to see this happen one day,” Nunes said during her acceptance speech.   “I'm going to do everything I can to support this community with a positive presence by sharing my love and showing everyone that I'm happy. My dream has come true and I want to share this with everyone and help a lot of people be themselves. I'm going to keep doing it until the world is better.”    ***   There have been tough times together, too, such as when they moved to a troubled neighborhood in Little Haiti, in Miami, in 2013, after a spell living at Nina's father's home, where both were readily accepted.   Both had gun licenses and there was a firearm in the property in Little Haiti. They didn't even wish to walk their dog at night. Crime was rife, drug deals were going on around the area. Police were constantly patrolling in the 'naked city'. Once Nina's father had visited, he insisted they move. They did.   But there are no regrets from Nunes from the trials and tribulations she has been through. The USA is now home. “The Brazilian people are proud of me. But I think I succeeded because I came to America. The best thing I ever did was move to the USA, to be honest. I want to live here forever.   “I feel I still have more to show. I like focusing on what I am good at – I'm a fighter. I focus on my job, and everything is coming together.”   In New York together in November at a media luncheon, and again in Los Angeles promoting her defense against Ronda Rousey at UFC 207, they exuded a gentle unity together. Nothing is forced, and they are powerful to be around.   Even when Rousey was the focus of promotion for their end of year PPV extravaganza, Nunes took it on the chin. Plenty of influential figures weighed in on the seemingly skewed promos and teasers, and through it all, the Brazilian brawler kept her dignity. “I felt that the UFC wanted to make it easy for her,” says Nunes. “They wanted to make me second, to make her strong.   “They promoted her, but she knew deep down that I was the champion. She's not the champion any more. They wanted her to win. I even think they wanted Miesha Tate to win (at UFC 200). But what I did was I trained like a lion for all my fights.”   Quietly behind Nunes, an iron rod in her life, forever supporting her, is the powerful influence of Ansaroff, who admits she has never been calmer for the Tate and Rousey fights. “I knew Amanda would do it,” she recalls.    ***   When Nunes and Rousey did face off in combat, of course, it took a matter of seconds for the piercing punches of Nunes to remind Rousey's neural processes of her defeat 13 months earlier to Holm. And the former women's star crumbled before the feeding Lioness.   As the build-up to that Nunes-Rousey title fight took place, from an observer's perspective, the words from a conversation with Cat Zingano about Nunes resonated in my head, echoing over and over again. Zingano defeated Nunes at UFC 178, but not before weathering a brutal assault in the first round. Zingano told me she had never been hit as hard, by anyone, and that it took her many weeks to recover physically. Given Zingano's toughness, it said so much. True to form, Nunes blitzed Rousey.   The Zingano fight, indeed, was a wake-up call for Nunes. It changed her outlook. Too rough, too raw, too committed when that siren sounds for combat. Ansaroff knew it, but they were too close for the message to come over. Ansaroff, three years older at 31, encouraged Nunes “to evolve” to think about her childhood again. Nunes now cites Nina “as a psychiatrist” and the key to her discovering calmness before fights.   Nunes began to read self-help books, listen to music, to swim and to meditate. It meant her mind would not “consume my body's entire energy” before fights.   Apart from being fighters, they both have mothering instincts they have talked of. Endearingly, Nunes and Ansaroff would both like “to carry children” and create a family together. “That decision will come when one of us or both of us choose not to fight. You can't do both things,” says Ansaroff. “You can't fight, and have a baby. And right now both of us want to fight.”   “Since I met Nina it has changed my life,” explained Nunes. “I have a partner to do everything in life with. We do everything together. I am a champion, she will be a champion soon. We understand each other. When I'm stressed, she cooks for me, she makes everything easy for me. She knows about Brazilian food.”   It conjures up an image of domestic harmony, underpinned by the hardest of work ethics in the gym. Goodness knows how driven their offspring will be.   For Nunes, Ansaroff is her rock. “Nina knows everything about me. She helps me work with my emotions,” explains the champion, who admits her biggest problem is probably that Nina is still her sparring partner. “It's hard to spar with her now because I don't want to punch this face anymore,” says the UFC belt holder. Some sacrifices will never change. Not for the women who are champions.   *** Feature originally published in the April 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***    

Some fighters have to be dragged kicking and screaming into retirement. Despite the injuries, knockouts and one-sided beatings, they just can't let go and leave the sport they love. But there are some fighters that go out in style. These are the ones that left on a high...     Back in the big time A legend gets the moment his career deserves   People said Tito Ortiz should retire for years. Some said he should throw in the towel after Lyoto Machida ran rings around him. Others said he should have left his gloves in the ring after his futile effort against Matt Hamill. Most of the rest of us agreed it was the right time to walk away after a 1-7-1 run that was plagued with serious injury. But everyone was wrong. 'The Huntington Beach Bad Boy' kept plugging away until Bellator gave him the platform his achievements as an MMA pioneer and icon deserved. The promotion gave him the biggest stage it could manage, but it was Ortiz that made the occasion great, rolling back the years for one final victory against Chael Sonnen that allowed him to do that famous gravedigger routine one last time and leave the cage with his head held high.   Unfinished business An icon fights again – and wins   OK, so Bas Rutten didn't quite go out on his terms because he conceded he had to walk away. No sooner had he won the UFC Heavyweight Championship, he had to relinquish his belt because of the toll injuries had taken on his body. Nevertheless, he still retired without any man taking his belt away from him in the Octagon and on the back of a huge undefeated streak. But 'El Guapo' couldn't end things like that. Seven years later, he embarked on the kind of crusade that so often ends in catastrophe: a comeback fight. Despite the 41-year-old injuring his knee, ribs and groin during training – and therefore not throwing a kick for six weeks – he still ran through Ruben Villareal, defeating him by first-round TKO. Though his body told him once again that he'd have to hang up his gloves, but for good this time, he left the cage unbeaten in his last 22 fights, which is a feat unmatched in MMA.   Showstopper It doesn't get any better than this   Genki Sudo was always one to make a grand entrance. Coincidentally, that's what made his exit from mixed martial arts so great. You will never see any better in combat sports. Flanked by a small army of tribal warriors, the masked 'Neo Samurai' descended from the top of the stage on a throne, resplendent in a robe and headdress. When he joined his supporting cast on the ramp, he breakdanced his way to the ring as part of a choreographed routine that wouldn't have looked out of place on Broadway. Of course, all that would have looked pretty silly if the Japanese icon faltered in the fight. But there was no need to fear on that front. Damacio Page – who is better suited to competing three divisions south of Sudo's 155lb – was submitted in short order, leaving the victorious 28-year-old to announce his departure from the sport to the sound of anguished gasps from a devastated audience, before pursuing careers as an author, actor, singer and manager of a wrestling team.   Tearjerker Leaving a legacy   You'll find few fighters who left the game with the same amount of goodwill from fans and their peers as Nick Newell. The 'Notorious' lightweight had a remarkable career. The fact he was born with a congenital amputation of his left arm was no barrier to accomplishing more than the vast majority of mixed martial arts professionals. What did stop him was the same thing that has blighted the careers of countless other athletes – injury. Aged just 29, Newell bowed out in the cage after claiming his 13th victory in 14 fights from a back-and-forth fight with Tom Marcellino at WSOF 24. He couldn't control his emotions as the entire audience rose to its feet to salute a real hero and real role model. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.   I did it my way Bowing out with a career-best effort   Though he was never a man that bothered the upper echelons of the welterweight division, the entertainment Chris Lytle provided in his 12-year career meant there were few fighters more deserving of a perfect final fight. First, he was given the main even. Next up, he was matched with an opponent who shared his desire to stand and trade. Dan Hardy was sick of all these wrestling types at 170lb too, so they made a gentleman's agreement to keep things on the feet and slug it out. That enabled one of the best performances of Lytle's career. He made no bones about the fact this was his last fight – win or lose – so he'd let it all hang out. He won the striking exchanges for nearly three rounds and when 'The Outlaw' had the audacity to break their pact and dive for a takedown, he was choked out in an instant. Just when you thought things couldn't get any better, his family joined him in the cage as he got his hand raised, his bank account inflated thanks to two $65,000 checks for 'Fight of the Night' and 'Submission of the Night', and he was presented with a brand new Harley-Davidson to ride off into the sunset on. He took the blows and did it his way.   Three that hung on too long   Chuck Liddell Dana White had to beg 'The Iceman' to call it quits after a worrying number of knockouts in his final UFC efforts.   Kazushi Sakuraba He kept coming out for a beating at the behest of promoters trying to squeeze a few more bucks out of a shopworn legend.   BJ Penn Five failed attempts at a comeback should have told 'The Prodigy' he just wasn't cut out to compete at the highest level anymore.

“Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you'll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which,” Meryl Streep announces on stage at the 2017 Golden Globes, swiping her index finger right to left for added sass and emphasis, “are not the arts.”   Hear that? That's the sound of mainstream America, fight fans. Specifically, the sound of Hollywood seal-clapping as mixed martial arts advocates everywhere offer their own version of Vince Vaughn's thousand-yard stare which sits somewhere between shock, disappointment and violent intent. They are laughing at us, we tell ourselves. All of them. The men and women we pay to watch on big screens in cinemas and on smaller screens in our home. The men and women acting, playing parts. The men and women who originate from all over the world, sure, yet demand and receive fees for acting, for playing a part, which are so obscene they could one day choose to rule the world. They, the privileged masters of make-believe, are poking fun at us.   But here's the worst part. Even if we accept the fact it polarises and is not one of the arts – we get that, Meryl – to run mixed martial arts down and use it as a punch line in a speech predominantly about the Hollywood elite's hatred of Donald Trump is to make a mockery of hard-working men and women all around the world – world, Meryl, not just America – who devote their lives to a combat sport and practise it on a daily basis, men and women who more often than not come from nothing and whose bravery isn't rewarded with gargantuan pay-checks and Golden Globes. Men and women who have to fight. The real world, Meryl; a world in which stage school isn't an option.   What's more, just as an Adam Sandler film doesn't define the acting profession, or Mamma Mia! define Meryl Street's otherwise stellar body of work, nor does one-time mall cop Kevin James playing a school teacher-cum-cage fighter in Here Comes the Boom, likely Streep's MMA point of reference, define or even get close to explaining mixed martial arts. Indeed, delve a little deeper and you'll find it's much more than the simplistic, dumbed down, cookie-cutter version of it Hollywood chooses to project in pursuit of box office bucks. That it's not Jon Favreau getting pounded in the head to impress Courtney Cox in an episode of Friends. That it's not even Tom Hardy and Joel Egerton doing their unconventional brotherly love thing in Warrior. Give it a chance and you'll discover it's actually real, this mixed martial arts stuff, too real for many (and that's just fine), and that it happens to feature some of the most exhilarating, awe-inspiring and, yes, artful moments you are ever likely to see.   For your consideration, here are a few such moments, moments we believe are beautiful enough, in their own rugged way, to rouse genuine emotion from even the tautest of faces in Hollywood.     Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin (2009)   It has long been described as mixed martial arts' take on The Matrix, and there's probably no better way of summarising the way Anderson Silva used otherworldly composure, poise and elusiveness to steal Forrest Griffin's confidence, ambition and then his soul in less than three-and-a-half minutes. Never has the art of making a man miss punches seem so damn scary. And, equally, never has a man appeared so awestruck during the process of being repeatedly punched in the face.     Cody Garbrandt vs. Dominick Cruz (2016)   Though a recent addition to the sport's canon of artistry, there can be no doubting the way Cody Garbrandt, once heavy-handed slugger, turned the tables on Dominick Cruz and bamboozled him with a bit of bravado, a bit of boxing, a bit of boogie-woogie and a ton of brain power deserves its place. It was a five-round performance so perfect it should be studied by aspiring martial artists the way aspiring filmmakers study the works of Kurosawa or Bergman. It was that smooth, that faultless, that good.     Cowboy's four-punch combo (2016)   “Oh, but he's just punching him in the face and body,” Streep might scoff. And this wouldn't be far from the truth. But, even so, just for one moment appreciate the economy, the precision and the technique in the work Cerrone unleashed on poor Rick 'The Horror' Story in 2016. Slow it down if need be and watch as 'Cowboy' reacts to a lazy Story left cross by immediately pouncing with a jab to the face, a right straight to the body, another left to the face, and then a right kick to the face, all of which somehow land, all of which combine to resemble some sort of choreographed dance move when viewed at normal speed. Story thinks he's surrounded. Seconds later, the fight is over.     Machida’s karate kick (2011)   Lyoto Machida, in his prime, was unquestionably an artist. He painted landscapes in the cage, all gentle brush strokes and water colours, but could also explode with violence, as Randy Couture, the Hall-of-Famer nailed by one of Machida's Karate Kid-inspired head-kicks in 2011, can attest. A dip of the hips, a fake with the left leg and a split-second later Machida had planted a front-kick on Couture's face and their fight was finished. Couture, one of the old guard, had never seen anything like it. And neither had we.     Hazelett’s arm-bar (2008)   Dustin Hazelett doesn't look like your typical artist, much less one who might frequent Hollywood, but there can be no disputing the beauty of the uchi mata ankle pick to arm-bar sequence he used to tap out Josh Burkman in 2008. Almost too abstract to describe, like a David Lynch film it needs to be seen to be believed.     The Korean Zombie's twister (2011)   Chan Sung Jung, the self-styled 'Korean Zombie', takes Leonard Garcia's back, wraps him up, locks down his left leg and right arm and, with seconds of the round remaining, proceeds to twist the hell out of him until he taps. Unconventional, improvisational and wonderfully creative, the Zombie's twister was as shocking as anything Hollywood has produced since Haley Joel Osment said he sees dead people.     Pettis’ Showtime kick (2010)   As Benson Henderson retreats, a mop of black hair obscuring his vision, Anthony 'Showtime' Pettis decides there's no better time to run up the mesh fence of the cage, cock a right head-kick mid-flight and then have the temerity to actually time it so that it connects on his opponent in one seamless motion. You can keep your crouching tigers and hidden dragons, Hollywood. We've seen it all before.     Imanari's knee-lock (2005)   Masakazu Imanari, the Freddy Krueger of knee-locks, haunts opponents with the threat of taking home their limbs. Here, in a fight which occurred in 2005, he misses with a head-kick at centre ring only to then shrug his shoulders, slide beneath Mike Brown and rip his left knee apart instead. The look of terror and anguish on Brown's face as he found himself tangled and unable to do anything but flop backwards kind of said it all.     McGregor's trash talk   Watch and learn, Hollywood. This is how you do it. This is how you promote and entertain. Conor McGregor, the charismatic two-weight UFC champion from Crumlin, Ireland, has talked (and fought) his way to the top of a multi-billion dollar industry, apparently runs every town he inhabits and has Hollywood A-listers begging Dana White for tickets to his fights. Forget your Scorseses and your Kubricks, Conor McGregor might be the greatest director of them all.     *** Feature originally published in the March 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***  

We hear it all too often that fighters are fighting hurt, that they are never 100% fit, that they carry injuries into every fight. But how serious is the problem in mixed martial arts? Several influential and expert voices are convinced this is now a major issue within the sport, and that the culture needs to change.   Fighters Only's Gareth A. Davies spoke to medical advisers, world administrators, trainers, nutritionists, former fighters and head coaches who revealed the sport is riddled with malpractice, with fighters 'cheating' medicals and overusing prescription drugs, and with sports science data reeling back the truth to reveal how hormone levels in some fighters, even in their 20s, can mirror 50-year-olds’.   One medical practitioner even told FO the practices of some non-medically trained nutritionists working in the sport are close to “felonious”... The warning signs are there and if fighters continue to spar and fight with injuries, their long-term health is under serious threat.   Design White, CEO of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), goes as far as to say that the overuse of prescription drugs is now more prevalent than steroids in the sport, and that the world governing body believes they can come closer to a solution through medical insurance and the formation of a fighter union.   In the course of this investigation, one thing became abundantly clear: a culture change is needed in the sport, with the education of fighters – and indeed the public – about the do's and don'ts of fighting injured being paramount if the sport places the safety of fighters uppermost in its ethos.   A PART OF THE GAME   Michelle Ingels AP/LAc, who owns Perfecting Athletes, which offers 'concierge medicine' for the pro athletes, works with many fighters, including Tony Ferguson, Court McGee, Gray Maynard and world champion boxer Terence Crawford. She is realistic enough to know that fighting is 'the hurt business'.   “If you're training and training, you're going to have to fight hurt at some point. Nobody ever goes into a fight 100%. At least not that I've ever met. But it's the degree to which you're hurt and where those injuries are that is crucial,” Ingels explains to FO.   “What's scary is when somebody says, 'I can't walk but if I get a cortisone shot I'll be able to compete tomorrow'. In MMA it's really scary. At least in NFL and basketball and other professional sports people have salaries and they have off seasons. They get hurt and they can take some time off and then go back to work.   “In MMA they don't have that option. You don't get paid unless you fight. They don't have the same kind of salaries that other athletes do. When they do get paid, they're not making enough money to not work, have surgery and heal up.”   Unless a fighter has other sources of income, or other ways to help support themselves, says Ingels, it remains extremely difficult to stay healthy and get the healthcare they need and take the time off they need.   “Fighters like Dominick Cruz obviously had the ability to do that but a lot of athletes don't,” adds Ingels. “We talk about athlete safety and you've got these young guys coming in and they're fighting and fighting because they want to pay their bills and they're on a lower salary. When they finally do get to the top, they've had so many injuries that maybe haven't been taken care of and they're more likely to get injured again.”   White, head of the IMMAF, says: “A lot of fighters – if they get injured – tend to just train through it and compete. Injuries can then start to become chronic. They need to start using medication (for) pain management so that they can continue to compete. It's a downward spiral. It was something which was talked about when I went to the international forum in Lausanne recently.   “The biggest problem in MMA isn't steroids or performance enhancing drugs. The biggest problem is that a lot of athletes are using prescribed drugs like anti-inflammatory drugs.” It's chronic, he explains.   Medical care insurance, therefore, says White, is crucial in the sport of MMA. And he believes the IMMAF may have found a solution. “We've now found a company that is prepared to insure athletes, even if they are fighting inside the cage. I believe that's an industry first.   “There are a lot of gyms not insured as well. They tend to get insurance through another traditional sport and then MMA is kind of 'bolted on'. They keep that quiet. They don't actually have specific insurance to do MMA. They certainly don't have insurance to do MMA in the cage. If we can do it, it will be a huge success. The take up will be tremendous. The welfare of the athletes has got to be the priority as far as we're concerned.”   White, like Ingels, cites a high-profile example of good practice: Cruz again. “If you take care of your body and make sure you get the right medical support, when injured, you're going to have a longer career. Dominick Cruz, for example, made sure he was 100% fit again before he competed. Now he's back on top of his game and champion again.”   White also points to the withdrawal of UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, late last year, through injury, and the medically-qualified Ingels concurs on insurance. “It would be huge,” she says. “If athletes knew that they could, when they don't feel well or are injured, see a doctor, get an x-ray, get tested, get physio, get something so they feel better, they'll perform better, they'll be better, they'll have longer careers.   “How many people do you know who work without insurance? You go to a job and you expect to get paid and you expect a salary and you expect insurance benefits.   “A fighter is always going to want to fight. That's what makes them a fighter. They will go in there with broken bones and concussions and all of these things. There are a lot of things I would allow a fighter to do where I'd tell an average person to take time off, rest, take care of yourself.   “It's a different breed of human being. That's what makes them so amazing. But that's also why they need the right people around them, to protect them and tell them when they truly are making a decision that can endanger their life.”   Worryingly, she adds: “When you look at fighters in their 20s and you look at their hormone profile and their health profile and their injury profile, they really truly do have the profile of somebody in their 50s because they trained and trained and put their body through it. When you hear a 20-something needs testosterone, they have trained so much and put their body through so much stress that it does affect their endocrine system and it does affect their hormones.   “I don't think they need testosterone replacement or steroids, but they need nutrition and they need to learn how to build those hormones up naturally. I have the lab work to prove it. It can be done. It's just highly misunderstood.”   CULTURE CONUNDRUM   Javier Mendez, the head coach of American Kickboxing Academy, came under fire last year when high-profile fighters from the camp suffered injuries – namely Cormier, Luke Rockhold and Cain Velasquez. The accusations were that the fighters were sparring too much, or too hard. It wasn’t the first time those complaints were made about the San Jose gym.   “There's a partial truth to it (the criticism), but there's more made-up stuff than truth,” Mendez, a renowned former fighter himself, explains. “The bottom line is there will always be injuries in this sport because of the demanding styles and practices. Guys get worn down.   “There's always things we can do to prevent injuries. We've done quite a bit already. But I'm not the boss. The bosses are the fighters. They are the employers and the ones who choose to stay with us. We have to figure out how to minimize those injuries.   “Daniel Cormier should maybe not spar some days but he'll say, 'No, I'm sparring'. We say OK. At that point what am I going to say? It's not like high school football. The fighters don't have to listen to me. If I give them advice they don't like, they won't listen to me. They do what they do. But we still have to look for ways to make sure they are safe in training.”   Mendez adds: “Cain Velasquez, before the Travis Browne fight, did hardly any sparring at all. He's doing the same now. That's his choice. We don't push it. We say no problem. But Daniel wants to spar as much as possible. Luke Rockhold's the same. He likes to spar.   “Khabib Nurmagomedov too. I have to pull him back sometimes. Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn't. I can't make them. You do that and what happens? Things don't go right, who's going to get blamed?”   Paulina Discepolo Indara is a third-degree black belt in karate, a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, health coach, personal chef and co-founder of Perfecting Athletes. She works alongside Ingels in their medical practice. “Many fighters believe they can fight injured and try to fight injured. That injury then becomes worse,” she states.   “On our end, it's become essential for our company to look out for the fighter and at certain times say this fight is not possible. The same goes for when a promotion wants a fighter to fight. It's our job to explain to them that it would be irresponsible of them to make them fight   “There is definitely that mindset where no fighter goes into a fight healthy. It's the culture in combat sports. But when it comes to a tear or a disc in their neck or a torn groin or a blown out knee, these are the times when athletes should not be fighting. But a lot of the time they feel they don't have a choice for whatever reason.   “The promotion might have said if you don't take this fight you'll never fight again for us. We'll cut you. Or financially they can't afford to sit out. Cormier was ripped for pulling out, but smarter fighters are pulling out when they need to and that's a good sign. There was a time when they wouldn't pull out of fights.”   Mendez agrees. “We should be encouraging them not to fight when they're injured. I don't think we should be pushing these guys to fight injured. It's not a good situation. But it depends on the injury too. If the injury won't affect their fighting, then no. But if it handicaps them, that's another story.”   David Mullins, a sports psychologist who works with fighters at SBG and TriStar, notes: “If you're in a gym where sparring is fighting, that's not good. What you want is a gym culture and a coach and a team where you respect the difference between sparring and fighting and they understand the seriousness of concussions.”   CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER   Fighters also cheat medicals. “Every fighter has done it at some point in their career,” says Ingels. “On every fight card, somebody's doing it. It's just who and how and what they're going to do. Depending on what commission there is and what they're looking at, you know the ways to try and get through it. It's an unfortunate part of the sport.   “The medical people who come and evaluate the fighters do the very best they can. But behind the scenes, those of us who work one-on-one with the fighters and see what's going on know there's a lot of ways they can skirt around it. It's our job to make sure it's nothing that is potentially life threatening.”   One medically trained practitioner in the MMA industry, who did not want to be named, believes there are those advertising as experts, medically, when they are not. “There's a few 'nutritionists' out there who have incredible marketing ability but no medical background," FO learns. “This is one of the biggest problems in the industry.   “They're felony crimes if we want to get right down to it. Anybody can call themself a nutritionist. A lot of the 'nutritionists' in this industry are people who have done nothing more than read a book, gone online and watched a documentary that any other person in the world could do. They've literally no medical background. They don't understand the physiology or how the human body works. They don't know what to do when things go wrong. That more than anything is where it gets scary for me.”   Mullins again, takes a slightly different approach. “You need to know what the difference is between being hurt and being injured and whether there's risk of further injury or risk of really damaging yourself going in. Coach and fighter need to be aligned on this. That's a line they both need to be aware of.”   Mullins, however, thinks the situation is actually improving. “Fighters are being smarter now and realize it will have a big impact on their performance on the night and that their performance will have a big impact on them financially and in terms of their career prospects.   “There's plenty of examples recently of fighters pulling out of fights because of injuries that maybe in the past they would have overlooked. Hopefully, that's a trend that is improving. You always want fighter safety and welfare to be the key thing. But sometimes that contradicts with what the promoters want.”   Indara adds: “I do not believe this situation is unsolvable. With all things, education is key. The problem is, because people assume this is the way it's always been done they stick with it. Now we actually have a tremendous amount of data. With athletes and coaches becoming more educated as to the dangers of fighting with specific injuries we will see an improvement in this area.   “It used to be that combat sports athletes would train and spar as hard as possible. They'd go into a fight having had maybe one or two concussions during camp. That's changing. But overall, we do need a culture change.   “You have commissions that are much more protective of athletes than they were. We just saw this with Rashad Evans at UFC 205. He wasn't cleared. They said his MRI wasn't clear and they wanted more information. They didn't say he'll never fight again, they just said we need more information. That's extraordinary to do on such a historic card. That wouldn't have happened 10 or 15 years ago. They would have just let him fight.”   She adds: “Organizations like the UFC and Bellator are extraordinarily responsible. But there are still areas of concern. It's not a criticism of the promotion, it's a criticism of the industry in general."   Everyone we spoke to supports the set up of a fighters union, being looked into by Bjorn Rebney and Georges St-Pierre at present. It could improve the situation, as it would clearly be looking at medical care and insurance. “There's increasing talk of a fighters’ union and that is something I'd like to see happen,” concludes Mullins. “That will give fighters a bit of leverage.”   Ingels agrees wholeheartedly. “Fighters give their blood, sweat and tears and their life for the sport, which makes millions upon millions of dollars for the biggest companies. But these athletes make a nominal amount of money compared to other sports. The entire culture in the sport of MMA needs to change.”   *** Feature originally published in the March 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***  

As rampaging Australian middleweight contender Robert Whittaker edges closer and closer to a UFC title shot, Elliot Worsell checks in with George Sotiropoulos, a former lightweight contender from Melbourne who made his first UFC appearance some ten years ago.   Few names in mixed martial arts are as difficult to pronounce or spell as Sotiropoulos. It's pou not po. It ends with los and not lous. Yet, for a while, between, say, 2008 and 2010, the name Sotiropoulos was on the very tip of MMA fans' tongues. It was one said often, written often. It was one entered into the UFC lightweight title challenger sweepstakes. It even threatened to one day become a household name – well, in his native Australia at least.   “I once heard a comedian from Australia say if America can learn Schwarzenegger they can learn a Greek name,” says George Sotiropoulos. “He was right.”   Sotriopoulos is spoken and written less these days. That's because George has been MIA from MMA since August 2014 and because his hot streak from 2008 to 2010, though promising and memorable, ultimately failed to deliver him the UFC title shot many had started to believe was inevitable. Not only that, Sotiropoulos, a globetrotter who for nine years resided Stateside, is now back home in Melbourne about to open a gym, which is to say slowing down, coming full circle.   “I'm at a point in my life where I'm looking to settle down,” Sotiropoulos, 39, explains. “I travelled for so many years training and competing. I had this goal where I just wanted to train in as many different places as I could that were renowned. And I did. It was a bit of the good, the bad and the ugly.   “But I don't need to do that anymore. I think I'm as experienced as I'm going to get. I mean, you always learn new stuff, but it makes sense for me to have my own place. When it came to opening a place, I think I realised I wanted to come back to Australia and do it. But it took me a while to find a building and go through all the negotiations and the rigmarole. It's a fun time for me now, though. It's a new venture and I'm looking forward to starting it.”   That Sotiropoulos remains attached to something that has defined him and lifted his name comes as no real surprise. Nor is it a shock to hear of a return to the place where, at the age of 19, his mixed martial arts journey began on a random Friday night.   “I was at my friend's house, doing our thing,” he recalls, “and my friend says, 'George, I've got these fights from America. These guys fighting in cages.' I'm like, 'Put it on.' He put it on and as soon as he put it on I was like, 'What the fuck is this? It's amazing.'”   Sotiropoulos, at the time, was doing a degree in banking and international trading. He was, therefore, about as far removed from being a fighter as an Australian teenager can be. Not that it mattered. Upon setting eyes on Royce Gracie and his unconventional way of manhandling bigger opponents and forcing them to tap, George was sold. Education, something he valued and continued, soon faded into insignificance.   “It was like the clouds parted, the heavens opened and God shone his light on me and that was it,” he explains. “I didn't share it with too many people because they would have thought I was crazy, but I literally decided there and then, at 19, what I was going to do with my life.   “A couple of weeks later I walked to this Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy, only one of two in the country at the time, in my hometown. I thought, wow, this stuff is everywhere. Anyone can do it.   “I was at university and training jiu-jitsu. My schooling took precedence and I was working towards a degree. It was important to me to achieve that goal. But when I did it just didn't compare to the goal of fighting. I was obsessed with that. It was all I could think about.”   Sotiropoulos wouldn't turn professional as a mixed martial artist until 2004. Opportunities, he says, were anything but rife; early fights in Queensland led to assignments in far-flung places like Guam, Tokyo and Seoul. Indeed, it wasn't until he emerged on season six of The Ultimate Fighter that the name Sotiroupoulos started to resonate among mixed martial arts aficionados.   Yet, such is the mind of the well-travelled, high-performing athlete, it's not memories of time spent on The Ultimate Fighter or even subsequent UFC victories that linger. Instead, when asked to specify career highlights, Sotiropoulos' mind goes back further. Much further. It goes back to quieter, purer times; times few people witnessed, much less remember.   “I don't think people saw my best in the UFC,” he says. “There were fights I had that nobody saw. I had fights outside of the UFC where I performed really well.   “My two fights with Kyle Noke, for example, stand out. We spent a total of eight rounds fighting. That's eight five-minute rounds. That's forty minutes fighting. It was fun. He's a very tough, durable fighter. With him, I basically displayed every facet of the game. I did things in that fight and fought in a way people haven't seen from me since. I respect him. He showed me how durable he is. He's one of the strongest guys I've fought. That guy is tough as nails.   “My other favourite fight was against a gentleman by the name of Sergio Lourenco. He was a Brazilian guy. I think he was a Royler Gracie student. He trained with Cesar Gracie, the Diaz brothers and Jake Shields. All that crew. He was tough. I fought him in Guam in January 2006. We had a really good fight. I really liked that fight because it brought out the best in me. I was in some trouble, some of the toughest positions I was ever in, but I proved a lot to myself. It was definitely a fight that left an impression on me. It was a battle, a fun fight. Enson Inoue was impressed. I met him that night and as a result of that fight he invited me to Japan to fight two Japanese guys. One was Shigetoshi Iwase and that was a good fight. I performed well. He was a tough guy. As Enson said, 'He is no tomato can.'   “Then there was the fight with Shinya Aoki. That fight was kind of anticlimactic because it ended in a disqualification. He caught my foot, there was some battle to escape the foot-lock, and it ended as an anticlimax. There was a build-up and then nothing. I remember it feeling like a let-down.”   One thing Sotiropoulos did take from sharing a ring with Aoki, though, was a love of the rubber guard. It was something he saw his esteemed Japanese foe employ – many times, in fact – and something which would stay with George beyond their damp squib of a scrap in 2006.   “I had first seen Eddie Bravo using his guard techniques in 2001 when I attended Jean Jacques Machado's academy in Los Angeles,” he says. “He was still in the formative stages of his jiu-jitsu but it looked very unorthodox and that appealed to me.”   The rubber guard was to become synonymous with Sotiropoulos due to his frequent use of it while on the UFC roster; it was a branch of his aggressive, suffocating grappling style, a style which saw him secure impressive wins against the likes of Joe Stevenson, Kurt Pellegrino and Joe Lauzon.   In 2010, during the UFC's first venture into Australia, Sotiropoulos utilised a Stevenson takedown attempt in round two of their lightweight fight to showcase, in all its glory, the virtues of the rubber guard before a sold-out crowd of 17,000. Put on his back, George immediately reached for his left foot with his right hand, pulling it towards the shoulder of Stevenson, thus restricting the American's wriggle room and chances of posturing up. Seconds later, George turned it into an omoplata attempt, a move soundtracked by a great roar, and was soon punching Stevenson in the face. Finally, with momentum now on his side, Sotriopoulos used the cage to reverse position and wind up on top of Stevenson in side-control.   Just. Like. That.   “I did very well during that period,” says George, who recorded six straight wins in the UFC. “I was in a very good frame of mind. I had great dedication and focus and was on a rise. I worked very diligently. I really enjoyed that period.   “I read the synopsis to this movie, Vision Quest, about a wrestler, and that was kind of what I was doing – I had a vision quest. I didn't see the movie, I might have just read the synopsis, but the phrase stuck with me.”   He had a vision quest. He did very well. Emphasis on past tense, the assumption when a fighter begins to speak in these terms is that they are moving on with their life and that their new venture, be it the opening of a gym or something else, will herald the arrival of life phase two, three or four. This is true of Sotiropoulos, too. But what also becomes clear is how reluctant he is to leave phase one behind.   “I'm a martial artist for life and this is just another part of my martial arts journey,” he says.   “Do you consider yourself retired?” I ask.   “No,” he says, sounding almost affronted. “I don't.”   Evidently, three years for Sotiropoulos constitutes an interval rather than the end credits and a run of five consecutive defeats serves to represent a dip in form as opposed to an indication of a fighter on the slide. It's a positive, optimistic outlook, I suppose. The outlook of a fighter, some might say.   “If opportunities don't arrive, preparation meets opportunities,” George continues. “That's how I've always approached it. I've never had someone say, 'Hey, do you want to fight for ten grand?' That's a very bad mindset. It doesn't work that way. It works the other way round. You prepare, you prepare, you prepare. You go looking and those opportunities present themselves. That's more my mindset.   “I would never go into anything underprepared. I wouldn't accept anything if I wasn't prepared. It wouldn't even be a question. Well, unless Mr. (Dana) White came knocking on my door and said I'll give you a hundred million dollars to fight so and so. That would be the exception to the rule. You'd have to be a fool to say 'no'.”   It seems sensible to suggest that if a fighter wants to get out – truly get out – they need to create distance, essentially run away, from the sport to which they are drawn. But Sotiropoulos, suitably obsessed, a mixed martial artist, as he says, for life, is still immersed. The gym, the practices, the techniques, the students. For as long as this is his lifestyle, his universe, the thirst to fight will presumably remain unquenched.   “I love martial arts, I love fighting, I love training,” he says. “It's something I got used to doing. Even before I was fighting I was always training for a fight and staying active. It's definitely always on your mind. I exercise, I run, I lift, I do technique, I work on stuff. Not to the extent I once did – not to death – but it's hard to stop completely.”   Keen to get down to it, keen to put a number on it, I ask Sotiropoulos, 14-7, how likely it is we'll see him in a cage or ring again.   “Very possible,” he says. “Very, very possible.”   “A seventy-five percent chance?” I say.   He laughs. “That's a good wager.”

This week, in a Throwback Thursday video special, we look back on a sit-down interview with 'The Count' himself, recently crowned UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping.

Former UFC women's bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey is gracing the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. But rather than donning their model in the traditional swimwear for the magazine, SI took a different approach.

Let the dice decide which 145lb’er is king by playing FO’s fantasy featherweight game – fun for all the family!

One Championship bantamweight champion Bibiano Fernandes' story of his rise through MMA is one of the most inspirational stories in a sport filled with inspiring characters. Hear him tell of his journey in this new video.

British UFC veteran Dan 'The Outlaw' Hardy will swap the Octagon for the Atlantic ocean as a crew member of the Great Britain team for its 5,300-mile month-long opening leg of the famous Clipper 2015-16 Round the World Yacht Race, from London, England to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

UFC welterweight champion 'Ruthless' Robbie Lawler is among the most destructive fighters in his division, so it's no surprise he's a big fan of action movies. Lawler explained his love for action-packed blockbusters in a recent interview with Fighters Only.

Some fighters know they want to be a mixed martial artist the second they see it. Others get that feeling once they've started training for the first time. Then there's Francis Ngannou, who had absolutely no interest in the sport.   That seems hard to believe if you watch 'The Predator' at work in the Octagon. He moves like he was born to compete in a cage. His combination of speed, submission savvy and, of course, power, has combined to earn five victories by stoppage in little more than a year.   The last of those wins – a 93-second extermination of Andrei Arlovski – confirmed the 30-year-old is more than just a prospect. This is the most exciting heavyweight talent since Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos broke out in 2008.   That would not have seemed possible for a man who was born in poverty in Cameroon and experienced such hardship, he’s reluctant to share the details. “I'm not ready to talk about it because it's a difficult story,” Ngannou admits to FO. “I will talk about it when I'm ready.”   When he traveled more than 3,000 miles from Central Africa to Paris, France, an ascension to the top 10 of the UFC's grandest weight class seemed unlikely as he had no money, no friends and no place to live. Even when he started to get on his feet and found a place to train, there was still the issue of his lack of affection for mixed martial arts.   “When I came to France my goal was to be a boxer,” he explains. “I wasn't thinking about MMA because I didn't even know what MMA is. Sometimes I see some MMA fights on TV but I just changed the TV station and I go to watch other things.”   Despite training at a facility named the MMA Factory and pleas from his teammates to give fighting in 4oz gloves a try, Ngannou still dreamed of emulating Mike Tyson rather than Randy Couture. But his coach and mentor, Fernand Lopez, was determined to see him put his considerable physical gifts to good use in a cage instead of a ring.   When the gym was due to close for the holidays, Ngannou was desperate to continue training. He asked Lopez to allow him in during that time and he agreed – on one condition. “He said I should try. That is when I started training. It didn't interest me, but I didn’t have the opportunity to box, so I kept training and they did a lot to keep me at the MMA Factory. I continued and three years later I started fighting.   “I just wanted to have fights to get experience and see what it was like. I won the first one, I lost the second one. I (planned) to win two and leave MMA and say, 'OK, that is my experience, it was a great experience, but now I'm going to go into boxing.' But I don't like to lose. I can't leave something after a loss. I have too much pride, so it didn’t let me leave. I continued to train MMA and had some fights again, and I won.”   After fights in France, Switzerland and Bahrain, Ngannou was 5-1 and one of the most intriguing fighters outside the Americas. Yet the sport still played second fiddle to the sweet science in his heart – until late 2015.   “I was just waiting for an opportunity to do boxing. One day they told me there was a UFC contract for me and I said,” Ngannou hesitates. “'Yes.' Now I accepted that you can prove yourself everywhere. I said, 'Right now I’m going do be an MMA fighter – definitively.'   “Maybe one month after I signed with the UFC I was told I had an opportunity to box, but I told them it was too late. I took what is strong and I continue so I can prove myself here.   “I'm going to learn and anything I can to be the champion here too. My real dream is to be the champion and to prove myself. I need to prove myself because my life is not easy. Not because I have done something wrong, but because life is like that. I didn’t have too much choice for life and I want to prove to myself that I can do something.”   Two fights and three striking stoppages into his Octagon run, this six-foot-four specimen was talked of as a the next great heavyweight knockout artist, but Ngannou is also keen to prove that he’s much more than just a puncher. While it's still his preferred way of putting an exclamation point on a contest, he won’t rely on it.   From the moment MMA became his full-time concern, he has committed to completing his arsenal. We've already had a taste of his grappling skills with a slick kimura of Anthony Hamilton.   “I still love boxing but I don't dream about boxing anymore. Since I got the UFC contract, I said this was an opportunity. I can prove something here. Right now I'm going to convert myself into an MMA fighter.   “I like to knock out, I like punches, but I know that someone can have good timing and take you down or pin you on the cage. I prepare myself to be able to control the situation all the time and win the fight everywhere. I like the knockouts, but I like to win – so much.   “Everyone is dangerous so if you have any opportunity to win, you just take it. You can't say, ‘I don't want to win here, I don’t want to submit, I just want to knock out.’ Win, and after, the next one, maybe you knock out.”   Conveniently, Ngannou is so skilled in the striking department that four of his five UFC wins have come by KO or TKO. The ‘Performance of the Night’ against former champion Arlovski was his quickest and most impressive yet, raising his ranking to five in the promotion's official list. Inevitably that has amplified talk of this new threat's title chances. Some say he could even get there this year.   Ngannou is cautious but confident about his chances: “I don't know if that would be possible this year, but the thing I want, and will do everything to make that possible, is to win every fight they give me. I want to win every one and if you win every one, even if it is 2018, it will be the same title shot as if they give me the title shot in 2017.   “So, grow step by step, grow smartly and take care of everyone. Be smart, control yourself, control your body. I know I can have a title shot soon. Maybe 2017, but 2018 is no problem for me. I just want to win my fights.”   *** Feature originally published in the April 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***  

It took Cody Garbrandt 12 months to go from unranked UFC newcomer to undisputed world champion and number one 135lb fighter on the planet. And people still believe that dreams don't come true. Few gave the Team Alpha Male prodigy much chance against the best bantamweight MMA has ever seen in Dominick Cruz, in the penultimate Octagon fight of 2016. But the challenger harbored a secret the world was yet to discover – he was simply better than the champion.   It took the heavily-inked 25-year-old – who has 'SELF MADE' imprinted on his throat under a winged diamond – less than 10 minutes to break Cruz, and a further 15 to destroy everything the former champion had built during a two-part, six-year unbeaten reign as 135lb champion – first with WEC, then the UFC.   Dubbed by some as the greatest performance by a title challenger in UFC history – even overshadowing the display former teammate and now increasingly bitter rival TJ Dillashaw produced against Renan Barao in May 2014 – Garbrandt couldn't have timed his inauguration as champion any better.   Minutes later in the same cage the UFC would bid a sorrowful farewell to one prized PPV star when Ronda Rousey's return was ruled redundant by Amanda Nunes. Yet if ‘Rowdy's days are indeed numbered, at least Cody Garbrandt's are just beginning.     ZERO TO HERO   Randy Couture once said: “I’m not scared to fail. I'm not scared to lose. I'm not scared to die, for that matter... It's going to work out the way it's supposed to work out.” Those are words that resonate with Garbrandt.   A self-confessed street punk who was misguided and at times out of control, with little interest in education, there was only one thing in life that satisfied his soul: fighting. He's been doing it since before he can remember. He was taken to boxing classes by his uncle aged four. Growing with seven other siblings – including three other brothers – it's no surprise Garbrandt learnt to fight. He had no other choice.   “I barely finished high school. I struggled to learn to read. I’m a street punk from Ohio. But I’m proud of who I am and I don't pretend to be anything else,” Garbrandt admits. “Listen, I love fighting. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fighting, whether it was in the street or boxing.   “I always had fun fighting. It always made sense to me. It’s my true passion and I never don’t have fun if I’m fighting, even when I get my ass beat. Because I know I’ll learn either way.”   He adds: “I’m not afraid to lose. I think that's something a lot of fighters struggle with. But it's not something that worries me at all. I've lost before. I've been knocked out before, so I've been at the very bottom working my ay back up. So returning to that place holds no fears for me. I've fought my way from nothing to the top before, and if I had to I could do it again. That gives me so much freedom.”   That freedom has enabled Garbrandt to achieve something few outside of his Sacramento base at Team Alpha Male thought possible. The gym's long-running feud with Dominick Cruz was a scar on the gym's legacy. Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez and TJ Dillashaw had faced the champion a combined five times without success.   At the start of 2016, as he walked to the Octagon to face Augusto Mendes, who had stepped in at a week's notice to replace John Lineker in Pittsburgh, Garbrandt's chances of facing Cruz any time soon and redeeming the team looked remote. Just 7-0, few fans knew too much of the man dubbed 'No Love' outside of his TUF spat with Conor McGregor six months earlier.   However, Garbrandt insists he was focused on beating Cruz and becoming UFC champion for some time: “I’ve been dreaming of being UFC champ for nearly 13 years and I have so many people to thank who have been on this journey with me. It’s such a surreal moment for me and my family and my coaches. It was amazing.   “I always believed. I always knew I could win the title. But it feels ever better. To live my dream, to defeat a great champion – it’s a special thing. Once I set my mind to something, and I dream about it and work for it 110% every day, then I know I can achieve anything. I believed I would become the champion and even though I started 2016 unranked I was still confident I would make it happen.”   It only took three first-round right hands to get within striking distance of his dream. First Mendes was dropped and stopped courtesy of an overhand right in Pennsylvania in February. Then the much-fancied Thomas Almeida, himself unbeaten in 21 fights with 17 knockouts, was pinned up against the fence and dispatched with a straight right in May.   Then Takeya Mizugaka kissed the right hand in August at UFC 202 to add Garbrandt into the title equation – and make a decade-old prediction become a reality. It was back in high school that Grabrandt first made his UFC title intentions clear, writing in a paper how he would become champion before 2017. And the win over Mizugaki at least ensured opportunity would knock.   “People thought I was living a fairy tale at times but I knew if I wanted it enough, worked hard enough and kept my sights on the goal I would make it,” Garbrandt states. “Of course to achieve my dream with just two days to spare is incredible really. But at no point in time did I ever doubt I would do it.   “I like to write down my goals. It’s a Team Alpha Male thing. We all do it. We all write down our goals for the month, for the year, for the future. And top of my list was always to be UFC champion. That was one of the first notes I wrote down when I arrived in California and it’s always stayed at the top. It reads, ‘UFC champion by 2017’ – and I did it.”     STYLE & SUBSTANCE   Garbrandt didn’t just do it. He did in style. Not only did he defeat the most successful champion the bantamweight class has ever seen, he battered him. He beat him at his own game. His footwork and counter punching were just too slick and smart for the now former champion, a man who so often has been impossible to hit. At times, it seemed like Garbrandt couldn't miss.   “I put on a masterful performance against one of the greatest champions there is,” Garbrandt said. “It’s because I live in the present. It was my first title fight and you only get one of those. So I was determined to enjoy it. I honestly didn’t want the fight to end. I gave him a beatdown. I could have finished the fight, but I wanted to go the full five rounds, I didn’t want it to end.   “He was one of the greatest and I knew he would bring out the best in me. But this is just the start of what I can do. I know I’m just getting started and there’s so much more to come from me. This is the beginning of my legacy.”   The judges at UFC 207 gave Garbrandt the fight by a clear unanimous margin. But there was no suspense before Bruce Buffer read their decision. There wasn't a soul inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas that didn't realize the coronation of a new king was about to take place. Indeed, even Cruz knew and praised his conqueror for his performance.   Cruz was teed off on, smack-talked at and even forced to watch some improvised breakdancing after his punches whistled past his intended target. Rocked in the first, staggered in the second, at times the former champion just couldn't get out of the way of Garbrandt's piston-like punches.   Of course, while the performance itself stunned Planet MMA, Garbrandt was confident that would happen. He's adamant his speed and power would always be an equalizer against Cruz's unorthodox movement and switch hitting.   “I knew by studying his movements that I would be able to catch him. I've always known it,” Garbrandt says with a shrug. “I was too quick for him. This was a guy who claims to be a ghost, someone that doesn’t get hit. But he was nothing. I was hitting and hurting him and I was telling him during the fight, ‘That hurt you.’ And he was like, ‘That didn’t hurt,’ and I was laughing back.”   The real turning point seemed to come when a Garbrandt knee opened up a cut over Cruz's left eye. Cody says he knew the fight was his from that point.   “When I cut him, the way that he reacted, – his pupils got really big when he saw the blood, and he panicked. He was in trouble so I said, ‘Hey Dom are you still having fun?’ When he didn’t answer me back I knew it was my fight. I turned it up again then, but I was having so much fun in there.”   ***   Unbeaten since 2007, Cruz's demise was one of the biggest shocks of 2016 – outside of Team Garbrandt's circles of course. But perhaps even more impressive is the way the new champion’s public persona has enjoyed a complete reversal in light of his 207 exploits, both inside and outside the cage.   Garbrandt's friendship with young leukemia survivor Maddux Maple has peeled back the heavily-inked skin and R-rated trash talk to reveal the soul of a genuine role model. It showed that his nickname couldn’t be further from the truth. Garbrandt is from the wrong side of the tracks, but he's proven himself to be a far more of a hero than a villain.   “I was being billed as the bad guy in this fight, like I have been in other fights too. The neck tattoo and the background kind of makes that happen, but Cruz played on that too,” Garbrandt says. “Cruz was talking s**t in the run up to the fight. Believe me, on camera he’s completely different from what he’s like off camera. So I called him out on that.   “But I was just me right the way through. He was the one trying to bill me as the bad guy. But I’m just me: raw, emotional, passionate. I say it like it is, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in control. He puts on a front for the TV, but I am what I am.”   There's no hiding behind the ink any more though. Planet MMA has a new star on its hands in Garbrandt and 2017 could be the year he becomes a pay-per-view star in his own right. He can begin his climb up MMA’s money ladder with a grudge match against Team Alpha Male exile TJ Dillashaw. Anticipation for that fight is bound to generate new levels of anticipation after what promises to be a fractious season of The Ultimate Fighter.   His former teammate is unlikely to be a pushover, but typically, Garbrandt is not just thinking about what comes next. After all, now he's on top he wants to get paid. Whether that’s by fighting Cruz again or aiming higher.   “I became better fighter in the Cruz fight,” he adds, “and while there’s definitely a second fight to come with us – although, I’ll knock him out in the second round next time – there are other fights out there that interest me.   “Conor McGregor is obviously the money fight and we have a little history already, so I'd move up to 150lb for that fight for sure. My homie Nate Diaz choked him out, and I still can’t believe that McGregor is ranked number two on the pound-for-pound list. So I’d love to go up for that fight.   “I know I’m a draw now so I just want the biggest money fight out there. Whether that’s Cruz, Dillashaw or even José Aldo, I’m in this to get paid so I’ll fight any of those guys. Whatever makes the most money. Whatever benefits me. I’m the champ. I’m the number one. I’m the draw. I just beat a great handily so whatever is next needs to pay and be a challenge. I’d like to fight Aldo or Conor.”   Few people believed in Cody Garbrandt in high school. Few people believed in him in MMA. But he closed out 2016 as a champion, and now very few people would bet against him becoming one of the sport's biggest and most colorful stars.   *** Feature originally published in the March 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***  

If a happy fighter is a dangerous fighter then Tom Breese may have to be accompanied by a parental warning sticker when he makes his walk to the Octagon at UFC Fight Night London tomorrow night.

The former light heavyweight champion starts his rebuilding process in Ireland this weekend, and tells FO he's ready to run through late replacement opponent Brett McDermott en-route to regaining the Bellator title belt.

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