The KSW Heavyweight champion on fighting in the cage and anxiety outside it.
At 32 years of age, Phil De Fries’ MMA career has already undergone the full life cycle of the most grizzled fight veteran. But the Sunderland heavyweight is only just getting started.
A 4/1 against underdog going into his fight against the dangerous knockout artist, Michal Andryszak, De Fries’ stirring first-round TKO victory signalled a turning point in his fighting career. It was the first time De Fries had won a third consecutive fight since his undefeated record was stopped by former UFC heavyweight champion, Stipe Miocic in 2012. To make it sweeter, it meant that he won the KSW heavyweight title in his promotional debut.
Come October 6, De Fries will be defending his heavyweight crown against Poland’s Karol Bedorf at KSW 45 at the SSE Arena in Wembley, London in what looks set to be the biggest fight of his career so far.
But De Fries’ battles outside the cage have been just as trying as those inside it, and he is now confident he has finally overcome the crippling anxiety which has plagued him for the bulk of his life.
De Fries entered the UFC as an unbeaten 25-year-old and won his debut bout against fellow Brit Rob Broughton in 2011, but was well and truly, thrown to the wolves, when he was matched against Miocic in only his second UFC fight. De Fries himself admits that his UFC shot maybe came a little too soon.
“When I was in the UFC, I suffered from anxiety a lot,” De Fries explains. “After my time with the UFC, I fought in Japan and I got beat by a guy I shouldn’t have, and I thought to myself: ‘What’s going on?’ It was then when I realised that I had been suffering from crippling anxiety. From there, I went to see a therapist and got myself on medication and I’ve managed to beat it. I’m feeling great these days and it’s translated to my fighting.
“I’m riding a good win streak, but my self-belief has increased a lot. All things considered, I did pretty well in MMA without that self-belief, but now I’m at the stage where I really feel I can get out there and beat the best on the planet.”
De Fries partially credits the losses he experienced in his 2-3 UFC run to his battles with anxiety. “A lot of the fights I lost in the UFC were because I bottled it with all those nerves,” he reasons candidly. “The mental aspect is so important. When I went in to fight, I was incredibly fit and I had been training with the best camps, but I would bottle it. I had no chance of winning. If you’re scared, you’re gonna get beat no matter how fit you are.
“I didn’t even know anxiety existed,” he continues. “I thought that was just me. I was terrified of everything and I thought that was just who I was until I did my research. I have suffered with this my entire life. When I got it diagnosed and fixed, I thought I should get it out there and share my experiences. It affects everyone and I have so many people coming up to me and talking about their battles.”
While fighting produces its own unique, inevitable anxieties, De Fries struggled with it in multiple aspects of his life – even the mundane.
It’s an issue shared by his family. De Fries tells of his Dad suffering from severe anxiety which stopped him from getting a paper round aged 11, as his father was concerned the taxman could come calling to arrest them both.
“My main thing was phone calls. Ahead of a phone call interview, I’d be absolutely terrified. ‘What if I say something stupid?’ ‘What if he hates me?’ ‘What if he calls me a w*nker?’ If that’s how scared you are of a phone call, imagine how scared you’re going to be fighting Stipe Miocic?
“Looking back, I don’t know why I got into fighting,” he continues. “I hated training. I hated sparring. And when I fought, I was so terrified. I have no idea why I put myself through any of that. Now, I feel like my past experiences are like a superpower because when I walk backstage, it’s nothing like before and I’m actually looking forward to the fight.”
De Fries’ upsurge in self-belief is matched by his fighting form. With his first KSW title defence coming up against former champion Bedorf, he feels right at home with the Polish promotion and is full of confidence after previously being an MMA nomad, fighting all over the world.
“I feel totally at home at KSW,” De Fries acknowledges. “They really look after you and put a fortune into MMA. Have you seen their promotional videos? They’re fantastic. The KSW owners are millionaires but make real time for their fighters and have conversations with you, asking how you are.
“I’ve never felt as valued as I have at KSW,” he continues. “The amount of time they spend on you, they put you in nice hotels, they spend a lot more money and resources promoting you. They’re great. KSW have definitely treated me better than any other promotion has.”
And KSW will have to promote him for the foreseeable future if he has anything to do with it as De Fries aims for a long reign as KSW heavyweight champion.
“Bedorf is a good opponent, he’s got a better record than me, but I don’t think he’s been in with the same calibre of opponent I have. If he fought Andryszak, I think he’d be the underdog. He’s a different kind of fight, though.
“I think I’ll get a TKO win inside three rounds. I’m not going to rush it, but it’s better to start fast and be knackered in the fourth and fifth rounds than start slow and get clipped in the opening rounds. I’ll always be a fast starter so I’m going for the TKO in the first few rounds.”
KSW 45 takes place in Wembley’s SSE Arena on Saturday 6th October.