By Alistair Hendrie
“Grinding away at work is just a nightmare and I can’t wait until I don’t have to do it anymore,” says the Cage Warriors lightweight champion, Jai Herbert, who lets out a sigh as he tells Fighters Only about his job in Wolverhampton as a scaffolder. “It’s mad, the winter is the worst time when everything is frozen outside and you still have to go and put scaffolding up. I’ll be out of the door by about 6 in the morning and it’s just horrendous. I just think to myself, I can’t wait to get rid of this.”
With the way Herbert has taken to professional MMA, though, winning nine and losing only one of his paid outings thus far, Jai’s mornings scaling up and down steel structures may soon be a thing of the past. A tall 155lb’er with a rapid jab, Herbert won his title in June when he pulled the plug on Jack Grant with sustained hooks, crosses and shovel punches that crashed through his rival’s defences.
Next up for Herbert, on Saturday, is the first defence of his crown against Cain Carrizosa in Birmingham at Cage Warriors 109. Then it will be back to work for one of Europe’s hottest talents. “Now that I’ve got the title I’ve had four weeks off work to finish my camp, but obviously I’ll be back in next Monday,” he says.
“I can’t stand it, mate, but it’s all about the people you meet – it’s sound, it’s a bit of a laugh. A lot of people I meet through work come and watch my fights, man, people from Birmingham, Manchester, London, Newcastle, some really good lads… They love to come and watch the fights.
“It is quite difficult to balance work and fighting, though,” he admits. “I’ll start work at 6am and get home by 5pm. I’ve got time for a cup of coffee or whatever, and then if I’m training in Birmingham, I’ll have to travel for an hour, train for two hours, come home, and by then it’s 10pm. It’s a long day, you know what I mean?”
That kind of grind, we all know, signifies the life of a fighter. The 31-year-old was “hyperactive and aggressive” as a child and says he was always getting into trouble at school. “I had a few fights,” he confesses, but he says he never looked for confrontation. His problem was, growing up in Wolverhampton, he had to learn how to fight. Gangs roamed the streets and survival was the number one objective.
“I come from a rough area – I wouldn’t say I was always getting into fights, but coming from my part of Wolverhampton, you had to learn how to look after yourself and stick up for yourself. How can I put this…? I’ve been in worse scenarios than an MMA fight, so growing up in that kind of environment prepared me for the pressure of fighting.”
A big Georges St-Pierre fan, Herbert believes his formative years – during which he also excelled at rugby – gave him the mental toughness required to succeed as an athlete. “My dad took me down to a local rugby club because he thought it would be a good idea for me to channel amy aggression and energy into a sport. I did really well at it, man. I played it from about six until 13 or 14, and ended up representing Wolverhampton all over Britain.”
By then, years before he entered the construction industry, Herbert would watch hours of Bravo’s UFC coverage and decided he’d found his passion. Rugby took a back seat and MMA became his life. “There was a gym down the road from me, Wolfpack MMA in Wolverhampton, so I thought I’d pop down there. Initially there was a lot of rough lads there and I thought, bloody hell, I’m going to get battered here.
“At first it was tough – I could always fight because of my time on the streets but in terms of learning the grappling aspects of MMA, I used to get choked out right, left and centre. I also visited a second gym in the area called Firewalker which specialised in kickboxing and boxing. Even then, I was
getting pinged all over the place but I thought I’d stick at it. It was a new experience for me, man, but I prevailed and now I love MMA and I’ve made some of my closest from through the sport.
“Seven or eight years later, next thing you know…” Jai pauses, puffing out his cheeks, “I’m a Cage Warriors world champion.” The Black Country native’s rise can be accounted for by his time on the mats at Team Renegade Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Birmingham.
An hour or so down the M6 from Wolverhampton, nestled in a mish-mash of shops and pubs near Highbury Park, the gym plays host to many of Britain’s most dangerous up-and-comers such as UFC middleweight man-mountain Tom Breese, UFC welterweight contender Leon Edwards and his brother, Bellator middleweight pretender Fabian Edwards.
“I learn from everyone at the gym,” says Herbert. “Fabian is a really, really good striker, a good all-rounder. He’s very… what’s the word?… particular about certain things in striking. Aiden Lee is another good prospect at our gym, his jiu jitsu is out of this world. I’ve also got top class striking coaches at Firewalker like Kirkwood Walker and Joby Clayton – Walker trains some top class boxers and world class kickboxers who’ve won world titles.”
Much has been made of Leon Edwards’ success away from the States, but has Herbert considered flying Stateside to supplement his skills? “I ain’t going to America, I don’t need to. I’ve got the best coaches here in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. I quite like watching K1 and Glory, so I’ve thought of going across to Holland for a training camp. I admire some of those kickboxers like Marat Grigorian and Tyjani Beztati, so I’d love to train with them one day.”
It seems the Midlander is in a good place, despite toiling on building sites in Wolverhampton for ten hours a day alongside his fighting exploits. He loves attending the gym, is working on his craft every day, and now he’s set a bullseye across Carrizosa’s chest.
The 33-year-old arrived in the UFC for his seventh professional encounter in 2014, perhaps a little wet behind the ears, and he lost both of his visits to the Octagon. The Californian has since gone on a four-fight winning streak, and although Herbert has his own hopes for a UFC contract, he’s not taking this weekend’s opponent for granted.
“I think he’ll be tricky off his back and I’ll have to be careful in those situations. He’s very crafty and I know if it goes to the ground he could jump on a submission so I’ll have to keep my shape and be aware of the scrambles. I’ll have to keep my wits about me, maintain my range and stay loose. I think he’ll be very crafty.”
It’s perhaps Herbert’s blue collar background that has helped him conquer the likes of Grant, Joe McColgan and Steve O’Keefe at Cage Warriors. Maybe those early wake-up calls and endless days propping up scaffolding have given Herbert another layer of determination. If that’s the case, you can be sure he’ll be swapping his hard hat for a pair of UFC gloves in the near future.
“I feel like I’m levels above everyone else in the division to be honest with you. I feel like I’m learning all the time, you know what I mean? I haven’t got an ego and I learn from everyone in the gym, whether they’ve had two amateur fights or twenty professional fights. If they’re telling you something that works you should always listen. I just feel it’s time for me start moving on to face world class fighters all over the world. At the moment I’m focused on beating Carrizosa but then I’ll think about the UFC after.”
Check out more of Alistair Hendrie’s work with his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, which features insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and many more.