Before the stars of UFC 286 faced off at the ceremonial weigh-ins, the fans inside The O2 Arena were given a special treat as they took part in a special fan Q&A session with a panel of UFC legends.
Ian Freeman, Brad Pickett, Jimi Manuwa, Tom Aspinall, and Michael Bisping joined British UFC commentator John Gooden on stage at The O2, where they shared stories about their careers and gave their views on the sport of MMA today.
The first man on the stage was Freeman, who picked up a huge win at the UFC’s first ever show in London, UFC 28 at the Royal Albert Hall, where he stunned then-undefeated contender Frank Mir to the delight of the UK fans.
Freeman took the opportunity to step into the modern-day Octagon backstage before the Q&A, and he revealed how special the moment was for him as all of his great MMA memories came flooding back.
“Oh yeah. 2000 was the year that I started the UFC – 23 years ago. Oh my God!” he said.
“Yeah, so to step in there, the feelings come back. The good thing is there wasn’t an opponent opposite me so I was alright! But the feeling, it just brings that buzz back.
“There’s nothing can give a buzz like standing in the Octagon. It beats any drug, any drink… I was gonna say any women, but I’d be lying! But man, what a feeling! That is unbelievable.”
Freeman’s first-round finish of Mir at “The Brawl at The Hall” was a watershed moment for UK MMA on the world stage, and “The Machine” admitted that fight – his first in the UFC – was the pinnacle of his fighting career.
“Well, that obviously it has to be the best (moment). Everyone speaks about that one,” he said.
“He was unbeaten. He was the UFC poster boy. I was never supposed to win that fight, you know? I had another person on my side. I had just lost my father, so nobody could have beat me that night. I was on fire, I was on form. Definitely the best fight of my career.”
Freeman seemed to relish being on stage with a host of UK MMA stars who had followed in his footsteps, and he had a word for another UK legend of UFC 38 who is also a part of the fight week festivities in London.
Mark “The Wizard” Weir scored the fastest knockout in UFC history at the time with a stunning 10-second finish of Eugene Jackson at the Royal Albert Hall, and he is in London as the coach and mentor of emerging UK star and former Cage Warriors middleweight champion Christian Leroy Duncan, who will make his Octagon debut at UFC 286.
“Mark’s actually backstage. He’s backstage and I’ve just just seen him. Great to see him again after all these years,” said Freeman.
“We were just talking. Me and Mike (Bisping) haven’t seen each other for 10 years. But you know that you’ve got a close bond when you see each other and it’s just like yesterday, isn’t it? You know, so it’s good.
“Mike has gone on to do some amazing things – more than I ever achieved –and I’m so proud of that man. For those that don’t know, we used to be sparring partners back in the day. I helped get Mike ready for some of his UFC fights so it’s nice to see what he’s achieved.”
“The Machine” also revealed a common issue suffered by fighters who struggle to replace the buzz of fighting after they retire.
“We’ve just been speaking about this actually on the way over here on the bus,” he said.
“Most fighters, when they’re at the top of the game, not even on the top of the game, but winning fights, it’s a drug that you cannot replace. And then when they retire, there’s a lot of mental health (issues) in the fight game.
“You will be surprised at how many fighters have retired and their mental health has deteriorated. What have I done? Save lives (as a) paramedic? That’s what I do now. That’s my buzz.”
Freeman was also on hand to offer some sage advice to young fans who told the panel they were looking to embark on competitive careers in MMA themselves.
“Doubt is the biggest killer in any fighter,” he told one fan, who was preparing to compete in his first MMA bout.
“Have a trained hard enough? Has he been training harder than me? When you get backstage and you’re shaking and you can’t hit the pads, just flick the switch. You know what you’ve done, you know what your coach has done for you, you know how good you are. Be positive!”
Another fan, a nine-year-old looking to start training, also received words of support and encouragement from the UK MMA legend.
“How old are you? Nine? Nine years old? I’ve got dirty socks under my bed older than you!” he grinned.
“Nine years old is the perfect age to start – the younger, the better. For jiu-jitsu? Yes, definitely jiu-jitsu and wrestling, if you want to go to the ground. You keep it up. I’m proud of you!”