Scottish lightweight contender Stevie Ray fell agonizingly short of capturing one million dollars in the 2022 PFL lightweight final. Now he finds himself back at the beginning as he prepares to embark on another tough season on his quest to become PFL champion.
Ray lost out to Canada’s Olivier Aubin-Mercier in the final last November, but along the way, the Scot proved his mettle with back-to-back victories over former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, with the first win coming via a rarely-seen twister submission.
Ray kicks off his 2023 PFL lightweight campaign against former two-time PFL champion Natan Schulte at PFL 3 in Las Vegas this weekend. And, chatting to the media ahead of the bout, Ray admitted that motivating himself to get back on the horse after falling at the final hurdle was a tough obstacle to overcome.
“Yeah, it was mixed emotions, it always is with this sport, you know? The highest of highs, the lowest of lows,” he said.
“I did struggle after that loss, motivation-wise (knowing I’d be) going through another grueling year. The motivation wasn’t great at the start of the camp, to get back to training and all that.
“But, now that we’re closer, and when I got an opponent, I’m motivated now. I got knocked down, (so I’ll) get back up again and try again. I know that I’m potentially four fights away from one million dollars again. So yeah, one fight at the time, and go in there and smash it.”
Schulte has redemption on his mind, too. The Brazilian captured PFL lightweight gold twice in 2018 and 2019, but since the pandemic he’s found life in the PFL a much tougher proposition. He missed the playoffs in both 2021 and 2022, and is looking to return to form by making a winning start to his 2023 campaign.
“He’s a good opponent,” said Ray.
“He’s well rounded. To be honest, everybody in the division (is), you know?
“Natan looks fairly well-rounded. I do believe I’m better on the ground, and on the feet. I’ll give him the judo advantage. He’s got an advantage in the judo, but we’re not doing judo.
“I’m not being overly confident, he is dangerous. Most judo guys, when they get on top of you, they’re heavy, they’re strong. That’s what I see from watching him fight. Grappling-wise, he likes the choke, like most judo guys do. Some judo guys like armbars.
“On the feet, he’s a bit like a zombie – he just comes forward and absorbs the shots. Not the best IQ, actually, because he’s done that sometimes and just because you’re coming forward… like when he fought Olivier, he was getting pieced up. It was a close fight, but he lost that fight by plodding forward and getting hit. He’s a good opponent, but I believe I’m better.”
While Ray is confident that he has the tools to defeat Schulte and get his season off to a winning start, he admitted that he has another target in his sights, which he intends to pursue, regardless of wins and losses inside the PFL SmartCage.
That aim is to fight back on European soil once again. The nature of the PFL’s 2022 playoffs meant that Ray and his fellow lightweights competed in New York City, while other weight classes competed in London, England and Cardiff, Wales.
“Yeah, I was a wee bit gutted,” he admitted.
“Adding them both up, they came to the UK twice and I was on none of the cards, but then at the same time, I twistered Pettis at Madison Square Garden, so yeah. That was obviously really cool to fight in Madison Square Garden, but when I was at the UK shows I was like ‘Oh f**k, it would have been so cool to fight on these cards.’”
Ray said he hopes to be able to work his way into a fight card on European soil in 2023, both for his own enjoyment, but also for his passionate fanbase, who haven’t had the chance to support him in Europe since 2019, when he was in the UFC.
“I’ve got quite a crazy fanbase,” he stated.
“If you go and watch any of the UFC Scotland fights, even if you watch them back, everybody you can hear is chanting ‘Stevie, Stevie F**king Ray!’ It’s quite rare to hear that, so vocal.
“So it’d be good to give back to all my fans, because for a lot of them obviously it’s a struggle to come away to Vegas and watch me fight, so I’m hoping they’re coming to Europe at some point because I’m hoping to make the playoffs.
“If they come to the UK for the playoffs, I hope it’s my weight class. If not, just put me and another guy on it. Then I was thinking if I didn’t make the playoffs, it’d be cool to maybe just fight on one of the European cards anyway.
“They’re going to France in September, then Dublin in December – that would be cool to fight on that card if obviously things didn’t go to plan. So I’ve got a Plan A and Plan B.”