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Two distinct groups have emerged in MMA over the last year, with Conor McGregor on one side and everyone else on the other. He has shattered pay-per-view records, brought home unprecedented pay and taken himself to a place no mixed martial artist ever has been. McGregor is playing a game with which we are not familiar.
That has been the case for quite a while in Ireland. Even when McGregor, to quote “Mystic Mac” himself, “hadn’t a pot to piss in,” he was still quite different from other fighters. He had the championship potential, the personality and the star quality. For better or worse, McGregor and his ravenous fans have for many become the face of Irish MMA. To an extent, that’s accurate. A huge wave of new fans came to the sport through McGregor and everything he brings to the table. However, there’s another side to MMA in Ireland.
Yes, there’s a side to the sport that was there before McGregormania went into effect, from people who were involved in local MMA clubs and taking jiu-jitsu classes to those who stayed up until 6 a.m. to catch the latest cage fighting event on the other side of the world. That group is mirrored in the Ultimate Fighting Championship by Neil Seery, a man who will fight for the last time at UFC Fight Night 99 on Saturday at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Like many of those longtime fans, Seery works full-time to support a family he adores. The one difference: While they are driving to work in the morning, he is running to his job to incorporate extra cardio before getting in a few additional hours of night training with his Team Ryano brethren on the north side of the capital. That commitment, sometimes in spite of circumstance, made Seery a working-class hero for many of his countrymen. This is a man who for years competed two and three divisions above his normal weight class simply because most places did not cater to flyweights. When he was finally afforded the opportunity to take on opponents his own size, he fought back from a .500 record, ran through a host of talented local fighters and claimed the Cage Warriors Fighting Championship title before being signed by the UFC.
Over the last few years, Seery has for various reasons become something of a cult figure among MMA fans. The first and most important reason is the spirit with which he competes. When he fights, win or lose, Seery always puts on a show. Plenty of people make such a claim because it gives them an out, but Seery lives it. Against talented opponents like Jon delos Reyes, Brad Pickett, Chris Wade, Kyoji Horiguchi and Louis Smolka, he produced some phenomenal martial arts displays for a man who is now 37 years of age. When he wins, he never slows down, and when he loses, he refuses to give in. That garners respect and brings affection.
Seery also drew affection outside the cage. He is what we refer to in Ireland as a rogue. Using his quick wit and charm, he has fun with teammates, fans and opponents in a way that’s all his own; and while he loves a good joke, Seery also has a serious side, especially when it comes to athletes trying to make their way in MMA like he did.
In an interview with SevereMMA earlier this year, Seery spoke about the pitfalls associated with MMA and why prospective fighters should always have a back-up plan. Not everyone can be as successful as McGregor.
“I’m walking into the gym the same way as everyone else, and you see nobody has any jobs. Everybody is standing there scratching their arse, crawling out of bed, strolling into the gym at 12 o’clock,” he said. “You have to have some sort of income. You can be the best -- nobody is saying you can’t be the best -- [and] get out there and enjoy your training, but you have to have some kind of financial security. This is how hard I work, and I can still fight at the top level.”
That really is the mark of the man. He would rather hold himself as an example than to look back at the way his career went with any sort of disdain, despite the fact he spent most of his time as a pro dealing with situations where it was practically impossible for him to prosper. Had he been younger when the flyweight division finally arrived on the scene, Seery would have been a top-ranked fighter at 125 pounds for years. He could have made MMA a full-time pursuit. With Seery, however, you get the feeling that he’s happier looking forward than backward.
Upon announcing his intention to retire, Seery spoke of how he looked forward to a lighter schedule and spending more time watching his kids grow up. No one can begrudge him of that. Before he walks off into sunset, however, Seery will take on Ian McCall at UFC Fight Night “Mousasi vs. Hall 2.” Has there ever been more appropriate matchmaking? McCall has had a long list of recent opponents withdraw from fights -- “Uncle Creepy” has not fought in almost two years -- but there were no such concerns with Seery; he has always been game to fight anyone.
McCall was for years the top dog at 125 pounds without ever really getting the recognition he deserved. He was the king of the flyweights when the king had no crown. Seery knows this. His final fight will come against an opponent he has known and respected for years. Win or lose, he will bring the fight, an Irish MMA O.G. inside the cage with 9,000 of his closest friends rooting him on.