“There is no glory without sacrifice.” – Filipino Proverb
There is a reason every fight movie you have ever seen has some concept of redemption at its core. The ‘against all odds’ ideology is woven into the fabric of the sport – nowhere is this more true than in the murky world of up-and-comer MMA.
Brutal injuries, last minute opponent pull outs & the spectre of money woes are the day to day reality for hundreds of budding fighters across the scene in Europe.
For most of these men and women, the Hollywood ending and a contract with the bright lights of the UFC is the rarest of outcomes. The ability to swim the currents on the outskirts of the most gruelling sport in the world and survive is one only a few possess. The ones that make it aren’t easily discouraged.
Will Fleury is one of those few.
I meet him in the reception of SBG Concorde in Dublin – Fleury is a big guy at 6 ft 3, but as affable as they come. His huge handlebar moustache and massive grin gives off the sense of a gentle giant. But beneath the friendly exterior, there’s a grit to him born from battling a mountain of setbacks. Speaking to him, it is immediately apparent they only seem to have fuelled him further.
“I’m lucky, I don’t seem to have lost the bug…..There’s always something pushing you down, I’m like ‘I’m going to beat this’. Maybe they’ve been of benefit, in giving me that hunger. I am super hungry. Everybody is going to know. There’s been a tonne of work here and it hasn’t really gotten exposed yet.””
The Tipperary man knows what it means to take a knock and keep moving. Indeed his own entry into the sport came courtesy of a crushed foot during a game of rugby. His rehab lead him to boxing training, and from there it was only a short step to the cage.
“I went off to America, broke the foot there. When I came back I ended up working with Stuart Dollery who owned the boxing clinic. Doing a load of boxing footwork – and he just roped me in.”
How did people back home feel about his new direction?
“There was a lot of questions. I think now it’s been a benevolent acceptance. They say ‘Ah sure, we’ll leave him at it!’ ”
Is that a different attitude from the people he’s met in the game since?
“Definitely. I think they want you to do well up to a point. In here (SBG) it’s different. I’ve met some super supportive people. They are used to success here. It’s clearly the goal.”
You had a stellar amateur career (7-0). Did you know you were ready?
“I started fighting in 2012, but I started training in 2010. Myself and Ciaran Daly, an amazing amateur – I think he went 9-0, he was my main training partner. Drove each other on massively. He had this attitude of, I’m good enough and you’re good enough and we’re going to make it.”
Whats your impression of the explosion in MMA’s popularity, and how did it affect you?
“Jake Hecht came over, and he made it into the UFC while he was training with us. I never felt there was a huge gap there….He was able to beat the crap out of me, but in two years I knew I’d be there. Then Conor, UFC Dublin 2014 and all of that happened. I was back in Tipperary in Shanbally and I remember everyone was outside and I was in glued to the TV….This was huge. This was changing the landscape.”
Fleury’s own billboard moment came in his destruction of Kyle McClurkin in the 2nd minute of his debut fight. He drops McClurkin with a savage looping hook and finishes him on the deck. When the ref pulled him free, Fleury let out a primal bellow.
What was that like?
“It was a release. I’d given up a tonne to get to that point. I had moved back from London, I’d had my first fight cancelled. I had another 3 fights cancelled. There was a long build up. When I won my first fight nobody really cared. I knew how good I was, and I could see I was at good level. Everyone thinks I’m pretty good, so get in there prove it. Kyle is probably the best lad I’ve ever fought. Solid all rounder. I was so calm. Like, I am going to figure him out. He was winning, but I knew I’d catch him. At that time, okay I had a good record as an amateur but I felt like: nobody believes in you. It’s only this ridiculous deluded self believe that has gotten you here. I know I did the work, I know I got this guy. Then it’s like, WHACK. It was amazing, it was the best I’ve ever felt. The emotion I felt after was like someone had just shot straight MDMA into my brain.”
What was your family’s reaction?
“The bus got delayed! By the time my family and close mates had arrived I’d won! I was walking around showing them a video clip.”
Fleury is openly passionate on the sport, something he credits to his love of fighting and in specific, certain fighters. Does he have any idols?
“Loads. I grew up watching Ali, my Dad was a huge Ali fan. The way he would dismantle guys without getting smashed up. That style of like, I’m always out of your range but you are in mine. MMA is so different, there are so many more weapons. The first guy I saw who could convert that style of hit and don’t get hit was MVP. I trained with him in London quite a bit. Watching his career – I know how good he is. I’ve seen him destroy 17-0 boxers in the gym, beat them at their own game. Knock out, knock out, knock out. He can beat the best guys. I got to see MVP in his prime. That was something special.”
His own style is different to the fluidity of Ali and Paige – a dogged attack based on his size, heavy hands and inherent dominant athleticism. It’s not long before his opponents visibly begin to crack under the relentless pressure. Can he tell when an opponent begins to wilt?
“99% of people, mentally inside, I don’t care if you are resilient…I’m climbing that hill and I’m breaking you. If we are out in the ocean, I’m not going to drown. You’re going to drown. Get me to stop. I’m not going anywhere.”
Is it hard to find big guys to spar with?
“It’s one thing I’m grateful for is the amount of big guys here. The numbers we have here. It’s not like we have tonnes though. My career has been hugely impinged by the lack of big guys. And I’m not huge. Its not 6ft 8!”
Its a hot topic in the sport, and I ask Will is cutting weight ever a barrier to his success?
“Never had an issue….I like the weight cut. I feel athletic at that weight… I know I can move around all day.”
It’s been a career littered with setbacks, 7 opponents pulling out last minute. A stint on a South African TUF style show ending with Fleury on the receiving end of brutal illegal elbows, along with the show’s organisers blocking him from continuing. How does he feel about it now?
“You don’t get to choose your own journey. You do get to choose who you are. I don’t feel it defines me but its had an impact on my character. I’ve been devastated so many times – but yet I’m still here. You can have lows. Unless you are dead its not over. Do I want to be some sad sack of shit who’s like ‘I tried really hard’…..I’ve had more than a careers worth of bad shit but the little pity party is going to get you nowhere. Even when Africa happened, I was like: get me another fight, get me back into this. Get me the opportunity.”
To Fleury, his own never say die attitude has become second nature, but fighting is isn’t meant for everywhere – I wonder out loud where his own resilience comes from?
“I grew up watching Munster Rugby….playing Rugby is a hard physical game where you get battered. You can put a tonne of effort in, get your ass whipped and have to go out and do it again the next week. That’s a really good thing to ingrain into someone. You just keep doing it. That becomes your habit. That guy who whipped my ass a year ago…now I’m beating him up every day. Oh shit, here comes Will!”
In the year of Tyson Fury’s comeback from the brink, and with mental health in sport becoming more relevant every day, does he have any advice for those facing adversity?
“You still have the ability to overcome, to do better and to think positively. Do what you need to do to get where you need to be. Look at it objectively – have I broken my arm? Have I done in my ankle? Look at what you can do. Its that attitude of : Screw you. I’m not going anywhere.”
Bellator Dublin is fast approaching, a rare local arena card full to the brim with Irish talent. With its arrival Will Fleury gets the sense his moment has finally come.Head coach John Kavanagh has expressed the view that it is the biggest card since the momentous UFC Dublin.
“It has that buzz about it. This week, the amount of people. Load of lads drilling. There’s something a little bit different in the air. I can’t wait to watch some of the sparring!”
With Bellator signing over 30 fighters in the UK and Ireland – they are clearly making moves on the market here. What does he think about their intentions?
“Bellator seem to be invested in it. They want to do something with it. They have plans for Europe. This seems like the first one and hopefully it’s a big one to kick them off. It feels like its going to be very big.”
Its long been a goal of Fleury to echo the achievements of his teammates and fight under the lights of the 3Arena – on 23rd of February he finally gets his chance.
“I was supposed to fight there 3 times, but I’m glad this will be my first. It’s unbelievably special.”
Any thoughts on his opponent?
“I’m a more fluid athlete. Range, doggedness, mentality. He’s obviously a solid fighter. Durable. Doesn’t mess things up easily. It’s about getting him outside his comfort zone….I’ll bring him there. Its gonna be a late first round finish.”
There is a feeling of unrealised potential about Will, through no fault of his own – I suggest perhaps we have not seen the best of him?
“Not a hope. Here’s the thing: how much can I say it? I just want to show it. I’ve done a few interviews saying I’m the best middleweight in Ireland. I think people accept that. Any of the rest of the guys who are supposed to be close – I’d beat the crap out of them. None of them want it – and if they do they can put their hand up…I intimidate people.”
With our time running out, I discuss the rise in the self promotional element of MMA with Will. How does it sit with him, and his answer is telling as to the character of the man.
“It’s a business. This sport is promoting yourself, but I believe you have to be yourself.
I’m from Tipp. I love that. Its the essence of who I am. I grew up watching Munster Rugby. I grew up watching guys like Paul O’Connell. They were my icons.
As much as I might want to emulate some of the stuff other fighters have done – there’s a lot of it that will never be who I am. But I will get to the end of this saying I’m f**kin proud of what I did.”
Will Fleury takes on Shaun Taylor at Bellator in the 3 Arena on Saturday 23rd February 2019.
Tickets are on sale now. Get one.