Rising Irish sportsman Gary Lavery spoke to Pundit Arena on why he stopped playing football to pursue a career as an MMA fighter.
Lavery had wanted to be a footballer since he was a boy, but after realizing that life in the game is not all it’s made out to be on social media, he hung up the football boots and put on the fighting gloves.
The Belfast man was scouted by Aston Villa while playing for local club Glenavon at the age of 13. He said it was strange leaving home and he could see why young football players can easily get carried away.
“You go from humble surroundings to being at a world-class facility and having everything at your feet but I had a very good family support system around me.”
Lavery spoke of his excitement at going over the water but revealed that the lure of playing football at the highest level isn’t all it’s made out to be.
“Initially I was buzzing to go, I couldn’t wait.
“It’s very tough going from having all your home comforts to living in a brand new place with a new family and the reality compared to how it was portrayed on social media was completely different.
“There’s a very small percentage of people who actually get to experience all that [success, fame and wealth].
“It’s almost like a competition to see who has the best girl, the biggest car, the nicest watch or the most expensive clothes.
“They [footballers on social media] are selling a dream that doesn’t exist.”
Lavery also went on trial at Birmingham City and Celtic before earning a two-year scholarship at Cardiff City. The striker spent over two years there, working on a personal level with players and coaches such as Craig Bellamy and enjoying some of his best times as a footballer.
However, after experiencing the downsides of football and the parts that the cameras don’t show, Lavery’s desire to be a footballer deviated in a snowball effect.
It started with an unfortunate leg break. Lavery was starting for Cardiff’s underage setup, hitting his stride, in good form and scoring goals before he was sidelined for nine months. Shortly after recovering from the broken leg, he suffered another injury and faced another spell in the treatment room.
Lavery started to become homesick and decided to return to Belfast to play for Linfield under David Healy. However, this spell only lasted six months as Lavery’s decided that football wasn’t for him and his attention was shifted elsewhere.
The 21-year old took an interest in MMA after watching the likes of Conor McGregor on television. Around 2014, the UFC fighters who came out of Ireland made being a mixed martial artist seem like a dream that could be achieved.
“If someone two hours down the road in Dublin can do it, why can’t I?”
Lavery became “obsessed” with MMA after beginning training. Following his first fight, which he won, he gained confidence and thought “I could take this all the way.”
The former Northern Ireland youth international began to enjoy his training and realized that the trainers and fellow fighters in MMA had a very different mentality to those in football.
“In football, coaches don’t have time for players who are less able or are seen as weaker and they get drowned out.
“In the changing rooms, the more athletic and more able players almost prey on the younger players to build their ego.
“It’s a very egotistical sport and it’s a competition within the team, you’re constantly competing for a starting place or for a new contract so the people around you don’t really care about you…
“The first night I walked in [to the gym] the coach made me feel as if I’d been there three years.
“The best martial artists in there get their buzz from helping others… the two sports are polar opposites in terms of mentality.”
Lavery weighs 72 kilograms but fights in the bantamweight division at 61 kilograms. Lavery spoke about the weight-cutting process of having to lose 11 kilos in six to eight weeks before a fight.
“[It’s] very uncomfortable but with the right discipline, it’s handy enough.
“There’s no better feeling than getting on the scales and making weight.
“You know you have your obligation done and you get to have fun from there.”
While footballers can sometimes hide behind other players if they are having an off day, Lavery highlighted that there is no hiding in an MMA cage.
“I get very afraid and very anxious when I see the cage. It’s about managing those feelings.
“It’s like the last few seconds before a car crash where you know you’re going to crash, but it lasts nine or ten minutes.
“It’s complete chaos but afterwards is the biggest adrenaline buzz ever.
“Winning a fight and getting your hand raised is ten times better than scoring 1000 goals.”
While Lavery said TJ Dillashaw, the UFC Bantamweight Champion, is his favourite fighter, he said that he has his own unique fighting style.
“What I want to do is go out and fight every time with my own interpretation of MMA, which is one of the only sports in the world where you can do that.”
Lavery has had a win and a loss so far in his MMA career. He beat a high-level Romanian wrestler in his first bout but lost his second after a last-minute change of opponent in September 2018. As a result, he was matched up with a fighter with a perfect 3-0 record.
Lavery was hit by an armbar under a minute in but said that the loss was a great learning experience.
“I definitely took more away from the loss than I did the win even though it was eight minutes shorter.
“I came out feeling positive. I think learning how to lose and accepting that loss is part of sport, especially in MMA, is really important.
“I think o.1% of fighters go through their career without a loss.”
The 21-year-old aims to prove that the defeat was just a one-off and show how he has learned and improved since. He will return to action at the beginning of 2019 before heading to the IMMAF European Championships next summer.
Lavery hasn’t looked back since hanging up the boots and eventually hopes that in five years, his dreams of becoming a professional MMA fighter come true.