When Liam McGeary walks into a room people tend to sit up and take notice.
At 6’4, and hovering in and around 100 kilograms, McGeary naturally has an aura about him that fits the persona of what you would typically imagine when you picture a world champion in MMA.
Last Thursday, the former Bellator Light Heavyweight champ arrived in Belfast from New York to take part in a Bellator press conference ahead of his February 24 showdown with Chris Fields at Bellator 173.
After engaging in some brief conversation with some familiar faces at the SSE Arena, and after taking advantage of the tea and coffee that was available to all in attendance, McGeary headed straight to the podium to take his seat in advance of Bellator and BAMMA’s pre-fight press conference.
A BAMMA representative in attendance then spent the next 20 minutes asking an array of rudimentary questions to the fighters on stage that never really evoked any answers of real interest.
Press conferences by nature are often overly organised Q&A’s where journalists usually ask two or three questions each before writing up a quick news piece on what they thought was the most interesting or newsworthy line from the presser.
They rarely ever produce the type of material that gets people interested and excited, and unless the fighters on stage are verbally insulting each other or throwing energy drink cans and cups of coffee in each other’s direction, they generally never really offer anything of great substance.
This was largely the case with Liam McGeary and Chris Fields at Bellator’s pre-fight press conference. The two fighters spoke of their great respect for each other, how their respective preparation is going, and how much they’re looking forward to fighting each other later this month, but there responses were typically what you’d expect to hear at a press conference, the type of responses you are so often accustomed to hearing.
But what you’re not accustomed to hearing at press conferences is the story of a man who was imprisoned for a racially aggravated assault and his journey to becoming a world champion. The story of a steel worker who went to America on a limb after prison and Jiu-Jitsu had turned his life around. The story that Liam McGeary told me in a quiet corner in Belfast.
Jack O’Toole: When did you make the move over to America?
Liam McGeary: March 2012.
JO’T: What was the reason behind the move? Why did you feel you needed to make the move over there?
LM: I had two fights in Jersey but I’ve always been a traveler. I’ve always loved travelling. I’ve always gone with my two bags everywhere I’ve went. But an opportunity came to go over to America and a friend of mine told me he knew someone over there that was a coach and he told me that I could stay at his house and that he’d let me train.
He only thought I was going for two weeks but I turned up and stayed there for three months. I had sold everything that I had owned and I was like ‘nah, nah, nah, I’m here to do this and I’m going to win that world title.’
He was like ‘Alright! Let’s see if you suck?’
I kicked the shit out of everyone in the gym and they didn’t get me a fight until the end of the three months. Then I got a fight with Walter Howard in the Ring of Combat, and I beat him, but I had to come home because my visa was only valid for three months. Then I went back for three months and I was training at Kurt Pellegrino’s gym [in New Jersey] but nothing was happening.
They weren’t making any moves so I said ‘listen I need something to happen. I haven’t made all these sacrifices for nothing. I’m going to find another gym.’
He told me to give him five minutes. He came back out and said he got me a contract with Bellator. I was like ‘nice.’
So I had to come home and sort out the visa’s, which took like six months, and then I went back over again. The visa’s only last like a year, a year-and-a-half, but now I’ve got until August 2018.
JO’T: It’s a big gamble selling all your stuff and going over to America on a whim, that’s a huge investment to make in yourself.
LM: I’ve always believed in myself. Even when I was younger I was always getting into trouble for fighting. I’d never been beaten and I picked fights with big groups of people, and I mean big, big groups of people, and I always got into trouble.
So I thought instead of getting arrested all the time, why don’t I just put it towards something [MMA]. Then an obsession came in and there was no work as I was working as a steel fixer.
And I was like ‘man you know what, why don’t I just give this a go now and see what happens?’
And yeah it’s paid off but I know I can get that belt back. I fucked up in my training camp.
JO’T: That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. When was your last loss before you lost to Phil Davis?
LM: I lost my first fight in an amateur fight I think it was around 2006. I went to Wales and I got caught in guillotine. I didn’t even know what a guillotine was. I lost that fight but then I ended up going to jail shortly after that and after I came out I was like I’m moving to Jersey because I knew there was a Jiu-jitsu school in Jersey so I said I could learn my stuff over there. As soon as I went there and started training Jiu-jitsu I stopped everything man.
I stopped my partying, I stopped all my drinking…
JO’T: And this was all after you came out of prison?
LM: Yeah this was all after I came out of jail. That was my amateur loss. So I got another amateur fight but I wanted a pro fight. So then I got a semi-pro fight but I was like ‘listen, I want to go professional, fuck all these amateur fights.’
JO’T: But prison put things in perspective for you?
LM: Yes it did. Yes it did.
JO’T: How long were you in jail for?
LM: Six months. I got a six month sentence.
JO’T: That’s obviously a big turning point in your life and your career, because after that you go on this tear and go all the way to a world championship.
LM: Exactly. There’s certain things in your life that happen to you that make you open up your eyes and realise ‘shit, I can’t continue on going down this path. I’ve done all my partying, I’ve had a great time, now it’s time to start a new chapter in my life and see where this can lead to and continue on with that.’
I’ve said this many times before, if people would have told me that I was going to be a world champion eight years ago, I would have been like ‘yeah come on to fuck mate, what are you talking about? I’m going to be working in some hole in the ground somewhere fixing steel getting covered in rust.’
But if you really want to do something, and I mean if you really, really want to do something and you set your mind to it, you can do whatever you want. You’ve just go to put the work in.
JO’T: So you go on this winning streak and you beat Emanuel Newton for the Light Heavyweight title. You defend the belt against Tito Ortiz and then you face Phil Davis and he gives you the first loss of your professional career.
You’re also coming off an injury during this time and it’s over a year since you’ve been in the cage. How do you deal with coming off the injury and how do you deal with the loss?
LM: I put a post up on my Facebook shortly after the loss. It’s a hiccup. You try and do all of these things, you try and make these moves, and they’re big steps, but not everybody succeeds straight away. This is why you fall over, to pick yourself back up again.
You realise what mistakes you made and I know that my mistake was that I overtrained.
I did a 14 week training camp training four times a day and I felt that I had to cram everything in.
JO’T: Because of your knee injury?
LM: Because of the injury, because of who I was facing, because of the fact that I had such a long time off.
Phil Davis is a very, very tough fight to take off a 14 month lay off but I’m not going to be a dude that says ‘I’m not going to fight him, let me fight someone else.’
He earned his shot at the title. He did what he needed to do. He was very active and I was watching it on the TV so this was the guy that I had to fight. I think my head went on that one.
I didn’t beat myself in my head, because I genuinely thought that I could beat him, I know I can beat the guy, but I put too much into the training camp.
I was like I need to do this, I need to do that, I need to do this, I need to wrestle, I need to do that, I took away who I was.
JO’T: You forgot what got you there in the first place?
LM: Yeah! And you know that 14 month lay off is a long time and you forget. I mean after the loss I came back home, I went to Jersey, and I ended up in St. Lucia, I ended up running around the jungle in St. Lucia for a little while.
I remembered who I was, and what I did, and how I fucking got here in the first place, so I thought I don’t need to be panicking and now it’s starting to show in my training. My mates have been like ‘where the hell have you been?’
I told them I went away for a while but I’m back now. Even that question at the press conference, when the fan said ‘I’m not the fighter I used to be’, I understand that concept of you are only as good as your last fight, but in my last fight I was chasing him.
I was doing things that I’d never do in a fight. I was just running onto something, getting kicked in the leg, I knew what was happening but I couldn’t stop it because I was like ‘fuck, I’m running out of time.’
JO’T: And you know all of this is happening during the fight?
LM: Yeah you do and it’s all going on in your head. By the end of the third round my coach asked me ‘do you feel as if this is slipping away?’ And it was. In my head I was like ‘I need to knock him out now.’
All I have to do is land my hand on him and then…
JO’T: He takes you down.
LM: Then he takes me down again. I watched the first round and the fourth round and it was exactly the same. We were both on our feet for about a minute-and-a-half, we go onto the ground for about two minutes and then I get back up for about 30 seconds and he runs backwards. I was like ‘man……..!’
JO’T: But you mentioned you got your spark back after that fight. You go off to St. Lucia, you process the loss, is there anything in particular that you felt triggered that spark? That helped you get your mojo back?
LM: I think I just had to step away from training. I was just overloading everything. Cramming it all into my head. Doing it over and over and over and over again. You kind of start to hate what you’re doing.
And I remembered that I love fighting, that I love training, and that I enjoy punching someone in the face and I enjoy getting punched in the face so it brought my enjoyment back.
As soon as you start enjoying it again you’re like ‘Ahhhh! That’s what I used to do and this is how it was and they’re all in fucking trouble now.’
The penny drops.
JO’T: But you come over here then, not too far away from where you’re from. You fly over, you come to this press conference, it must really feel like you’re coming over for business. That you’re really getting into the nitty gritty of it all now?
LM: I thought about that when I was flying over that this was just a business trip. I fly in. I get myself nice and dressed up. I come to the press conference and I fly back home and go straight back into training.
I train for another couple of weeks and then we fly back over for the fight. So I did this four months ago. It’s not six months. It’s not a year again. It’s four months.
I’m used to what we’re doing; this press conference, the lights, I’ve been awake for a good few hours now, but this is what I do.
This will be my…… what am I 11-1? 12-1?
LM: 11-1. So this will be my 13th fight. It’s starting to come back now. When I first came over it was five fights in a year. It was back to back to back and that’s how I roll. I enjoy doing what I’m doing.
I like to fight. I want to get another win. I’m not overlooking Chris at all, Chris is a good opponent, this is going to be a great fight for the both of us, but afterwards I want to get back in there again, and then get back in there again, and then get my title back.
JO’T: Can I ask what you went to jail for? I feel it’s such a pivotal part of your story. Just listening to you now it’s a whirlwind. You go from being a steel fixer, to prison, go all the way to the title, lose the title, and now you’re on the road back. What did you go to prison for?
LM: It was a racially aggravated assault.
LM: Do you want the whole story?
JO’T: If you’re happy to tell it, sure.
LM: There was a couple of guys in town, in my hometown [Norfolk], and I hadn’t been back for 13 years so I wanted to go back and spend Christmas with my mum.
So I came back and me and my sister and her friend went into town and the town was very racist when I was growing up.
We went out and we bumped into a guy and he was saying ‘n**ger this, n**ger that, you black bastard, I ain’t afraid to fight no black man.’
I was like ‘yo, chill man, it’s Christmas Eve.’
You go that way, I’ll go this way and then all the cameras were there, so I was trying to use all the hand signals, but about 10 minutes had passed of him hurling abuse at me and I had enough.
I hit him in the face once, he went down, and another guy was there with him as well so I was like ‘you want some as well? If not I suggest you fuck off.’
Just the usual shit, but I walked off and then seven police officers then turn up and I’m like ‘now you come?’
Turns out the guy got severely, severely hurt, he almost died, but that was the turning point.
That was when I realised that I couldn’t continue on the life that I was living, because I do hit hard, and I can fight, and I know how to hurt somebody.
Luckily enough the guy didn’t die, he was very close to dying, but that was when things had to change.
And when I see guys out fighting now, and now that I’m doing what I’m doing, I’ve been able to turn it around and give something back, and be able to pull these kids who are getting into trouble and be like ‘If you want to fight come down here. We’ll set this up and if you want to do this, if you’re really adamant to fight, I’ll show you how to fight.
‘You know how to fight but you don’t know how to really fight. I’ll teach you everything you need to know and then away we go from there.’
That’s me giving it back to my community, giving it back to my country and helping people out.
JO’T: You must get something out of it as well too right? From giving back?
LM: I’m doing what I’m doing. I’ve won the world title, I am going to be the champion again, and I know what I can do.
I’m getting to that age now where I want to move on and I want to open up a gym, and I want to start my own youth centre, so it’s definitely the right thing to do.
In Bellator‘s headline fight former champion Liam McGeary takes on Irish MMA legend Chris Fields in a Light Heavyweight showdown in Belfast’s SSE Arena on February 24.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena