Neil Seery: “I’m going to march forward and try knock Phil Harris out”

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After last week’s official confirmation that he will face Phil Harris at UFC Fight Night 46 at Dublin’s O2 Arena on July 19, Neil ‘2 Tap’ Seery tells Tom Rooney about realising a lifelong dream of fighting in front of a hometown crowd on MMA’s biggest stage and, despite a crazy, but enlightening couple of months, he hasn’t changed a bit.

It’s not often Ireland’s latest addition to the top table of combat sports gives interviews, however, such has been the dramatic, recent developments in his professional life, it’s only proper order that someone interrupted his scarcely believable schedule for a good auld chinwag.

For any fight fan living under a rock as of late, the story of Seery’s whirlwind journey from relative anonymity to fighting on the main card of UFC Fight Night 37 in London this past March, is one the sport’s most compelling in recent memory.

When an injury forced Ian McCall to pull out of his fight with Brad Pickett, the UFC struggled to find a replacement, but a concentrated social media campaign led by Irish fans, saw Seery jettisoned on to the card on only two weeks’ notice.

The UFC awarded the Dubliner with a four-fight contract, which meant vacating his Cage Warriors flyweight title, and although he would lose by unanimous decision to Pickett, his gutsy showing was universally praised.

In fact, such was Seery’s boxing prowess, Pickett was forced to uncharacteristically adopt a wrestling-heavy strategy in order to prevail. The Team Ryano export was as surprised by this as anyone, but credits ‘One Punch’ for using his nous to get the job done, and plans to utilise a similarly cerebral approach in the future.

“I didn’t believe I had to watch for the double-leg take down; look he went for it in the first, maybe he knew how to play the game a little bit more, he knew how to steal the rounds. Maybe I got a little bit caught up in the whole UFC experience, he played the game a little bit better than I did, and won the fight.

“I need to slow down, think a little more on my feet; that if you over-commit on punches that they’re going to take me down. If anybody is put on their back for more than two minutes, the way judging is going these days, they’ll lose the round.

“I need to be a bit more-clever, as in; if you’re beating them on the feet in the last two minutes look for the takedowns to secure the rounds, and that’s where Brad’s experience obviously came in.”

He finds it difficult to look beyond the loss, such is his nature, but takes some solace in the performance, namely vexing Pickett in the stand-up realm.

“I was disappointed that I lost the fight, as I said, I didn’t go there to make up the numbers, just to say I was in the UFC. I went there to win and I 100% believed I was going to win. Whether I was confident enough that I could hang with him after the first two minutes or not, I realised I could hang with him no problem. I started letting a few more shots go in the second round and in the third I was pushing more forward and catching him, so I was growing in confidence as the fight went on.”

Having had time to reflect, Seery says that despite not getting the victory, it was a thrillingly singular experience that tangibly validated a decade of hard work, and one he will never forget.

“When you get there and start warming up with the UFC music playing in your changing room, you know. It put a smile on my face, and I said this is unbelievable, just get out and perform. Conor McGregor said to me it’s like no other canvas; I said to him what do you mean, and he said you’ll know when you stand into it. Believe me, when you stood into the cage, you knew it was the big time, so enjoy every minute of it, and I did.”

Not one for pretension, he was back in work three days later, and a photograph of him sweeping the floor of the warehouse where he is employed, soon went viral.

“The boss said to me ‘you were mixing with all the stars at the weekend, now look at you’, so I said ‘come on take a picture’ and he rang me that evening and said it was everywhere; it was something we were just messing about with. Look, I was back there at 6:30 on a Tuesday morning, one way or the other. Whether I had won or got the bonuses, I’d have still been back there.”

That he made it to the UFC at a juncture when it felt like the opportunity would never materialise, proved a pleasant surprise. Yet, the most overwhelming aspect of it all was that it was the collective voice of the fans that proved pivotal in getting him there.

“I was blown away; the whole experience of people getting behind me was unbelievable. I was getting messages from people when the news was released and I didn’t even know who they were. It put a little bit more of a spring in my step going into the fight, because I knew a lot of people had put the word out there to get me in, and I didn’t want to let them down.”

Now, with a new opponent to focus on, he has set sentiment aside and is already a fortnight into what will be a 12 week camp. He and Harris have a history, with the latter winning a unanimous decision when they fought under the BAMMA banner in 2010. There were, however, extenuating circumstances.

Seery popped his knee in training a week before the fight, and to combat the pain, he placed a morphine patch on the injured area after the weigh-ins, the strength of which nearly rendered him unconscious. Subsequently, he barely remembers the ordeal.

He respects Harris’ game, but remains confident he can earn that all-important first UFC win, and plans to get it the same way he always does.

“Phil can make you look really bad or really good, that’s the type of fighter he is; he can stall a fight, take you down and keep you there. His boxing wouldn’t be where mine is, his wrestling might be a bit better, so that’s what I’m going to work on. But, I change my game for nobody. I’m going to march forward to try and knock Phil Harris out, that’s my game plan. He’s in the same situation I’m in; neither of us can afford to lose. I need a win, he needs a win, so it should make for a seriously good fight.”

And, of course, it’ll be on his own turf, in front of a heaving Celtic crowd, making it all the more-sweeter.

“I’m over the moon. It’s brilliant to be on such a big card and they (UFC) haven’t been here in so long, so it’s a great achievement. After all the years of putting in the hard work, it’s paid off now. I’ve been around this game almost 10 years and thought I wasn’t going to get there, but it’s rolling onto the Dublin card for me and it’s worked out brilliantly.”