Full Circle: Sam Spencer on eighteen-month hiatus; FCC & Cage Warriors 107

The Echo Arena, Liverpool. The scene was eighteen months ago; Manchester Predators’ Sam Spencer (6-2) was making his Cage Warriors debut as well as his featherweight debut, culminating in the biggest bout of his professional career thus far as he took on Scotsman Paull McBain (5-1).

On paper and stylistically, this was a contest that had the potential to be a fiery outing. In the get-go, fiery and ferocious is what we were served. With under two minutes left of the opening stanza, Spencer was clipped by a counter-right of McBain’s, earning Sam quite the gash above his right eye, impeding his vision throughout the remainder of the round.

It was that very cut that, as the first round closed out, referee Rich Mitchell was forced to end the contest by doctor stoppage.

Ultimately, it was that injury; that fight that wouldn’t see Spencer back in fighting ways for eighteen months. Coming out of a bout where the extent of the eye injury was sensitive as well as a concussive blow for good measure, time would indeed be the healer. However, there was more than just the negative result looming over the Rossendale native’s head.

“They weren’t the main reasons at all, to be honest,” Sam explained. “I think it was that camp that set the wheels in motion for me to take some time off, especially with the fight going the way it did. That was definitely a push to step away for a little bit. 

“Nothing in the camp went right. You hear people say it all the time but plenty of niggles; plenty of physical injuries, things going on in my personal life with relationship issues that was up and down. Things weren’t working well with that and I was still living at home back then with my parents, still trying to figure out my way in life.

“I mean, some things were alright; I was signed to Cage Warriors, but I knew I wasn’t ever going to perform well until I sorted these issues out. I had extra pressure on myself to get through camp – never mind perform on the night. 

“I really needed to take some time away from active competition and reassess things.” 

Sam is a big fan of reading and literature. In his downtime, figuring out his next step in figuring out one in a plethora of personal issues, he read a book called Peak Performance; with a chapter detailing the burnout aspect. For Spencer, this was pivotal in his quest for change. 

“It can come on the back of a number of things,” Sam professed. “One being when you reach early-to-mid twenties when your sporting career is coming to an end and all your peers are getting real jobs, buying a house etc and you’re still chasing the sports dream which in fact can make you question it.

“It can also come on the back of an injury, bad result or bad training experiences, making you ask yourself if this is all worth it. It was a negative time in the gym for me with my mind set, so I think I had all the symptoms of burn out prior and going into the McBain fight. I remember reading it thinking, ‘Wow – that was my 2017 in a single chapter.’

“The following chapter was about renewing your own confidence and giving back to coaching and whatnot. That’s what I’ve done and I’ve felt the reward of it.” 

While waiting for injuries to heal, Sam took the time to assess his lifestyle, routines and everything in between. One of the main changes implemented immediately was that Sam stopped sparring instantly after the fight. Travelling around to larger facilities for his biggest bout to date meant tougher sparring for the former, leaving Spencer walking out from practice having taken his licks but feeling the worst of it.

Not only for his personal health, but Sam’s fighting prowess improved much with the new-found focus on the grappling arts.

“I took some big cracks and started noticing a little stutter at the start of my sentences,” Spencer revealed. “I packed in sparring and focussed on jiu jitsu for the following six to twelve months. I probably sparred three times that year, none of it being hard sparring, mostly messing around with personal training sessions. I didn’t feel I’d be fighting any time soon, so these changes were necessary.” 

Sam took the initiative to get active in the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition and found himself competing multiple times in 2018, winning silver at the British nationals as well as gold medals elsewhere. It was during this time, enjoying so much jiu jitsu, that Spencer often began to ponder his fighting future.

“If I’m honest, I was feeling comfortable with the fact that I might not ever fight again,” Spencer admitted. “I was pretty happy just rolling and teaching and making more money than I ever had done because I had all the time in the world to do so and didn’t have to fit in two-a-days. 

“The competitive itch was being scratched with the BJJ competitions, so I felt like life was sweet. Then later in the year I got a pretty bad shoulder injury as I was lifting weights, which knackered my shoulder up pretty badly and ended up needing surgery, which put me on the sidelines for a good few months, watching my clients roll, pointing at them with a stick like some BTEC John Danaher.

“Being forced to sit down unable to train made me realise how much I did enjoy it all, so once I sorted my head out and came to the fact that, yeah, it is a risky game, but when I’m actively involved and chasing goals, that’s when I’m at my best and have the most clarity in my mind.”

Mixed martial arts has been something the ‘Smooth’ one has been doing for the best part of nine years and all of it was suddenly feeling particularly different to the bantamweight. The numerous whacks to the brain had seemingly instilled a weariness – a block that left Spencer unable and uninterested in engaging in the striking facets. 

Imagine, after nine years, from the age of seventeen, your mindset changed from the one goal and the one hobby you had always enjoyed partaking in. The crossroads can be a daunting reality.

“I didn’t want to be taking any punches with any bad intentions at all,” Spencer confessed. “Whenever I was sparring in 2018 it was super technical. I was only play-sparring with my PT sessions as well as when guys were training for fights, I wasn’t instigating the hard rounds and in return respectfully, they weren’t putting it on me either. 

“It was a mad conscious switch for me. I had no interest in hitting someone hard and vice versa. Something had switched in my brain, I thought maybe because I didn’t have competitions coming up, I couldn’t do it to people. Comparing it BJJ in the gi, that felt fun and more of a game, whereas MMA sparring can feel like a right battering.”

In the eighteen months off, Sam spent plenty of time soul-searching and seeing the world, training overseas and taking a piece of the culture with him.

“I feel like a different person since my Cage Warriors fight to now. I remember feeling like I was trapped in what I was doing. Like, if I wasn’t fighting, what else was I supposed to be doing?

“Making that clean break for a year helped me a lot as I did some solo travelling. It gave me a lot of time to think while training at some top gyms in California like Team Alpha Male in Sacramento.

“It made me think about what I wanted to do going forward. It also gave me time to think, if I never did fight again, life was still pretty good. I didn’t ‘need it’ at the time. I could put my time into something else and still succeed, which is what I did with BJJ. 

“During that year off I did a lot of thinking about it and now I’m back in that zone, I do need the sparring – 100%. Now I’m training for fights because I want to. Because I enjoy it and that’s ultimately what it needs to be about.

Following successful shoulder and a strong recovery period, Saturday, May 18th marked the return of Predators’ representative on four weeks notice, filling an empty spot in the main event of FCC 23 against the then-undefeated Ryan Holdam (4-1) for the vacant FCC bantamweight championship. 

A prestigious domestic title in its own right, nonetheless this was a leap right back into the north-western spotlight for Spencer. This was a surprise to many a domestic follower, but not a brash decision for the 6-2 battler. 

“After my shoulder surgery it was looking to be recovered by the middle of 2019,” Sam detailed. “I kind of had my eyes on the FCC date. I knew I probably didn’t want to bounce right back into Cage Warriors having eighteen months out, having not done remotely anything in terms of MMA. 

“I spoke to Cage Warriors to make sure it was cool with them, then I spoke to Adam Teh of FCC and got a match for the 18th May.

“I was pestering Adam for a date around eight weeks from the show and got an opponent. Had a few names offered and those people turned me down. I had told Adam that if anyone pulls out of a title fight, put me in it. 

As fortune would have it, Sam wakes up to a text message off FCC’s promoter Adam Teh, informing him that Danny Randolph had pulled out and wondered if the 135-pounder wanted Holdham for the title. 

Spencer simply replied with one word – yes. 

As luck would have it, his longest time on the sidelines resulted in his shortest bout yet; a twenty-seven second knockout to claim the FCC strap, reintroducing himself to the division in the process.

“I knew that date would make perfect timing for my recovery and opportunity knocked, so I took it.”

“The fight was definitely one of my best highlights, 100%. My first time in nine years I managed to get a knockout. It’s a big confidence builder and considering it was only the first thirty seconds and that I wasn’t throwing that hard, it was just right on the button that won me the title.” 

Since his glorious, golden return to MMA competition, opportunity has continued to favour the eight-fight veteran. Riding the wave of his first knockout victory, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition came knocking in the form of local promotion, Super Sub Fights. 

What seems to be becoming a regular occurrence in the latest chapter of Spencer’s career, a late pull-out opened up a championship opportunity – and Sam was there to fill in and capture the fourth title of his martial arts journey. 

“It was a show in my hometown, so I couldn’t miss out on it,” Spencer beamed. “Again, similar situation with it being short notice, Jonno Mears was matched up with someone until they pulled out three weeks before. I thought, ‘this is becoming a pattern!’ Another opportunity taken and more gold around my waist.

“To be honest, I was missing the BJJ aspect. I think I did ten competitions in 2018, both gi and no-gi. I really enjoyed it, especially getting multiple match ups in one day. That tournament feel for me is great, when you get a guy in the second or third stage and they’re already tired.” 

On September 28th, Sam Spencer’s last eighteen months comes full circle as he returns to Cage Warriors in the Echo Arena in Liverpool – the very same venue where his life took on a tumultuous turn all that time ago. 

Now back to honouring his five-fight deal with Cage Warriors, a taste of gold at FCC was very much what the former needed. With his sights now clear on the goals ahead, Sam’s hunger, resilience and passion are back and his return cannot come any quicker.

“I’m not sure what happens with the FCC title, but now that I’m back under contract with Cage Warriors I don’t think I’ll be returning to FCC any time soon,” Spencer informed. “Things may change, though. It was too good an opportunity not to take. I’m excited to be back on the Cage Warriors card in Liverpool, though – it will be an interesting return in a much different frame of mind.

“I’ve totally rounded off my game. I’ve done loads and loads of kickboxing through training in Thailand and most of my fights since turning pro have remained standing. I didn’t feel uncomfortable with my grappling, but always felt my striking was superior to it. Now it feels far more even and there are no glaring weaknesses.

“Going from that last FCC camp, which was by far the best camp I’ve ever had followed by the best performance I’ve probably ever had, I’m creating a carbon copy of that, taking notes to produce the best product of myself each time I’m out there.

“I don’t think the day will get the better of me now. I don’t think anybody is outgrappling me or toppling me easily in the CWFC division or this country. I don’t see anyone running through me any time soon. I can take a shot and give one. 

“If Cage Warriors want to chuck a title shot my way now I’d go for it. It wouldn’t happen, but I’d go in there confidently and take on anyone. I want to start making a run towards the big shows. 

“This feels full circle. Everything was wrong last time in Liverpool. Since then, everything is right. Everything has been fixed and improved on. Training with Next Gen often in Liverpool, considering the location of the fight, that drive is becoming easier and more common. It’s comfortable.

“The first goal now is to take the Cage Warriors title. We know where the other title holders end up afterwards and I want to follow in their footsteps. The time is right to show Cage Warriors what I’m about and get after it.”