When is a cage more liberating and less claustrophobic than the entire city of London?
It's all a matter of perspective. As he readies himself for his Bellator debut, here's Will Fleury's.
I was getting up at fucking half 6 in the morning, going down to the tube station, waiting for five or six trains to pass until I could actually get on one.
Then I’d be compressed in with my fucking head lowered, not looking at the guy next to me. People would get fucking angry at you for having a fucking backpack. London was such a repressed, fucking...shit place to be honest. I hated all of that.
But no matter where I was I would have hated it.
I remember going into the toilets in the office and screaming into my fist. The sheer level of bullshit and incompetence you have to deal with. Especially if you are a confident person like me, dealing with human manipulation and incompetence.
Fleury was once a rugby player, but a foot injury blew him to a different path. When rehabbing, he was encouraged to do some boxing training. From there he moved into MMA, and joined the MMA clinic in Cork. While unearthing a passion, he dedicated his afternoons to convention and eventually qualified as a Quantity Surveyor having been offered a solid job in New York.
The move to the States fell through when his girlfriend failed to get to a Visa, so instead, he took the QS job in London and made his kick in the rat race. All the while, he was getting his kicks elsewhere: Fleury trained in an MMA gym in London virtually every evening, sparring with the likes of Michael Page.
These were the cramped tube journeys that opened up the world.
It was hardcore. As soon as I got out there, it was a level up from what I had been doing.
You see the reality of the fight game and how intense it is. I remember sitting on the tube after being battered by a guy: sparring out there was like a fight every day, you didn’t know when you were going to spar.
But I never went, ‘Why am I doing this?’ When I look back on it now, I had a degree, I could have gone on and worked as a surveyor, but I always had that thing, ‘Sure you’re going to be a professional fighter’.
Unsurprisingly, Fleury left the office to pursue the pro ranks. He is now back in Dublin, training at SBG and working as a bouncer at night to buttress his income. He treasures the control he has over his life now - down to driving over having to rely on the tube - but there's one thing missing.
"The problem with control is that it’s great having time and control over your day, but you need money to be able to do shit. Money is the main problem at the moment, and this Bellator contract is about this, the chance to earn money and earn proper autonomy over life. That is huge to me. I’m not an MMA fanboy who's 22. I know exactly what this is and this is the fight game, but at the same time it is a huge opportunity".
On Saturday night, Fleury makes his Bellator debut in Rome in the biggest night of his career thus far. While the sport has become synonymous with UFC, Bellator is among the next-biggest promotions in the sport. Fleury's assertion that he "knows exactly what this is" betrays the length of the road already taken.
While 4-0, Fleury has had opponents pull out ahead of his fights on no less than seven occasions. However, those frustrations are the lesser part of his thwarted ambition thus far.
Last year, Fleury bagged himself a slot on a South African reality TV show called The Fighter. He and nine other middleweights from across the world would live and train together before competing against each other for a six-figure contract and a fight against the Extreme Fighting Championships.
Fleury excelled...and had the opportunity snatched from him. During his quarter-final, Fleury was hit by a flurry of illegal elbows to the back of his head. The referee, as you'll see from the clip below, was curiously slow to intervene.
I was lying in bed and I realised that they don’t have time to have us fight again, as it would mean delaying flights for everyone. So a wave of nervousness came over me: ‘Fuck what are they going to do?
They gathered us at a 7am meeting downstairs. They ruled me out of the competition because I was concussed.
Straight away, I tear my mic off and say “Are you fucking serious? That’s a fucking joke. If I went into the cage and poked him in the eye or kicked him in the balls, would I be straight into the next round? So you’re rewarding someone for cheating?
I hadn’t seen the footage by then. A load of people along with his team had said most were to the side of the head [and therefore legal shots]. I could feel the lumps on the back of my head, but they said a lot of the stunning blows were to the side of the head.
But I was adamant I’d been fucked, and then I saw the footage and it was worse than I thought.
I had a go off of them. They actually aired it, and put the whole speech in the show. I started crying in the middle of it, and it’s pretty embarrassing to see yourself cry on TV!
It was more anger. I was very, very upset with how everything turned out. It took me a day and a half to get over it.
That was the frustrating thing. I was clearly the best lad there, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Well, nothing at the time. Things have changed a little since.
I was always going to do something great after they fucked me. I wouldn’t let it rest. Shortly after I got signed to Bellator, I went onto the Facebook post explaining why they kicked me out, and it was full of comments like ‘Oh the guy was a bitch anyway’, ‘the Irish can’t fight’and so on.
So the day I signed for Bellator I liked all of those comments.
I really did enjoy that quite a lot!
And here Fleury stands, on the verge 0f the biggest fight of his life, taking a far more circuitous route than others. He admits to being frustrated at fighters who get ahead in the game because of their celebrity.
It is frustrating because that guy will more opportunities than the likes of me, a bogman from Tipperary without a background in reality TV. But if I keep winning and keep winning, I’ll eventually get that opportunity. It just takes longer. I don’t want my narrative to be like ‘fuck those guys’.
At the end of the day, you can bitch all you want, but you know the situation you are in. I think I have a character that people will buy into once people get to know what it is. So it’s about getting on a platform when people see you consistently, until people go ‘Woah, who the fuck is this guy?’
While there's an element of marketing and advertising to it all, Fleury is determined to be himself. While there's an element of bullshit to it all, Fleury has drawn a bit of strength from that. "You are always a little bit uncomfortable when you are talking shit. But I used to be a lot more uncomfortable about it. ‘I’m going to fucking destroy the whole division’ and so on - there is a natural uncomfortableness with that. But I’ve forced myself to say it, I’ve even forced myself to say it to myself, to say ‘No, you are going to fucking smash everyone in that division, why fucking not?'"
And so, to Bellator in Rome, what Fleury calls a "natural progression" to the top. Does he ever fear that, perhaps, that he won't fully make it?
I don’t care about being the best fighter unless it makes me happy. It’s not going to change anytime soon. Maybe when I’m in my late thirties and review things and decide this isn’t what makes me most happy. But right now, this is what makes me feel incredibly alive. If it didn’t I wouldn’t be doing it.
Look, I want to make a fuckload of money out of this. I want to buy my own house and go and enjoy the rest of life and money is part of that. But, I want to enjoy the process of doing it. If I don’t enjoy it and I don’t make money, then shit, this was a terrible choice in life and I’ll do something else. But I can see myself doing pretty damn well at this.
Even before I started the degree, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a Surveyor but I’d been offered a really good job. But I wasted four years of my life in college. I still have a degree but I’m better suited to something where I achieve more than a piece of paper.
You have such energy at that age, you can go out and achieve anything. And I wasted that time in college. Fighting makes me fucking proud of who I am and quite fucking content with life. You just feel so alive. I’m going to Rome and I'm going to fight a lad in a cage and it’s going to be on TV in front of a couple of million people. That’s incredible to me.
I love that. I’m not somebody that gets nervous about that, I’m thinking ‘Jesus that’s mental’. That’s me.
I’m going to do that.
I’m proud of what I am. I like Will Fleury, and that’s the reason I’m fighting and doing any of this shit.