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Exclusive: Garreth McLellan Talks UFC Rotterdam, Irish Fans, Tristar and More

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South Africa’s Garreth “Soldierboy” McLellan fights at UFC Rotterdam this weekend against Swedish middleweight, Magnus Cedenblad. Before flying to the Netherlands, McLellan was kind enough to take the time for an interview.

Where else to start other than McLellan’s last fight – a TKO win over Bubba Bush with just 2 seconds remaining back in October 2015 in Dublin. It is a night the South African remembers fondly, but not just because it was his first UFC victory. The Irish fans, as they are famous for doing, enhanced the experience. “I think the whole thing was just really special,” he began. “I think the occasion, the way that the fight went and the response from the crowd was really special. Everything just fell into place perfectly. I didn’t expect to get the reception that I did – the ovation from the Irish fans was incredible. I had heard what an amazing place it was to fight, but I don’t think you understand that until you are on the full receiving end of the Irish people. They got behind me 100% which made it that much more special for me and lasting in my memory.

It’s amazing,” he continued, referring to how warmly the fans received him and also when they sought him out for selfies and autographs after the event. “Back home in South Africa that’s the reception I get from the South African fans and I’m used to that kind of environment. When you go to another country, you don’t expect it to be the same, you don’t expect it to be that wild and for people to be drawn to you. It was an exceptionally humbling experience for myself.”

On the win in Dublin itself, McLellan knows how important it was. “I think it was a good time to get the win. Obviously it got that monkey off my back of getting a win in the UFC. Now it’s not a case of going in having to get that win to show that I’m capable – I’ve done that and now I can go and express myself.”

UFC Rotterdam marks the third consecutive appearance for McLellan on UFC cards in Europe. He enjoys fighting for the European fans and knows what an opportunity it is for him in his career. “You know, I think it’s a case of getting myself established in the UFC,” he said. “The way I see it is that it’s an opportunity to see the world and travel and fight for the UFC. The main cards you want to be on are one of the numbered shows in Las Vegas – that’s a goal for everybody. For now, I’m happy to fight on the European cards. They’re great, just as packed and just as vibrant as you would get in America. I like fighting in Europe, they make me feel very welcome and I’m sure you will see me on an American card at some stage.”

Regarding Cedenblad, his opponent, McLellan is more than aware of the Swede’s talent and skill, but he is confident in his own qualities heading into Sunday’s card. “He’s got an impressive record in the UFC,” McLellan explained. “He has his dreams, his goals and the direction he wants to go and he’s working hard towards that. He’s a competitor and he’s coming to fight. He’s well-rounded and he’s able to fight anywhere. There are no easy fights going forward from now. As you climb the ladder they just keep getting harder and you have to be prepared for them. I haven’t focused on him too much like in my last fight, I just prepared myself to the best of my abilities. I’m coming to fight on Sunday and I’m coming to win.”

In preparation for this fight, McLellan took a trip over to Canada for a visit to Tristar in Montreal as part of his training camp. It was a venture well worth making for McLellan. “Our gym has a good relationship with the Tristar guys,” he told me. “I just felt like I needed to experience a different environment, train with some UFC athletes and broaden my horizons a little bit. It was an amazing trip. I was very fortunate to experience time with guys like Firas Zahabi and the top athletes there and train with those guys. They made me feel very at home and they added so much to my training camp. I came back home, my training partners here pushed me really hard and it’s been a really good camp for myself. I’ve worked hard, stayed focused and I think I’ve gotten the results that I wanted.”

Every fighter has a dream of fighting for the UFC in their home country, and McLellan is no different. I asked him if he felt that dream was coming closer to reality. “We hope so,” he started. “This is what we’re looking for. We’re looking to be in a strong enough position in the rankings where we can say ‘Hey, it’s time to put on a card in Africa.’ I can be that main event. I want to create enough buzz that the UFC can’t deny us an event here. There’s a massive fan base here in South Africa, and in all of Africa. They’d be well received here, I think it will be surprising for them how well received they will be. I don’t think we’re too far off, we just have to keep pushing hard, make sure we get that done and bring them here. Being a South African fighter, we didn’t have much. We didn’t have a lot at our disposal and we’ve had to grind hard to get ourselves in the position we are in now. It would be a monumental day for South African and African MMA.”

We have some good talent here. We have some guys who are ready for the UFC now, it’s just a case of getting them that exposure and showing the UFC that South Africans are worth having on their events. We understand as a team we have to keep pushing and I understand myself that I have to lead the way for these youngsters and make sure that, when I hang up the gloves, I’ve created a path for South Africans to get into the UFC and compete at the highest level.”

In closing, McLellan had a message for his fans and also told me what everyone can expect to see on Sunday in Rotterdam. “Thanks for the support and keep supporting. Tune in on Sunday and it’s going to be a completely different guy that you saw last time. I’m coming to please the crowd again, I’m looking for the finish and I’m going to show the UFC world that they need to take notice of ‘Soldierboy’, that he’s someone to look out for.”

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Brad Pickett, “I owe a lot to this sport, it’s helped me out so much”

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As Saturday looms closer, a new championship belt lies in waiting. Not just a new title, the first title bestowed from a young and growing promotion. Rise of Champions hosts its fifth event Saturday, in which new amateur and pro champions will be crowned.

Saturday is a great opportunity for the young promotion. Co-owner and former UFC veteran, Brad Pickett doesn’t look to compete with the bigger promotions like Cage Warriors or ACB, let alone the UFC. To his luck, Rise of Champions 5, doesn’t have to. While the UFC does have an event scheduled for the upcoming weekend, it happens to be the somewhat rare occurrence of a Sunday night show. Though, it does make sense, with the North American market free from the anaconda like stranglehold the NFL (American football) maintains for nearly 5 months of the year. Nonetheless, the Sunday night cards are strewn from the norm. Which is essentially what ROC looks to provide.

The regional circuit in Europe holds a good portion of quality promotions and Pickett wants to add ROC to that list. “I just want it to be a really recognizable name. Like for (people to say), ‘Oh, that’s a good show’. You hear that name and go, ‘that’s a really well worked, a really good show’.” It seems for the retired UK MMA legend, he couldn’t be happier. In describing what it meant to run a promotion, he said, “I just feel great to be a part of it. I owe a lot to this sport, it’s helped me out so much, and I just like to put back what I’ve learned over the years with my coaching but then also later, run a promotion, give guys a good platform to grow and showcase their skills. For me, in a way, I feel it’s my duty to do something like this and stay within the sport”.

 

 

The other co-owner, Mickey Papas and he began the promotion together, while Pickett still competed in 2015. Papas and Pickett have a long-standing relationship stemming from early in the former Bantamweights career. “My relationship with Mickey started off like this; I remember when I was fighting in Cage Rage back in the day, I knew nothing on the floor really. I was just like a stand up fighter. I knew a little bit but I was unversed, and then I remember going to do some Jiu Jitsu and then also bumping into Mickey. Mickey was more Pankration, which I thought back then, the wrestling side of MMA was more important than just Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the gi… he’s been one of my coaches ever since, even when I (went) out to America, I trained in America for a lot but also I’d come back in and train here. I had two teams, I had ATT and Team Titan.”

Upon further discussion of his promotion, Pickett revealed an aspect of his promotion which separates ROC from the rest of the popular regional promotions. “I like the fact when I have a pro main card of 4-5 fights and the rest of my card is amateur fights. Where shows like Bamma and Cage Warriors are predominantly only pro fights.” He continued, “I want to keep to my emphasis of young talent. And also in my pro fights people like Mike Ekundayo (an undefeated fighter coached by Pickett at Team Titan) who is the main event… I’m still trying to promote younger, unbeaten talent to help build themselves”.

 

 

Through his MMA journey, the retired fighter took many personal experiences while competing and coaching under a litany of promotions. He depicted one odd story in which, “I remember one of my fighters fighting on the show getting quite a bad cut on his eye. I remember seeing it backstage where I had other guys fighting on the show, later on the card, (guys) that I’m cornering. He’s just sitting back there and I said, ‘What’s going on, are you going to get stitched? The doctor going to see you to get you stitched up?’ He goes,

‘No, no, they gave me these steri strips’.

‘What do you mean they gave you steri strips?’,

‘They gave me steri strips to do it myself’. And I’m like,

‘You’re taking a piss’…

I went and complained, and they said, ‘Oh no, there’s one doctor, he’s by the cage side. He can’t come back and do the stitches. There’s a hospital just down the road why don’t you leave and go there?’ and I’m like you’re expecting one of my fighters to leave your show looking like he does with a massive gash on his face? It’s just like loads of things like that, it always happens.”

Having experience in the regional circuit, at the time that he did, Pickett was exposed to a lot. When asked about the preliminary conception of Rise of Champions, he explained it as so, “I’ve been to a of lot good shows in my career and I’ve been to a lot of bad shows. I’ve been to the best shows in the world as well. So for me, I knew that I have a very good insight on how a show should run, in front of the camera and more importantly behind the camera, because you get a lot of promoters who know how it should look for the camera but don’t know how to treat the fighters backstage or how things should run. Me (having) competed at the highest organization for many years, I know what that means.”

Pickett continued, “And it’s not a case of always about having money, it’s about proper organization, doing things well and at the end of the day knowing that, the fighters are the stars of the show. Where at some shows, they’re treating the fighters like cattle. (They treat them) like, go in fight and see you later, who’s next? For me, I am very much against that. Also, I felt the emphasis of my shows is to try and help grow and nurture, young developing talent… when I was doing it, it wasn’t really a career path for anyone, but now it’s a legitimate career path for young and aspiring athletes to be able to go out there and earn life changing money.”

As a self-critical person, Pickett believes ROC’s first four events turned out well, although he sees room for improvement. “I do believe they always can get better. One thing I can’t complain with, is the fights. The fights have always been really good, and at the end of the day that is what matters. There is no point of having this glitz and glamour, and spending thousands and thousands of pounds on lights, cameras, and just having complete dud fights.” Without much of a pause, he continued, “I do all the matchmaking myself. I do believe I know what are good fights and I put on some really good fights on my show. That’s what I am happy with. If the show keeps growing, then I can add a bit more glitz and glamour. A bit more on the production and things.”

One aspect he wishes translated better to the broadcast, is the ROC fighter ceremonies. “I do like a Pride thing, where there’s a ceremony before the start of the show where all the fighters come out in front of the audience, (all the fighters) on the under card. Then midway through the whole event, there’s a pause, a break and then we have another ceremony for the main card fighters.” In this certain structure, he believes the ceremonies not only add to the spectacle of the event but excite audiences for the fights to come. “It gives the (fighters) a bit more time in front of the crowd. And where, you may go (to) see Joe Blocks fight, but then you just see these two other guys come out and think, ‘Man, these two guys look like they’re gonna have a great scrap. I wanna watch that fight as well’… if you can get people interested in other fights on the card, it’s a win. That’s why I’m trying not to just make a good fight, I’m trying to make a good event where people go, ‘this is good, I would love to come to this show next time no matter who’s fighting’.”

 

 

While ROC does not occupy all his time, the hectic nature balancing multiple jobs earned Picketts attention as soon as he retired. He claimed, “Its weird, I’ll be honest with you, it was so much easier when I was a professional fighter. All I had to do is concentrate on myself, get up in the morning, train for a couple (of) hours, relax, (then) train a couple of hours in the evening and that’s it. It was so much easier. Also, I earned great money when I was fighting towards the end of my career. But now, I have to go back to the hustle… it’s not always about being financially rewarding but that obviously is important, I have a kid. I’ve got a house, a mortgage to pay. So that is important but, it also is to try to do what I like doing as well”.

It is evident, even from afar, that retirement hasn’t worn out the rugged mentality training and fighting gave him. Besides co-owning a promotion with his friend and business partner, Mickey Papas, Pickett hosts a weekly podcast (The One Punch Podcast), has a beautiful family (with an adorable son you can catch on his Instagram account), coaches fighters, trains average citizens, and travels for seminars. Yet, he finds time for all of it.

I imagine it would be hard to find another human like Brad Pickett. His youthful exuberance, tough mentality, and pragmatic nature make him an impossible character to clone. Speaking to him and feeling those qualities, only magnified the respect and admiration I had for the man. The MMA community is lucky to have Brad Pickett, and even luckier to keep him inside of it.

Rise of Champions 5, takes place this Saturday, February 16th at the Brentwood Leisure Centre, in Brentwood, England.

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Jonas Magard, “This is all I do. I don’t have anything else”

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In the late hours of this upcoming Saturday night in the Greenwich Mean Time Zone, a new Bantamweight champion will earn his crown. A little over 300 feet from the A12 in Brentwood, England, inside the Brentwood Centre, is where it will all happen. The medium sized venue will host Brad Pickett and his Rise of Champions promotion, for their fifth event and second with the venue.

An important event, ROC 5, represents something greater to a few different people involved with Saturdays show. For the promotions co-owner Pickett, it represents an opportunity to capture American audiences on a UFC-less Saturday while being broadcast exclusively on the world-leader’s streaming service, UFC Fight Pass. Although the former UFC contender has a lot riding on the success of his shows, ROC 5 may mean less to the owner than to both his main event fighters. Currently, the ROC 5 main event is set to determine the promotions first ever champion when Denmark’s Jonas Magard takes on London’s own, Mike Ekundayo.

Both young, talented, and riding unbeaten streaks, this main event represents a major stepping stone in their careers. In the case of Jonas Magard, “It’s just a new opportunity to do something, to put my mark on things. With or without the title I just want to fight. He’s in my way to something bigger”. His words echoed his demeanor. While the Danish Amateur MMA Champion, wanted to behave excited for the opportunity, fighting under the ROC banner, his attitude simply would not allow him. “I can’t wait to see how they put on the show and stuff, I think it’s going to be fun. But again it’s just me and him, it’s not about the show… I have not been training to fight at that event. I’ve been training to fight that guy and if it’s that’s event or if it’s in the backyard, it’s the same for me”.

Not only was the young Danish fighters’ mentality impressive but his record as well. At 8-3, Magard owns 7 stoppages, 6 by Japanese neck tie. The same submission he defeated Michail Chrisopoulus, with a little less than half of the opening round remaining, in his most recent appearance at ACB 75. And the same submission in which he holds the record for most finishes.

His journey to this point could not be described by the meager word, easy. After training for a year and two amateur fights in his home of Jutland, Denmark, Magard decided to make a change. “I went to Copenhagen to try to train there, in one of the bigger gyms and they just opened their arms and welcomed me. So, I thought why not move? I was 19 at the time. I didn’t really know anybody in Copenhagen”. He continued, “the first couple of times I was over there, I would live with some of the guys from the gym. I would have an amateur fight coming up, so I’d stay there for a month… I would still have my address and live back in Jutland, but I would just go over there do my training and my training camps”.

Magard travels quite a bit for his MMA training. In his current situation, Magard splits time between Rumble Sport in Copenhagen, Denmark and All Powers gym in Manchester, England. “I think a lot of fighters, they get too comfortable in their own little circle of fighters and in their own gym, where I like to just go out, get the best training work whether it is in Denmark or wherever. I don’t care about traveling or getting pushed as much as I can”.

He’s made a routine of being uncomfortable, something he does not think can be said of his opponent, “I think he hasn’t been battle tested, the same way as I have. Yeah, he’s a good opponent, he’s a guy I have to beat. He’s undefeated… but you know, I don’t think he’s been battled tested as he’s going to be now, with me (in) this fight, it’s just different”.

“I’ve seen his opponents and his opponents are okay but, they didn’t have a lot of fights either like he don’t. Not even as an amateur. As an amateur, I fought the guy who just fought for the Cage Warriors title, Alexander Jacobsen, he had like 125 boxing matches… I fought the guy who is going to fight for the Cage Warriors flyweight championship, Sam (Creasey)… I had the hard fights as an amateur, I don’t think he had the hard fights, that’s the difference about over here in Scandinavia. We get battle tested,” he continued to elaborate, “in amateur, people don’t get built up, people are getting hard fights. I had two fights the same day, for the Danish MMA amateur championship… I’ve been facing guys who I know come there to win, who’s just not there to be food… this is all I do, I don’t have anything else, I don’t have a day job I’m going to everyday and that’s the difference. I’m a professional, I live off this, I live for this, this is all I do. He has not met anybody like me before, who has the experiences I have.”

Magard believes the experience he earned through his MMA journey is what separates himself from his opponent. Outside of MMA, the Dane fought two shoot-fighting matches and one professional boxing bout.  “He is a good fighter, he is a good strong fighter but I know the guys over here, there stronger side is not the ground. The wrestling in England, people want to punch each other in the face they don’t want to wrestle. I come from a place where people like to wrestle. And during this fight camp, I’ve been training with the (Danish) Greco Roman Olympic silver medalist [Mark Madsen]. I’ve been training with Martin Kammpman the former Danish UFC fighter… I eat I sleep I breathe MMA every day and I don’t want anything else. That’s going to be the difference in this fight one hundred percent”.

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Interview: The Sit Down featuring Manny Bermudez

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Staff writer, Brian Gerson, sits down with undefeated Boston prospect, Manny Bermudez. Bermudez talks about his recent signing to the UFC, his upcoming opponent at UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Emmett, and more. 

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