By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48
Time, as they say, is a great storyteller. The grind, growth, achieving greatness; it all takes time. For fighters in particular, it can be crucial; their greatest enemy or deadliest weapon. In 1974, Pink Floyd released their legendary Dark Side of the Moon LP and on it, bassist Roger Waters penned ‘Time’, a lamentation on the dangers of being frivolous with one of our most precious assets.
The fourth Cage Warriors Trilogy featured a trio of headliners for which time, in one way or another, played a vital role. Matt Bonner, Joe McColgan and Ian Garry – three very different fighters at three very different points in their respective careers – walked into London’s York Hall with a pair of gloves, a gumshield and a dream. All three walked out with a Cage Warriors title and for each of them, it was simply a matter of time.
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
Two years doesn’t seem like a long time, but if the Matt Bonner of 2019 fought the Matt Bonner of today, it probably wouldn’t be a fun five rounds for the former. People get into MMA for a variety of reasons and take a variety of paths through it. A cursory glance at his record reveals Bonner’s: He’s a competitor, not interested in easy wins or padding out his ledger.
The problem, if you can call it that, with such a path is that when you fight nothing but high-level competition from the off, you win some and you inevitably lose some. Two years ago Matt Bonner’s record boasted four wins against five defeats and a single draw. In retrospect those losses don’t look half bad – most have gone on to big things in the sport. But history is often read without context and the fact of the matter was that he’d lost more than he’d won and something had to change.
Talking to Cage Warriors’ Edith Labelle just moments after capturing the big gold belt on Saturday night, Bonner credited his move to Liverpool’s Next Generation as the decision that changed the game for Warrington’s Hardest Man. He also changed weight classes, eschewing the 170lb division in favour of a run at middleweight.
With a bit of time, it worked. All of a sudden the sub .500 fighter was long forgotten, and the talk turned to how far Bonner could go in Cage Warriors tumultuous middleweight ranks. Sure, there was a blip to future title challenger Jamie Richardson along the way, but slowly and surely the developments began to shine through. A hard-fought victory over UKMMA stalwart Matt Inman promoted Bonner from outsider to contender, and his second-round stoppage of James Webb removed all doubt: The Beast had earned his shot.
Thursday’s main event against Nathias Frederick wasn’t the most technical of affairs we’ve ever seen in the yellow gloves – finesse often goes out of the window when a guy like Frederick relentlessly slings heavy artillery in your direction – but it was the perfect distillation of Bonner’s road to the belt. A rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills, bursts of euphoria mixed with some white-knuckle moments and that glorious feeling at the end when your feet touch solid ground and everything is exactly how you wanted it to be.
All it took was a little time.
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Joe McColgan has been competing in MMA for over a decade, but – much like Matt Bonner – the level of opposition he’s faced across those eleven long years must have made it feel like a lifetime. And while it’s common for kids to debut at 18 (or younger) in today’s climate, McColgan would be close to his mid-20s when strapping on the gloves for his first recorded amateur bout. Not that it mattered, of course. The Belfast man stormed through the amateur ranks against some stiff competition, and when the time came to turn professional he had no qualms about maintaining the upward trajectory when it came to the level of his opponents.
First up was Tom Hogan, a certified beast on the Irish amateur circuit who was also hotly tipped for success. Next came Peter Queally, a now-iconic Irish MMA fighter who was 8-2 when McColgan out-pointed him in just his second professional fight. McColgan would commit to the Cage Warriors process of nurturing talent and the only two men to stop him ended up as champions and signed to the UFC.
The crazy thing is, McColgan was never supposed to fight Mason Jones for the Cage Warriors lightweight title, but then Covid happened and the promotion had to reassemble a European lockdown-ravaged card on a weeks’ notice just hours before the UK became an island prison. At the time Joe, by his own admission in an interview with SevereMMA’s Sean Sheehan, was ‘half-assing’ his training for a fight against his opponent he felt posed him relatively little threat.
Perhaps the opportune thing to have done would have been to wait, but at 33 years of age, who knows how many chances like that will present themselves? Still, it was a harsh lesson learned and McColgan vowed from that day forth that he would put time before opportunity; investing the hours, days and weeks into the kind of camp that would allow him to perform to his full potential and beat anyone on the roster.
Temptation reared its head again with the offer of a late-notice title fight just weeks removed from the last Trilogy, but commitments to his day job and new family home would have left the Fight Academy Ireland man unprepared and that wasn’t a mistake he was ready to make twice, but for the sake of a little time.
On Friday night all the pieces fell into place. After declining that short notice crack at Agy Sadari earlier in the year, a fully tuned-up McColgan turned in his career-best performance, stopping the previously unflappable Dutchman early in the third.
With a big gold belt around your waist, the landscape can change quite rapidly. So while Joe has spoken pragmatically about the UFC’s proclivity for signing young, undefeated fighters, he must surely know that as Cage Warriors champion, his story is far from written and his time may be yet to come.
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today
“R U mine?” Hearing Alex Turner’s bravado-soaked vocal refrain on a Cage Warriors’ card over the last two years has meant only one thing: Ian Garry is about to make the walk and something special is about to happen. It also seems like a question ‘The Future’ has been burning into his psyche for the past year while visualising the big gold belt.
Time feels like it’s been playing out in fast-forward in terms of the young Dubliner’s Cage Warriors’ tenure; it seems like only yesterday that Garry was steaming through an international opponent as an amateur on the undercard of CW 99. I suppose in relative terms it was; he’s been a professional for just two years and a hot cup of coffee, yet he already wears one of the most coveted prizes in European MMA, the same one that sent numerous more experienced predecessors to the UFC. The lazy (but inevitable) comparisons to Conor McGregor can stop now; Garry has – and will continue to – carve out a path of his own.
The story of the biggest night of the 23-year-old’s career to date wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the elephant in the room: Garry’s pre-fight split from Team KF. And while his victory over the always durable Jack Grant (Shepherded as it was by fellow prospect Paul Hughes in his hour of need) should be our (and his) main focus, it is part of the story: This is, after all, a deeply nuanced sport that is equal parts uniquely individual, yet built from the ground up on intense camaraderie and above all, respect.
As such one hopes that somewhere in time there exists the possibility of mediation between the parties; one of the most truly formidable fighter/coach combinations ever to pass through the black and yellow brand.
If not, then perhaps it’s time to move on. The level of ability and in-cage maturity Garry has been able to attain at such a young age and with so few minutes in the cage is genuinely bewildering, and if there’s one thing he has on his side above all else right now, it’s time. He’ll need to use it wisely, whether that’s finding a new home or building one around him; even Mike Tyson – the rawest talent of them all – had Cus D’Amato guiding the ship.
But that’s the beauty of being a 23-year-old world champion with the world at your feet: You are young and life is long, and (for now) there is time to kill today.