WILL Fleury is without question one of the top professional MMA talents from Ireland at the present moment.
Tonight sees another landmark occasion in the career of the 30-year-old, who has a record of five wins and one loss in the pro ranks, as he makes his US debut in Oklahoma.
He is currently fighting on the Bellator roster, the MMA promotion which is considered the second biggest in the world after the UFC.
As it turns out, Cork has played a pretty big role in his development in the sport. Chatting with The Echo, Fleury describes his relationship with Leeside and how it was the place which started his love affair with MMA.
“I started my MMA career in Cork. I was in Cork from 2006 up until the last time I was living there, which was in 2016.
‘I went from school in Cork, to going to college in UCC and spent three years there, before I went down to CIT.
“The summer before I went from UCC to CIT, I was over in New York playing rugby and I broke my foot.
“I was mainly playing rugby in Cork before that with the likes of Cork Con. When I came back, the physio I went to said the best thing I could do was boxing footwork.
“So I went and joined a boxing gym, that was The Boxing Clinic in the Frankfield industrial estate up by the Airport.
“The guy I went into was starting an MMA gym. He showed me the cage and said we are going to have this thing going and do I want to get involved. It just got going from there.”
Fleury is ready to seize the moment and continue his rapid rise up the ranks. His most recent outing was back in February in the 3 Arena in Dublin on the Bellator 217 card.
That was a victory over Shaun Taylor by submission and it was a night which the Irish middleweight recalls proudly.
“It was class. I was on early enough in the card, which I was kind of surprised by because I would be one of the better known Irish fighters.
“As soon as I came out with an Irish flag with me for my fight, everyone started going crazy.
“The wave of energy off the crowd just gave me a massive lift. I felt like no matter who was in front of me that night, they were getting smashed.”
Now all eyes are on that big fight in America shortly for Bellator 224. Looking ahead to that bout, which is against Antonio Jones, Fleury is fully determined to make an impact on Stateside.
“Having the chance to fight over in America and show what you are worth over there, it feels a bit special to me anyway.
“Being Irish going over to America as well, it just feels like there is a huge opportunity to get yourself out there and show people what you can do.”
The rise of MMA in Ireland over the last decade or so has been quite clear for all to see. The likes of Conor McGregor, who trains out of the same gym as Fleury, have been central to this rise in popularity.
On top of The Notorious One, Fleury describes how there are a large number of gifted MMA fighters from these shores.
“The sport has gotten huge. I think Conor changed everything really. If you have to credit one person with making the public aware of what the sport was, it was Conor.
“I was training for five years before Conor took off to become what he is now. But the amount of public interest has jumped massively.
“From the point of view of having Bellator cards in Dublin, it is also about showing that MMA in Ireland is bigger than Conor McGregor. What I mean is that the sport has become a bigger thing now.
“It does feel like you are carrying the flag now. I am going over to America to show them there is more than Conor McGregor coming out of Ireland.”
As for his long term goals, Fleury wants to leave a legacy both inside and outside of the ring.
“My goal is to become the Bellator World Champion. Beyond that, to be honest it is about showing martial arts as it should be. To me it is about showing the level of discipline and level of respect.
“You don’t get anywhere in this game without people teaching you things, without having a community around you and learning from others.
“It is not just me. There is a team of people in here that teach me. There is a guy massaging me foot right now, helping me to prepare for this fight.
“We rely on each other and we are a community. Grand I want to win a belt and do great things for myself, but I also want to highlight the fact that it is not just me.
“You hear so many negative things being said about MMA in the media, you hear things which are uninformed.
“I kind of wish more people would step into an MMA gym and have a look at what it actually is.
“I want to show that there is a massive level of respect and level of community here.”