Sunday, November 27, 2022

O’Neill Recalls Illegal Training & Lack Of Money During Pandemic

UFC women’s flyweight contender Casey O’Neill has recalled the difficulty she endured attempting to continue her career during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus caused havoc across the world after emerging in early 2020, with sports organizations around the globe joining virtually every industry in shutting down as fear about Covid spread and death tolls rose.

Nowadays, with the pandemic firmly in the past in the minds of many, O’Neill sits at #10 in the 125-pound rankings on MMA’s biggest stage having extended her perfect professional record to 9-0 with four wins under the UFC banner.

Most recently, the Scottish-born Australian outpointed the retiring Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 271 this past February, drawing headlines for her memorable post-fight interview in Houston.

But as part of a sport where athletes earn their income through fight purses, the struggle to train and secure appearances left “King Casey” in turmoil during the height of the pandemic, especially considering she didn’t have the level of notoriety that comes with a place on the UFC roster.

During an interview with The AllStar’s John Hyon Ko, O’Neill discussed her experience during what was a tough 2020 for many. At the time, the 24-year-old boasted a 4-0 record, with all of her fights coming under the Eternal MMA banner in Australia.

Whilst training at the renowned Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand, O’Neill and her training partners first heard rumblings of the virus as Chinese athletes arrived at the gym after being forced to train elsewhere following the closure of their facilities back home.

“So, I’m in Thailand, the pandemic started… We had a bunch of the China UFC PI fighters come down to Tiger Muay Thai,” O’Neill recalled. “We were like, ‘What are they here for.” And they said, ‘Their facility closed down for a virus.’ No one even said COVID-19.

“Then everyone was like, ‘Oh wait, it’s starting to go around the world.’ … We were just training away like normal and then people started testing positive,” O’Neill added. “Everyone starts freaking out and the gym gets closed down.”

Much was said about the impact that Covid had on training in combat sports, with police raids in nations like England becoming commonplace as some gym heads refused to close down facilities.

Perhaps most notably, UFC lightweight Dan Hooker has spoken about his interactions with the police as New Zealand authorities prevented him from even utilizing his own gym to train.

It was a similar struggle for O’Neill & co. in Thailand, as they were forced to illegally train together in the garage of coach Alex Schild.

“I would say the gym was closed down for a solid three or four months at that point,” O’Neill said. “We were training out of Alex Schild — if you know who that is, great jiu-jitsu guy, coach at Tiger Muay Thai for a long time, now at Bangtao with the Hickman brothers — we were training in his garage with some mats that we took from the gym.

“We had to put up things so the police couldn’t drive by and see us,” O’Neill admitted. “We were illegally training at that point.”

O’Neill: “I Went To UAE Warriors With No Choice But To Win”

O’Neill went on to describe her financial situation at the time, which was a worry that only extended as the pandemic’s impact grew and lengthened.

Fortunately, O’Neill was offered a fight at UAE Warriors 13. The card took place in Abu Dhabi at the same time as the UFC returned for its second stint on Fight Island, with “King Casey” competing just two days before Israel Adesanya defended his gold against Paulo Costa at UFC 253.

While the fight offer came at a great time, border restrictions looked set to provide a possible roadblock as returns to Thailand, Australia, and the United Kingdom were all beyond the realms of possibility.

“I was starting to really, really run out of money. I was down to about $500,” O’Neill said. “I was like, ‘Sh*t. Not gonna fight anytime soon, probably can make it another couple months.’ But that was my lifestyle in Thailand always. I never had any money. I moved there with no money and I lived on a mattress on the floor. You just make things work… But more months went by, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I really need to make something happen here.’

“Danny (Rubenstein) called me and said, ‘They’re offering you a fight on UAE Warriors.’ I was like, ‘Yep, I’ll take it. I don’t care who it is, how much money, whatever.’ He was like, ‘Okay fine, but there’s one problem: you can’t get back into Thailand if you go there,'” O’Neill continued. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll go back to Australia.’ … ‘Australia won’t take you either, it’s closed for Covid.’ … ‘Okay, I’ll go stay with my family in the UK.’ … ‘Nope, UK is closed as well.'”

With that, O’Neill was left with the option of heading to Las Vegas for a brief period to attempt to secure a place in the UFC. To do so, though, she first had to emerge victorious under the UAE Warriors banner.

“I said, ‘Where am I gonna go.’ He was like, ‘Well, I’ll smuggle you into Fight Island. From there, you can get a plane to Vegas, and then you’ll have three months in Vegas to make it work and figure something out.’ I was like, ‘Shall I take this chance on myself?’ And then I thought, ‘I’ve taken bigger chances on myself before. I’m gonna do it.’

“So then I went to UAE Warriors knowing I had no choice but to win. That was literally my only choice. Then I went to UFC after that, stayed on weight, and had lunch with Mick (Maynard) every day. I made him sit at the table with me every single day… introducing myself, saying I would fight for him… making sure he knew who I was.”

Having taken a massive chance on herself, O’Neill’s risk paid off. After knocking Christina Stelliou out in Dubai, the Scottish-born Aussie headed to the US, securing a place on the UFC roster soon after.

While her planned short-notice debut opposite Lauren Murphy fell through owing to a positive Covid test, O’Neill finally made a successful arrival inside the Octagon last February, stopping Shane Dobson with strikes.

Although she may be embracing the bad guy tag that she picked up having retired Modafferi last time out, it’s hard to deny that “King Casey” has had a notable and inspirational journey to the big stage in MMA.

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