Before Gregor Gillespie stepped into the Octagon with Kevin Lee at UFC 244, the four-time All-American wrestler held a spotless MMA record and a five-fight finish streak. He took particular pride in the latter, and the noise around Gillespie suggested a win over Lee would parlay into matchups with the best at 155 pounds, perhaps UFC’s highest profile division. Instead, Gillespie would exit the Octagon with a broken jaw and the first loss of his professional career after Lee landed one of the more vicious head kick knockouts you’ll see midway through the first round. What came next for Gillespie was a long stretch of recovery, and right when Gillespie was cleared, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted shutdowns across the country.
All Gillespie could do was work out in his brother’s basement for the next several months as he waited for his next fight and stewed over the loss. To Gillespie’s credit, he appears to have processed things well in the aftermath of the bout, and as he approaches his return to action on Saturday against Brad Riddell at UFC Fight Night: Brunson vs Holland, he seems at peace with the loss of his unblemished record.
“You can’t make your value all about that, like, ‘Oh, man. Now I suck because I lost or I lost that record,’ or whatever the case may be,’” Gillespie told UFC.com. “That’s not how I felt about it. I gave Kevin Lee a ton of credit. He did an amazing job. His game plan was great, and you can tell he was really prepared. That’s something I also take a lot of pride in is I can give credit where credit is due. I didn’t really make a huge mistake during the fight. He came over the top with a jab, a beautiful punch, and followed it with a kick. Props to Kevin Lee.”
Gillespie isn’t unfamiliar with losing even if he hasn’t experienced it often in either his wrestling or MMA career. In his mind, the stretch from his professional MMA debut to the Kevin Lee fight was the longest stretch of his athletic career without a loss, and suffering that first defeat doesn’t seem like it really rattled the New Yorker.
More often than not, getting knocked out or losing in a devastating fashion is part of the fight game. Fighters frequently brush these moments off as a one-off or a flash in the pan, but Gillespie sees things differently.
The Rise Of Gregor Gillespie
The Rise Of Gregor Gillespie
“I really don’t love when people say, ‘Oh, you just got caught,’ or, ‘It was a lucky kick,’” he said. “It was neither of those two things. This is a fight, and you get hit in a fight sometimes. You get kicked in a fight sometimes. These are just part of the things that come along with this job, and the fact that I hadn’t had to necessarily experience that yet was something that I wondered about because you always assume in the back of your mind if you fight for a long enough, this probably will happen because other than one or two guys, people lose no matter how long their undefeated streak goes for.”
Soon enough, despite the cramped circumstances, Gillespie found his way back into the gym. All anyone needs to do is look at Gillespie’s Instagram page to see the grueling workouts he makes routine. That, paired with his overall accepting behavior, allowed him to move past the fight and set his eyes on what came next.
Gillespie said he and his team more or less figured out some tweaks they needed to make to their game planning process, and once Gillespie was able to move back to Long Island and start training again, they figured out how to put together a “really good training camp” that echoed the volume of work to which he is accustomed.
That work rate is one that often leaves Gillespie beaten down and tired. However, he’s not one to take more than one 24-hour rest period per week, shrugging off the idea of impromptu “rest and recovery” days in lieu of powering through the fatigue and natural anxieties that come up in a fighter’s life.
“You’re a fighter, dude,” Gillespie said. “You’re going to have anxiety about these things. You’re going to not get a ton of sleep, and you’re going to be overtrained. That’s something that I’ve always just accepted. Since I started this journey as far as combat sports are concerned, that’s something that I’ve accepted, and I’ve embraced. I kind of hate some days. My body hurts so bad, and I’m so tired, but I show up to the workout. I get myself in the parking lot of that building, and then it’s too late to go home. That’s something that I just accepted that. As far as a balance goes, the only time you need to taper off is before a fight. That’s what we do appropriately.”
More than 16 months will have passed when Gillespie makes the walk to the Octagon for his co-main event bout against Riddell. That brings up the natural questions of “ring rust” and general ability to find one’s rhythm after a layoff. Paired with coming off a rather emphatic knockout loss, the questions circulating around Gillespie ahead of this fight are debatably as abundant as the hype he carried into Madison Square Garden in his most recent fight.
Since then, it’s been a journey of recovery, yes, but also one with its benefits as well. Gillespie acknowledged that the four or so months he spent with his family as the longest stretch with them since he moved to Long Island around a decade ago. He took up another outdoorsy hobby as his girlfriend got him into hiking, and so that is included in his post-fight plans, along with his usual desire to make good on his self-proclaimed title as “The Best Fisherman in MMA.”
But when it comes to competing, Gillespie feels naturally confident, saying he is always better when “a win or loss is on the line.” That life’s worth of competition halted momentarily for reasons in and out of his control, but now that he’s back in it, he’s as comfortable as that lifetime would suggest.
“If I lose on Saturday, which obviously I don’t plan on doing – and I’m sure Brad Riddell does not plan on losing either - neither of us go in thinking we’re going to lose,” Gillespie said. “But, I’ve competed my whole life. I’ve wrestled thousands of matches, and I’ve had quite a few fights now. I don’t think, if I lose, it’s going to be because of ring rust, and it’s not going to be because I’m coming off of a loss. If I lose, the other guy is better than me this time. Obviously, that’s what happened last time, too. He was better than me that night. I don’t think that’s really going to come into play. If things don’t go my way, it’s not because of ring rust or no crowd or a long layoff. I’ve competed my entire life in a one-on-one situation, and this will be no different.”