"Now, I can fight to my strengths. I can sit on my shots, I can use my Thai boxing skills and my K-1 skills, I can use my wrestling and my jiu-jitsu, and I’m no longer gonna be the small fish in a big pond. It’s actually gonna be the other way around. I’m finally gonna be the big light heavyweight.”
No one talked to James McSweeney for six months.
That’s just the way things were at the FFC – Fighting Factory Carbin – Gym in Amsterdam, home to some of kickboxing’s best, guys like Alistair Overeem, Tyrone Spong, Gilbert Yvel, and Rodney Faverus, and the master trainer himself, Lucien Carbin. No one just walked in and became part of the team; you had to earn it.
“When I first went there, the guys just didn’t let me in the gym like it was an easy thing,” said McSweeney, who had already left his home in England at the age of 15 to train in Thailand, eventually choosing Holland as his next destination. “All these guys were top-rated K-1 and Thai boxing champions. I was this English kid going over there with no hair and full of tattoos, and I had to earn my way to go into that gym.”
So he did. He took his lumps, bled a little, sweated a lot, and put in five days a week in the gym, going back home to London on the weekends before coming back and doing it all again on Monday. Eventually, he received word that he was going to be accepted as one of the team – but only if he survived “Black Hell.”
“They got eight of the best fighters in the gym and I had to go a minute with every one of them twice with no rest,” recalled McSweeney. “And if I gave up or gave in or didn’t stand up when they put me down, I’d be kicked out of the gym. But I made it and I never looked back after that day. It was one of the best fighting teams I ever trained with and they still support me to this day.”
Years later, McSweeney has found a similar home in America, where he has trained in a new sport – mixed martial arts – for over three years with the stalwarts at the Grudge Training Center in Denver and at Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque. They did talk to “The Hammer” from the beginning and there were no hazing rituals to become part of the team, but McSweeney still holds all his training teams in equal esteem.
“I’m very blessed because every gym I’ve ever gone to and trained at for a long period of time, every one has been the same in that they’re very family oriented and we’re friends inside and outside the cage,” he said. And here in the States, he’s able to pick up the aspects of the MMA game that are key to his future success and do so with some of the best in the sport.
“When I came over here I was kind of naïve to the wrestling and the jiu-jitsu game, and slowly but surely I’m working through my levels, and learning as fast as I possibly can,” said McSweeney, who moved to Denver full-time six months ago. “I’m training with the best in the world every single day and in every single training session, so I’m picking up things pretty fast and I’m learning how to put them all together and I’m learning every day.”
It’s been a growing process for the 29-year old, who compiled a reported 41-7-1 kickboxing record before moving to MMA and achieving mixed results. In 2009, after back-to-back defeats against UFC vets Neil Grove and Ricardo Romero, McSweeney earned a spot on The Ultimate Fighter season 10 cast and defeated Wes Shivers and Matt Mitrione before losing in the semifinals to eventual winner Roy Nelson. The success on the show got him brought back to the Octagon for the season finale card, and again he delivered a victory, halting Darrill Schoonover in the third round. But in June, McSweeney was stopped by unbeaten Travis Browne. Strangely enough, the loss was a blessing in disguise as it gave him the opening to move down to his natural weight class at 205 pounds.
“Every loss I’ve ever had in my career, I came back from it and learned from it,” he said. “That’s probably why I’ve gotten as far as I have. I’m a fighter and I’m never happy that I’ve lost any fight, but if I’m gonna take anything positive from that fight (against Browne), it’s that I’ve got an opportunity to go down to 205.”
And even though McSweeney stands at 6 foot 4, he never was a big heavyweight, at least not by today’s standards, as he explains.
“If you go back five years ago, a big heavyweight in the UFC was 240-250. I remember when (former UFC champion) Tim Sylvia came on the scene at 255 it was like ‘he’s gigantic.’ Now, that’s not such a big heavyweight. 300 pounds is a big heavyweight nowadays. The Shane Carwins, the Brock Lesnars, they’re big heavyweights. They’re these big wrestling guys that cut down to make 265 and they’re fighting at 280 pounds. And when you’ve been wrestling your whole career at that kind of weight or bigger, when they’re fighting you’re giving up 40-50 pounds and that’s a lot of strength, a lot of weight, and they’re not just big muscleheads – they actually know how to fight, they know how to use the wrestling techniques they have and they have that wrestling strength. For me, giving up 50 pounds isn’t so bad in the striking aspect of the game, but as soon as you get in that clinch or you’re grappling on the floor, that’s a big, big difference.”
It was a difference that changed the way McSweeney had to fight simply to give himself a chance to win, and the results were evident when he wasn’t able to use his natural gifts to beat fighters who simply overpowered him. Now though, he believes fight fans will see the real James McSweeney on Saturday night when he takes on Brazil’s Fabio Maldonado.
“It’s the best decision I’ve made for me and my career,” he said. “I feel most comfortable at this weight and it means I can start fighting guys my own size and I can start sitting on my strikes. When I’m fighting these big guys and I’m so light, I have to be so active. I have to move all the time, be on my toes, and I don’t sit and plant my feet to throw my strikes because they’re just looking to grab me and take me down. And that wasn’t my game plan and it just isn’t how I fight. I was always fighting to their strengths, rather than to mine. Whereas now, I can fight to my strengths. I can sit on my shots, I can use my Thai boxing skills and my K-1 skills, I can use my wrestling and my jiu-jitsu, and I’m no longer gonna be the small fish in a big pond. It’s actually gonna be the other way around. I’m finally gonna be the big light heavyweight.”
A big light heavyweight who has had no problem shedding the pounds to make his 205 pound debut.
“The weight cut’s been easy,” he said. “Of course I had to change my diet a little bit, but I was never a naturally big heavyweight. I was struggling to get up to 240. My whole career I fought around the 218-220 mark and that was my natural weight in K-1 and Thai boxing, and when I went into MMA in England and all over Europe, that was the weight I would fight at. Even when I was in the (Ultimate Fighter) house, I was 221 pounds. I was the smallest guy in the house weight wise. So it wasn’t that big a drop for me. I cleaned up my diet, cut down on the carbs a little bit, drank plenty of water, ate plenty of vegetables, and I’m there already and my energy levels are really high.”
All the good vibes and high energy could have taken a hit in late September, when McSweeney’s original opponent – countryman Tom Blackledge – was forced from the bout due to injury. Luckily for McSweeney, Blackledge’s replacement – Maldonado – is an unbeaten pro boxer as well as MMA fighter, making it clear that he’ll probably want to stand with the Brit, which is okay by him.
“Getting a change of opponent is never good, and it’s an occupational hazard, but I’m glad it happened as late as it did because all the hard work in my training camp has been done,” said McSweeney. “Tom is a very good striker with good ground, and I believe Tom has more tools in his arsenal than maybe Fabio does. Fabio’s got a good boxing record behind him and he’s 17-3 in MMA, but I believe it’s much more of a basic fight for me. The gameplan is pretty much the same, but I’ve trained in all aspects of the sport for this fight and I always do.”
As for the prospect of a standup scrap, you know how McSweeney feels about that.
“He (Maldonado) is super confident, and that’s good for him,” he said. “I’ve seen some of his fights and he’s a little bit flashy – he drops his hands and puts his chin out and plays to the crowd – and that’s how he fights; he’s got that kind of confidence. But if he wants to come to my hometown and do that against a striker of my level, he’s actually just giving me 70,000 pounds – that’s a knockout bonus waiting to happen and I’ll thank him for it after. But I do appreciate him taking the fight on short notice.”
McSweeney means it too, because of all his fights, both in kickboxing and MMA, none is more important than this one. This is London, this is home, this is the O2 Arena, and it’s a vindication for a conversation he had with some friends in 2007 at UFC 75, the organization’s first event at the O2. Back then, McSweeney was just another hopeful.
“I remember when the UFC came to London and was at the O2,” he said. “I went to that show and I remember telling one of my close friends who came with me, ‘you watch, one day I’ll be fighting here.’ And everybody laughed and said, ‘Sure James.’”
He pauses, smiling the smile of a man satisfied, but still hungry.
“Three years later, here I am.”