In Brendan O’Reilly’s formative years as a fighter, mixed martial arts wasn’t exactly packing 56,000 fans into stadiums in Melbourne. In fact, when the Brisbane product began his career in taverns holding 200 people on a good night, he was just happy to provide entertainment for his sister when she was on a first date with her future husband.
“When I started mixed martial arts, no one really knew what it was and the UFC wasn’t established in Australia at all,” he recalled. “My sister actually asked some guy on their first date to come and watch me. (Laughs) And now, many years later, they’re married. I’m lucky I won that fight too.”
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Nearly seven years after his pro debut, “Badger” isn’t playing to couples on their first date or blokes out to have a few drinks on the weekend. He’s a UFC fighter now, the sport has taken over his country, and this weekend, he fights Alan Jouban at the largest indoor arena in his hometown, the Brisbane Entertainment Centre. And if you ask him, he knew it all along, and even his family was pretty sure that whatever he chased he was going to catch.
“They (his family) have always knew that I chase my dreams pretty hard, so I think they knew that no matter what, I would at least throw everything I have into chasing this career and chasing this dream. And I have," he said.
The work paid off. A member of the TUF Nations cast, O’Reilly fell short of reality show glory, but after a loss to Zhang Lipeng at lightweight in his UFC debut in 2014, he bounced back in May of last year with a victory over Vik Grujic that was a satisfying one on a number of levels. Not only had he secured his first Octagon win and a spot on the roster, but he did so in his natural weight class at 170 pounds. It was a move some questioned because O’Reilly only stands at 5-foot-7, but the 28-year-old knew what was best for him.
“It (getting the win at welterweight) was pretty good, and it was very important to me because especially, now more than ever, there’s controversy over weight cuts and what divisions people belong in because of big weight cuts or the banning of IVs,” he said. “I’ve always considered myself someone who would fight anyone at any time and not worry too much about size or trying to have such a huge size advantage over anyone. So it was nice for me to go up to 170 and not just get a win there, but it was quite a physical battle and we were in the clinch a lot, and I proved that I’m not outmuscled at that weight and I can hang with guys at that weight.”
It’s a fighter’s attitude, one that goes back to the early days of the UFC when size didn’t matter as much as a competitor’s ability and willingness to walk through the fire to get the win. O’Reilly is well aware that he will still give up some physical advantages this weekend and beyond, but he believes his strengths will equal the playing field on fight night.
“I still think there will be those guys that will push the envelope (in terms of large weight cuts), but for me, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t mind if these guys are bigger than me. I think I can fight those guys anyway. I don’t mind giving away a bit of size, because I know that I’m tough, strong and really game against anyone. It’s not a big weight cut for me, so I’m able to maintain my movement and my strength throughout the fight.”
And frankly, as far as O’Reilly is concerned, a lot of the minutiae that makes up pre-fight chatter is much ado about nothing once the mouthpiece is in and it’s time to throw hands. But one new wrinkle to this fight with Jouban that he admits being happy about is fighting at home.
“I think for some people, certain little things get into their head a little bit more and that type of thing,” he said. “For me, it doesn’t really matter whether I travel or whether something goes a little bit wrong the week before. I’m usually pretty stable going into a fight. But having a fight, not just in Australia but in my hometown is nice because everything is familiar and comfortable. As much as you have to do it as a professional fighter, it’s nice to not have to fly eight hours or 13 hours and fly to another country. It’s just wake up and get it done. That’s going to be nice for sure.”
Fighting in front of more than 200 people, many of those wearing your t-shirt and chanting your name, isn’t too bad either. O’Reilly appreciates it all, and he wants to give back to those who have taken him in as one of their favorites.
“It’s a big honor,” O’Reilly said. “I want to keep momentum rolling, keep the wins coming and build my profile with exciting fights that the fans enjoy. I want to be one of those fighters that the fans want to come to an event to see.”