It may be that the most depth and richness in our lives’ stories can be found in their connective tissue, the quiet, private spaces between the big moments that get the most external recognition. A happy tear-filled marriage proposal, for example, is momentous, but would it have ever been possible without other much smaller occurrences?
A head rested with trust on the shoulder, a hug that somehow felt perfect, a glance spontaneously held longer than expected. This is also true in the sporting lives of the athletes we all watch on television.
We all see and commemorate a series-clinching walk-off home run, but the slugger’s success and related memories go further back — to extra swings in batting practice, to film-study, to encouragement when it was needed most from a coach or loved one, to being introduced to the sport as a child. The moments recognized as “big” are made possible by the ones too often dismissed as small.
As I sit to talk with Tristan Connelly on Sunday afternoon, it’s been mere hours since his stunningly successful UFC debut. He’s still in his fight-week hotel in Vancouver.
Soon, he and his family and team will make the drive back home, about 40 minutes away. We’re sharing a quiet moment in between big ones.
His win over Michel Pereira at UFC Vancouver main card Saturday was one of the most striking upsets of the year so far, and certainly of the night. Connelly accepted the fight on just five days’ notice.
The fight was at welterweight (15 pounds heavier than he normally fights at lightweight), against one of the most highly touted prospects in the UFC, who happens to be nearly a decade younger than the 33-year-old. What’s more, despite being guaranteed a preparation, size and weight advantage against Connelly, Pereira did not make weight on Friday, weighing in a pound over the allowance.
Connelly decided to still go through with the bout, and then proceeded to outclass and outlast Pereira over three rounds and bring his hometown Vancouver crowd to a roar with an underdog win.
After his impressive big-stage performance in his own backyard, the Checkmat Vancouver coach and gym owner might very well be on the verge of experiencing a boon in business from locals interested in learning from an elite fighter like himself. That, too, would be a big moment.
Sitting with him, Sunday, I’m torn between wanting to ask after and learn all sorts of details of his past, and wanting to get insight into more recent things from the past week. I’d love to be exhaustive and explore all the sinew of a life previously led largely outside of public view, now suddenly thrust into the shine of bright, international lights.
Still, I’m talking to a guy who just went three rounds and hasn’t even gotten to go home yet. So, I try to split the difference and cut the polite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt a break, not asking him about every single thing I’d like to, right now.
Sticking with it, for love
Connelly has won 9 out of his last 10 fights, and three so far already this year. He’s got a good record and now a UFC win under his belt.
Back on the night of Oct. 17, 2015, however, he’d just lost a decision at an event called “BFL 39: Halloween Hell,” and walked back into the locker room with a pro record of 5-5.
Connelly had trained since 19 years of age, and went directly into the pro ranks. Missing out on the opportunities to develop and learn as an amateur, Connelly says he didn’t always fight opponents with commensurate experience, coming up the ranks.
“I don’t think I ever said ‘no’ to a fight,” he says, Sunday.
I believe it. After all, he’s a guy who just accepted a UFC fight on five days’ notice, up a weight class.
These days, Connelly is in the gym, full-time, teaching and training. Back then, Connelly also split his time between training and bartending and working security at clubs and bars.
He didn’t get the right sleep, worked and partied a little too late and a little too often as a 20-something.
Fighting wasn’t paying Connelly’s bills, and in 2015, after five years in the sport, he didn’t have a record that would get the attention of the big promotions. He’d had a good run, done more than most.
Still, he wasn’t done. “The only reason to continue fighting at that point was because I loved it,” he recounts.
That love was immediate, he says. “Since my first jiu-jitsu class,” he continues.
“I walked in just to try it, not knowing anything about it and of course I got my butt kicked (laughs). I wanted to learn that and I was hooked. I went to training five days a week pretty fast, then did jiu-jitsu tournaments, kickboxing, some pankration.”
Then, someone asked him if he wanted to take a pro MMA fight, and he did. Connelly won it, but then would remain a .500 fighter for half a decade before he made a move and some important lifestyle changes.
“Back then I was living in Victoria. After I met my now wife we moved to Vancouver and I started training there. I started training with people who I’d fought and who had beaten me. I started focusing on it, and doing things the right way.”
Connelly still wasn’t saying “no” to many fight offers, but he now had experience and a shift in commitment. He didn’t just love fighting anymore, he also loved training smarter, preparing better game plans, and centering his life around it all.
Just over two years ago Connelly took over the gym he’d been training at, and he and his partners and teammates have developed one of the more successful competition teams in the area. When the UFC announced they’d be returning to Vancouver, Connelly made sure to get himself ready in case he could be called up on short-notice to fight.
The rest is now officially big moment history, but it wouldn’t have been possible had he not decided to stick with his passion years ago, long before the prospect that it would bring him any glory.
“Let that be a lesson to everyone, find what you love and do it,” he advises.
“Stick with it. If you have to do a s--- job to support yourself while you do it, so be it, but don’t give up doing what you love.”
Weakness and wisdom
After beating Pereira, Connelly met backstage with assembled media and insisted that he didn’t take offense to his opponent’s showboating before and during their fight. Still, I can’t help but wonder what went through the Canadian’s mind at a couple junctures last week.
Connelly has been magnanimous in public, but what did he think after Pereira not only missed weight, but then later that day backflipped off of the scale at the ceremonial weigh-ins? First, Connelly corrects me, with a laugh.
“And, he didn’t land the backflip,” he specifies.
“I smelled weakness,” he goes on. “I thought, ‘he gave up on making weight. Imagine what he’ll do when he’s in there with me.’ I knew I wouldn’t quit, back down. I know I’m not tapping out until my limb is about to break, and I’m not tapping to a choke — you have to choke me out — and you have to knock me out because I’m never stopping trying to intelligently defend myself.”
The next day, after Connelly made his very first walk into the UFC cage he had to wait for a long time as Pereira and his corner took their time making their way to the ring, delayed by the charismatic prospect leading his coaches in a choreographed dance routine. What went through the mind of “Boondock,” in those moments, as he waited and waited to finally get his big league debut underway?
“I couldn’t see him during his walk, so couldn’t see him do his dance,” he clarifies.
“I expected that, though. And, whatever works for you, I’m all for it. If he feels that helps him get up and ready to fight, I’m all for it. But, at a certain point you’re wasting energy.”
The veteran says he had a similar thought once the fight began and Pereira leaped around and on the cage, hitting more backflips, jumping off the fence, but not really connecting with any offense on Connelly.
“Doing that, doing all the jumping and flipping he did right away in the fight, I expected that, and I was fine with it. Watching him I was thinking, ‘that’s fine, use your energy.’ I really wasn’t offended, I just thought it wasn’t the best thing for him, so I was fine with it. I mean, if he hadn’t done all that stuff, we probably wouldn’t have gotten fight of the night.”
Pereira was the star all week long and certainly impressed the crowd and world with his skilled gymnastics early in the fight. Soon, however, Pereira’s flash began to dim as Connelly protected himself with solid defense and began to hurt Pereira on the feet and threaten with submissions on the ground.
As the final horn sounded, Connelly rained down strikes on a felled Pereira. From the outside, it seemed as though Pereira was effectively “saved by the bell,” and that if Connelly had a few more moments to work with, he would have stopped the favorite.
He doesn’t see things quite that way, though he does feel that he’d effectively broken the Brazilian’s will to win.
“At the end he still had fight in him,” Connelly believes.
“I knew I broke him but his eyes were still in it. He was doing just enough to not get put away. There were other spots in the fight where I felt I could have finished him, and even there, if I had gone to mount I may have been able to.”
Despite being a lot younger than Connelly, Pereira is himself already a veteran of 35 pro MMA fights. Connelly wants to see “Demolidor” do well, and said he’s even drafted up some notes of advice for the 25-year-old that he’s trying to get translated by a friend into Portuguese so he can pass along to Pereira.
“I’m not fighting at welterweight again so I want him to do well. It makes me look better if he does,” he laughs.
“I want everyone who’s beaten me to do great. Michel has all the ability in the world. I see greatness in him, he just needs to fight a bit smarter at times.”
Take that as patronizing, or take it as sincere and well-meaning advice from an older man who is honest about how he himself had to learn to fight more tactically over the years. With the appreciation for one another both men have shown immediately after their bout, I’ll lean toward the latter.
More change is coming
We’re winding up our conversation, and Connelly says he’ll be packing up and leaving his hotel soon. After making an inspiring splash in his major league debut Saturday, Connelly has reflected a bit on several crucial moments in his life that led to it.
For him, talking to a writer from his room after that must undoubtedly be a small moment sandwiched in between big ones. The storybook-esque hometown win as an underdog and now, if there’s any justice, a period of growth for his Checkmat Vancouver gym and a return to lightweight as a UFC winner.
Connelly says he expects things to change a bit for him and his family. He expects his gym to grow, at least he hopes so.
They’ve already got a big, beautiful facility, and a thriving amateur and pro MMA team that Connelly coaches but that he describes as more of a collaborative coaching effort. Still, there’s room for growth.
“Right now, we’re mostly a fight gym,” he explains.
He says he wants to devote more time to beginners as well, moving forward, so he can spread the thing he fell in love with immediately all those years ago, the thing he stuck with, and that always paid off in terms of joy and fulfillment, but that now might start paying off financially as well.
“I have the best job in the world,” he ends.
“I couldn’t imagine working at a job I hated. There are days of course when you may not want to train as much as other days, but no matter how I’m feeling, I get to work in something I love, that I’m passionate about.”
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