Fittingly, the first mixed martial arts event Sky Sports will show is headlined by the most anticipated all-British fight in the history of the sport, from here at the enormous Mohegan Sun, in Connecticut, the second largest casino resort in the United States.
The meeting of Paul Daley and Michael Page, both 170lb fighters, is a contest that has drawn comparison with the bad blood between Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn in the early nineties. Long in the making, deep of debate over who will leave the combat arena victorious. The bare truth is that no one really knows.
Both men – whose battling sobriquets are respectively ‘Semtex’ and ‘Venom’ – have star qualities, fascinating back stories, and fight as if their lives depended on it.
Veteran Daley, who served in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry, has promised the thirty-third knockout of his 58-fight career against Page, a pirouetting, destructive freestyle kickboxer who converted to MMA after winning seven world titles in kickboxing.
From London, to New York, to Connecticut, our protagonists have left a trail layered with tension.
“The magnitude of the event is apparent. I’ve been doing so much media – ESPN, Sports Illustrated – all the newspapers and papers. They’ve all got behind the fight,” explained Daley to The Telegraph over breakfast in Manhattan midway through fight week. “It’s great not only for me and Page, but for UK MMA too. For two UK fighters to be getting so much attention in the US and headlining an event is ridiculous.”
Michael Page and Paul Daley primed and ready for battle of @BellatorMMA 216 – enjoy The Big Read build-up via @TelegraphSport and watch live on Sunday morning at 3am on @SkySports pic.twitter.com/Bj6qd1jBLc
— Gareth A Davies (@GarethADaviesDT) February 16, 2019
Daley refuses to acknowledge that this is a grudge match of epic proportions, instead focusing on the fact that Page has chased him down. “I think if you take away the grudge aspect that Michael’s insisting on putting in there, it’s just a fantastic fight. I don’t think it needs that extra edge, it’s had it because he called me out and I responded. But it didn’t need the smack.”
“We’re two very talented fighters and we’re both British, and we both finish spectacularly. We’ve both got exciting styles. He’s the flamboyant striker and I’m the hard nose knockout artist.”
Indeed so. Daley has more knockouts on his record than any other fighter active in MMA. The record says 30, but Daley moves to correct that. “It’s 32 knockouts. The two that are in there are submission by strikes but they didn’t tap. They quit so they’re TKOs. 32 knockouts from 40 wins.”
Daley finishes sentences like he finishes fights. With a brutal immediacy.
Not bad for a fighter, by the way, who was banned “for 100 years” by the UFC president Dana White for a sucker punch on Josh Koscheck in Canada in in May 2010. Daley has actually fought in no less than 13 organisations, but has been a long-stay with Bellator MMA since 2015.
“I’ve done really well. The question often pops up about the UFC ban. Maybe if I hadn’t gone on to achieve what I have, maybe if I didn’t any recognition or the chance to headline events there would be an element of bitterness. But for me, the fact the penalty Dana gave me drove me on even more,” explained Daley. “I believed in my talent. I wasn’t going to stop just because he wouldn’t let me fight for him. I knew people would want to see me fight wherever I go. I knew if I kept fighting, kept putting on spectacular fights then I would be able to make a career of this sport and do well.”
Episode 11 is LIVE. We talk about @AaronCGShore quitting MMA, how I saw Aaron's fight unfold…
We interview MVP and Paul Daley and the @BellatorMMA President @ScottCoker
And we talk about how big it is with @SkySports and @channel5_tv involved in MMAhttps://t.co/U553FMUUa9 … https://t.co/7BQJmSBJfn
— Gareth A Davies (@GarethADaviesDT) February 15, 2019
A little more on the fascinating background to this fighter, of Caribbean lineage, but British through and through. He served, famously, before being discharged for brawling, for the Household Cavalry Regiment, who are based at Windsor Barracks, closely serving protection of The Queen. It was the Army Regiment Prince Harry served in.
“Prince Harry and I just missed each other. He was the squadron commander when I was in the Household Cavalry. D squadron, was my squadron. That would have been interesting to have spent some time with him. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I think we just missed each other by a few weeks. He seems like a very nice guy.”
“I think some people, like his mother, you can connect with them without meeting them. You can get a sense of their character and I get that vibe from Prince Harry. He’s seems like a very ‘real’ person.” Harry, moreover, has in recent years championed fight sports and particularly boxing training, as a powerful way of combating depression and mental health. “It’s fantastic he’s championing combat sports,” said Daley.
Paul Daley vs Nick Diaz: the greatest round ever in MMA history, according to Scott Coker
Daley also looked back on the one round of mayhem with Nick Diaz in Strikeforce. “It was madness. We had a game plan that I didn’t stick to against Nick. I got carried away in the moment. I think that fight was a good learning experience, it moulded me.”
“I’ve shown much more composure in fights after that. It’s a bit disappointing that the one everyone remembers is the one you lost. It would have been fantastic to have a rematch, but as I understand it he’s retired. It was a great fight between two young, hungry fighters who wouldn’t back down. It was great for the fans.”
“But the welterweight division at Bellator now is full of beasts. I’m happy I was given the opportunity by Scott Coker to come back. They’ve really looked after me and given me stability. My life is a lot more comfortable for me and my family. I’m thankful for everything. I look forward to many more years with Bellator and I think Scott will give me the chance to do that.”
Sky Sports deal for Bellator and UK MMA is huge, says veteran Daley
“I think for me, the Sky announcement was huge. Especially when you look at the support Sky has given boxing and what they’ve done for British boxing,” Daley told The Telegraph. “We’re the place to be now. Everything they’ve done for boxing, Sky have proved America is no longer the only player in the game. If we can do that with mixed martial arts then everyone that is involved will benefit. I think if you look back to when I started fighting. It was £80 cheques that ended up bouncing, so I ended up fighting for free. It’s amazing to see where the sport is now.”
Growth, reckons Daley, will come with eyes on the sport. “People will see the sport and love the sport, but it’s the people who are ambassadors for the sport which will be most important. If we can connect with the public and become mainstream, like the way they’ve done with Anthony Joshua, if you have those kind of characters the sky’s the limit.”
“This Sport is so action packed and a huge entertainment factor because the match-ups are exciting and unpredictable. Especially with Bellator and how Scott Coker does things, out of all the promotions this is the best one to connect with the British audience.”
We turn in detail to the upcoming battle with Page, and the intensity of the build-up. Daley brushes off Page’s wind up tactics.“I thought his strategy was so obvious I had to do something different. I couldn’t allow him to feel as long he’s in a position of power. Some of it was consciously and some of subconsciously. But everything, the physical and mental preparation, it’s all important for fight night. The mental side, there’s a point where it starts to look desperate. There’s nothing else that he can do to get that edge.”
Daley has blocked all attempts to engage and goad, though at Friday’s weigh in the knockout artist finally unleashed his words on his British rival, refusing to shake hands, or even face off together.
“His attempts to get under my skin are slightly desperate. It gives me comfort that he has nothing else going for him or at least, he feels that. He needs to get some kind of advantage prior to fight night.”
“I think he himself knows he has a long way to go in this sport as far as level of competition and experience. It’s all been plain sailing for him. Everything’s gone right and the way he wants it. It’s when it doesn’t that we saw what he’s made of. Everyone’s got to start somewhere. What has got him to this position is partly his performance and partly his social media. It’s pretty much the way [Conor] McGregor elevated himself to a fight with Floyd Mayweather.”
“If you do well at those kind of things and you’re aware of their impact, then more power to you.”
Rupert Smillie, Daley’s long-term coach, knows the operation they need. They want to be surgical, patient. “Paul is a seasoned professional, he’s not going to be drawn into anything Michael Page has to say. He will go about it in an efficient, destructive manner as usual,” Smillie told The Telegraph.
“Its all part of the game. We can’t say anything about our strategy. It could be any one of those [closing the gaps, setting traps] or all of them. But this is a fantastic opportunity for everyone back home to know what we’ve been doing the last 18 years. It’ll be a good, exciting fight to watch on Sky Sports. Hopefully it will bring forth the next generation of MMA fighters.”
Scott Coker, president of Bellator, told Telegraph Sport that he was “so happy to bring the UK fans this fight, a fight we’ve been trying it put together for the last two years.”
“Talk about a mix of styles that makes MMA so interesting,” explained Coker. “We’ve got a flamboyant karate fighter in MVP and you’ve got Daley who has been around a long time and has knockout power in both hands.”
“This is going to a great fight to watch. It’s something that wasn’t easy to match up. With this tournament, we felt we wanted to put them together, because if we waited it might not have happened. For people in the UK to watch it on Sky Sports live, I hope all those people send me an apology email.”
Coker resided as the head of the Strikeforce fight league over arguably the most dramatic single round in MMA history when Daley went toe-to-toe with fan favourite Nick Diaz.
“That Diaz-Daley round was the greatest round in the history of MMA,” said Coker. “That was the Hagler-Hearns fight in MMA. Go back and watch it, it really was dynamic. Paul knocked him out and punched him again and woke him up. Then it went the other way. I’m telling you right now, that was an unbelievable round. Daley ducks nobody.”
“MVP, you’ve got to give him credit because he’s fought a lot of guys who have had 20, or even 30 fights. That’s what makes it so interesting. They’re both in their prime. When they walk out, the bell rings – it’ll feel like that electric moment you feel in those big prize fights.”
While some fans have questioned the contest taking place in the United States – not the fighters, by the way, and Daley has fought three times in the past at Mohegan Sun – Coker explained the dynamics behind why it was moved to the East Coast.
“We wanted to do the fight in London and London only. We could have done it in the outer area, but then we might as well brought it to the New York area. We wanted to do it in the UK real bad. For a week we looked, tried to move things around and even tried to buy people out of dates.”
“In London there’s Wembley SSE Arena and the O2 Arena, and that’s it for the indoor venues that could hold the size we needed. We couldn’t delay it. We had to do this fight in February because the semi-finals are three months from now and then the final is three months after that. It came down to timing. If we’d done it in June it would have pushed the tournament back until next year. We should end in September I feel. We can make the tournament work within a year.”
Page, meanwhile, spoke to The Telegraph on a journey between New York and the sprawling Mohegan Sun Casino Resort in the vast lands of the Mohegan Tribe. “This is such a big fight everywhere. It’s a big fight in the UK, but the fact we can main event in the States says it’s an extremely massive fight anywhere in the world.”
“For me, I feel like we – myself and Paul Daley – have created it to be this big. It was more deserved in the UK because we built it there. But there’s a different element to it being over here. It feels that much bigger. For the UK fans, we’ve got Sky Sports involved and we’re flying the flag for that. The UK fans are over the moon about it, even though they’re upset about it being away.”
Page wanted a contest with Daley for two reasons: to add to his legitimacy, but also because it became personal. “They didn’t have to pursue me, I was pursuing them. They were equally as excited as me for the electricity to go round and light everything, there was a blockage on Paul Daley’s side. But we’re here now. There’s nothing to complain about. Potentially it worked out for the better. Sometimes people like a bit of a back story and it’s been two years of building this story. Sometimes it’s for the better. I wouldn’t have been happy, though, if this fight didn’t happen.”
The “personal stuff” runs like this, he explained… “In all honesty it had nothing to do with his name being on my record, it was simply personal. I didn’t like what he was saying about me and I wanted to deal with it in the cage. It’s still the same now. I don’t really care for his history. I’m on my own journey and I’m going to be big regardless.”
“It wasn’t solely based on what he had said, but it was more the way it came up. We had been in multiple press conferences together before and we’ve always been asked that question about what would happen if we fought. He’d been very respectful, as I was. We didn’t say we were chasing each other. Then he had an interview after one of his fights and his attitude changed. That’s what I found annoying. I was left in a place where I couldn’t respond. I was taken aback because he’d never spoke like that in my presence. It was basically belittling me. He was (Floyd) Mayweather and I was Adrien Broner – he was basically saying I wasn’t on his level. If you truly believe that then let’s fight.”
Page genuinely feels the enormity of the contest, yet insists it is coming at just the right moment in his unbeaten 11-fight career. “I’ve been doing it for such a long time, my parents met through it. My Dad was massively passionate about his martial arts. He had a really good job for British Telecom years ago and just abandoned all of it to run with his passion.”
“I was raised to show respect through the martial arts – you bow all the time. I remembered I accidentally bowed crossing the road just out of habit. I had to retie my laces that were already tied. I was raised with that martial arts respect. It’s more raw now because a lot of people are just doing MMA, they don’t really have a specific background.”
“Sometimes, depending on what gym you go to, you can bypass the respect aspect. A lot of gyms I’ve heard about have ego issues. In my opinion because there’s no fundamentals of respect when you walk in the gym. I feel the boxing community hasn’t got. It’s very related to gangsters and anybody off the street can come off the street in boxing. They don’t have a baseline in respect. Attitudes in boxing can be horrible sometimes. In MMA I’m hoping it’s consistent. Judo, karate, wrestling and jiu jitsu – they all have that baseline of respect.”
— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) February 16, 2019
On the fight itself, Daley is transparent: it could go anywhere. “I’m a mixed martial artist, I’m really good at kickboxing, but I’m a mixed martial artist now. I’ve got other abilities. The fight could take me anywhere. The likeliness is it’s going to be a stand up fight. There are a lot of guys who believe they can stand with me and don’t believe in my abilities on my feet and end up trying to take me down.”
“I feel the same thing can potentially happen. He might want to opt out of the stand-up and take me to the floor, but he’ll be equally surprised down there. I just chose to kick box because that’s where I feel I can put on my best shows. That’s my best asset so why not stick to it.”
For Daley, the analysis is simple.“It could very well be another knockout. I’m looking at putting on a very exciting show, humbling Michael Page. I’m fit and ready to go five rounds. But, I do not do beatings, I do knockouts so expect a knockout.”
Page is no different, which is what makes the prospect of this fight so utterly mouth-watering. No one knows who will win it. It could go so many ways. Daley must be patient. Close the distance. Page must be wary of his foe’s power.
“Don’t blink. It’s going to be action packed,” Page told The Telegraph. “I feel he might be tentative and slower passed. I feel he’s going to want to drag the fight out because he’s hoping I don’t have the fitness. He’d be wrong. The longer it’s drawn out the more damage he’ll receive. If all goes according to my round, he’s going to have a torture first round. To see that look in his eyes when he realises I’m better than him, I’ll put him out of his misery.”
So now we are here. Page is readier than he has ever been; Daley is primed with his fists and feet cocked. The fans expect. England expects. It is time to deliver.