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Tristan Connelly: Nine years of never saying no finally pays off

33-year-old Tristan Connelly had no desire to play it safe early in his MMA career. That eventually earned him a shot in the UFC.

UFC Fight Night: Pereira v Connelly Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

After his first seven pro fights, Tristan Connelly had a sub-.500 record.

A 3-4 record isn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t getting Connelly any closer to his ultimate goal: a shot in the UFC. But instead of choosing to pad his record by fighting “cans” early in his career, he took fights he probably shouldn’t have. In his second pro fight in 2010, for example, he went to Japan to fight a guy with 28 pro fights. And Connelly went the distance with him.

Would he advise young fighters today to go down the same path of not caring who his opponents were and just wanting to fight and gain experience? Maybe not. But “Boondock” wasn’t afraid of having an ugly record. He knew he’d learn way more from fighting guys who’d been in the sport far longer than him than fighting guys off the street.

“I just always said yes,” Connelly, a Victoria native who now lives in Vancouver, told Bloody Elbow. “I fought the toughest guys I could find.

“You look at all my opponents after I was 4-4. Every single one had a winning record and was ranked. The only fight that I wasn’t an underdog in was the last one right before (signing with the UFC).”

Connelly, who owns Checkmat Vancouver and coaches jiu jitsu at The Sound Martial Arts, said he prefers to give his amateur fighters tough bouts “to see what they’re made of.”

“I want my guys to lose as an amateur,” Connelly said. “I don’t want you to go 8-0 as an amateur and have easy fights, and then go pro and get smashed. I want to see how you react to losing, I want to see how you handle the emotions. If you break at an amateur level, how are you going to do at a pro level or in the big leagues? I need to see you go through these tough moments when it doesn’t matter.”

If you pick and choose your fights early on, Connelly said, things go south quickly when you’re forced to take a step up in competition.

“You see it time and time again,” Connelly said. “These guys come in, you think they’re all hot sh-t, and they get smashed three fights in a row. They’re not ready for guys on the UFC level. And I am.”

A rough start has certainly not defined Connelly’s MMA career. After going 5-5 in his first 10 pro fights, Connelly started putting together some actual winning streaks that got him some attention across the Canadian MMA scene. Connelly, 33, now holds a 14-6 record and has won five in a row, topped by an epic win in his UFC debut last weekend at UFC Vancouver.

Connelly stepped up on five days’ notice against Michel Pereira in a heavier weight class. Pereira missed weight for the welterweight bout, weighing in at 172 pounds. Connelly, meanwhile, usually fights at 155 pounds.

It was a big ask for Connelly. There was a lot of hype behind Pereira, who had recently won his own UFC debut in impressive fashion. He uses a lot of unorthodox attacks — and, well, non-attacks — in his fights, such as flips and kicks off the cage.

The odds were against Connelly, and he didn’t have to say yes to the fight. But when does he ever say no?

Connelly weathered the early Pereira storm, and once his opponent tired, took over. Connelly nearly finished the Brazilian on multiple occasions, earning a unanimous decision win on home soil in what was one of the biggest upsets of the year.

Saying yes to every fight hasn’t always gone in Connelly’s favor, but it did Saturday night — when it mattered most.

The result didn’t at all surprise Connelly, though — or his team. It almost seems as if they knew something no one else did.

“Everyone I knew knew I was gonna do it,” Connelly said. “None of us were surprised. None of my corner, none of my team — none of us were surprised. Not at all.”

Connelly, perhaps one of Canada’s best kept secrets in MMA until his win over Pereira, has felt like he has belonged in the UFC for a lot longer than the past week.

“It’s nice to finally get the recognition for all the work I’ve done,” Connelly said. “I’m just getting what I deserve. People are like, ‘You got $100,000.’ That’s back pay for years and years and years of sacrifice and dedicating everything I do in my life to this sport.”

Whether he believes it or not, Saturday night changed Connelly’s life forever. But there was a time not too long ago Connelly didn’t expect any of this to happen.

“Obviously you always hope, but I accepted the fact that I probably wasn’t getting to the UFC,” Connelly said. “I fought because I loved fighting and wanted to be the best me I could be. It was a dream, but it was kind of a pipe dream at some point. It was like, whatever.”

It took nine years for Connelly to realize his dream of stepping foot inside the Octagon — probably longer than he initially anticipated it would take — but Connelly said it was worth the wait.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Connelly said. “It’s perfect. Everything is perfect. Obviously it would’ve been good in the past, but I can’t complain. It’s a Cinderella story.”

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