On Saturday, Nov. 1 the biggest rivalry in UKMMA today will reach it’s crowning moment. In the main event of Cage Warriors 73 in Newcastle Steven Ray and Curt Warburton will go to war for the final time in a rubber to match that will decide for good and all who the better man is.
With two previous encounters and two championships exchanged, it all started on March 9, 2013 at BAMMA 12 where UFC veteran Curt ‘The War’ Warburton (13-5) halted the advance of Scotland’s young up and comer with a unanimous decision victory to claim the BAMMA-Lonsdale British Lightweight Championship. The rematch came the following year with a newly developed ‘Braveheart’ taking the Cage Warriors lightweight crown back to Scotland after a hard fought split-decision win at CWFC 69.
From the moment their rivalry began, Ray’s drive and passion has seen him continue to evolve as a fighter which in turn has made things hard for Warburton with each installment. Furthermore, Ray feels that fighting in Newcastle on the local turf of his opponent will play no factor. As an underdog, and far less experienced fighter in their first Newcaslte meeting, Ray put in a highly respectable account of himself, something that he feels Warburton did not see coming, and that knowledge of his ever improving game will be eating away at Warburton as the final confrontation draws nearer.
“There’s a lot of hype around it,” explained Ray (15-5). “I think people are intrigued just to see what’s going happen and how it’s going to play out; it’s one each so that’s always exciting – to see who’s gonna get the last laugh. If he’s training as hard as I am, which I’m sure he is, then it’s going to be one helluva fight.
“Curt was quite arrogant the first time, saying things like “What’s Stevie gonna do? He’s away to Tristar for four weeks, he’s going to come back thinking he’s a wrestler, but he’s not gonna be able to take me down, blah blah blah,” I think probably he did underestimate me. In the second round I took him down, he was in danger, I took his back, but now he’s realized I’m a lot better, and more experienced. Even before then, the first time I fought him I’d only just joined the Dinky Ninjas, I think I’d been with them for not even six months; whereas, I used to just train in Fife – where I used to live – at a small club. I was doing well but the training I’m doing now compared to what I was doing then – I have to kind of laugh at was I was doing back then, but I was still successful.
“Now, I’m training with the best team in Scotland, and one of the best in Europe. I’ve got all the best coaches behind me, and I know that I’m self driven, motivated, and putting in the work to beat him. I showed that in the last fight.
“Curt’s a sound guy, after the fights I was speaking to him on Twitter with private messaging; speaking about MMA in general, and he congratulated me for winning, but I don’t know if he just started being a bit of a d*ck to get the fight in place. After he congratulated me – speaking to me all nice on Twitter, then a couple of days later he’s saying he won the fight. I didn’t know where that came from. I think he was just trying to get Cage Warriors to give him a fight again. He knows himself he’s not getting any younger; if he’s going to make anything out of MMA he’s got to do it soon, so I think it’s something to do with that.
“I don’t really see it as personal, I just tweet back and have a laugh, he’s been quite quiet lately, so I think he was talking his way into it, and now that he’s got it he’s concentrating, but he’ll be nervous. About nine days to the fight in his home town – a lot of people are depending on him winning, so I think he’s starting to realize it’s real now.
“No matter where it is – it could be in his back garden – once the cage door shuts you don’t hear them anyway. It’s in Newcastle, and all the people who don’t even know him will be cheering him, but I’ve sold the most amount of tickets that I’ve ever sold at a show, so I kind of feel like I’m fighting in my home town as well. There’ll be a lot of boos, but trust me, my crowd’s a bit mental.
“He beat me the first time in Newcastle, I think in the same arena actually, he was the better man on the night. I believe I’ve gotten better since then and I proved that in the last fight. He even said in an interview that he’s glad he beat me then because he knows I’m an up and comer, and that he wouldn’t like to fight me in a few years time which is exactly what’s happening. I’m getting better all the time, I’m still young and probably not even in my prime yet.”
Having leveled the playing field with Warburton, Ray’s new found arch-rival took aim at the Scotsman’s performance, and suggested that the newly crowned Cage Warriors champion was not feeling overly self assured following the split-decision.
“I don’t know why he’s even thinking about that, if it makes him feel better that I was depressed about winning the Cage Warriors world title, then just saying that sounds stupid. Why the hell would I be depressed about winning the world title? I wasn’t in the best mood, but it was nothing to do with winning the title. I had other complications with my partner that I had to deal with after the fight, maybe that’s why he thinks I was depressed about winning the world title, but it was the best feeling ever, you could see after the fight – I dropped down. I was surprised it was a split decision, but I still appreciate all the judge’s decisions.”
It was revealed last year that Ray had spent time training at the world famous Tristar Gym in Montreal, Canada alongside the likes of former UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre. However, while most would perhaps jump to the conclusion that training with the world’s top fighters at a top camp would be a blast; for Ray, the experience didn’t feel completely worthwhile. Now, heading into the biggest fight of his career, Ray has shifted his preparations for ultimate productivity having moved home to reduce a two-hour round trip for training to just 10 minutes with The Griphouse and Dinky Ninjas Fight Team serving as his base of operations.
“I’ve just done my camp at my home club Dinky Ninjas. [Tristar] has benefited me in the long term, but one of the things with going to Tristar is the very first time I went was all a rush, it was a last minute thing. I was there for three weeks so it wasn’t that long. Getting there, settling in, and getting three week’s training done, then flying home and training for a week here just wasn’t the best preparation. Even though I’m getting great training when I go over, it was the first time so obviously the people at Tristar aren’t as interested in me as they are their own fighters whereas here at Dinky I’ve got James Doolan – my main coach; we’ve got about eleven fighters fighting soon, and ten other guys the week after mine. He knows, and so does everyone else that mine’s important so James has been putting a lot of concentration and drills based on me.”
Before the rubber match with Warburton was even put together, Ray took the opportunity to further develop his strength and conditioning prior to his fight preparations – a decision of which has allowed him to enjoy a much more fight-specific camp with the ability to iron out creases making for a near perfect experience.
“When you’re sparring the same guys all the time you know what he’s good at and what he’s going to do. Sparring with someone you’ve not done much with before is cool, just to mix it up a bit, and it’s not as boring as well.
“I believe I beat Curt at his own game in the last fight, I believe that I’m the better fighter everywhere. I know he’s dangerous, and I’m not going to take him lightly, but I just believe that I’ve got better Jiu Jitsu than him, better wrestling than him, and better striking than him. The only advantage you could point out that he’s got is that he’s taller than me, and he’s got more reach, but you look at the last fight and you’d think I was the taller fighter, I was keeping it at range.
“This fight is going to be another level that he doesn’t expect. I’m stronger than before, I’m faster than before, and my technical ability is a lot better as well, so he’s in for a shock.
“I don’t see anywhere in the fight that Curt’s gonna be able to give me problems, at all.”
The 24-year-old father and husband to be is fully aware that now is the time to step things up, and use his skills upon the platform of mixed martial arts to provide a solid future for his family. Ray has drawn inspiration from a number of his team mates at Dinky Ninjas including TUF 20 contestant and UFC strawweight Joanne Calderwood, UFC featherweight Robert Whiteford, and in addition, Irish star Conor McGregor whose monumental leap from the doll cue to headlining UFC shows with six-figure paychecks has left footprints that Ray hopes to follow.
“My whole life for the last 8-12 weeks has just been training non-stop. I’ve not got much other time in my life for anything, it’s been a bit hard on my fiance because we’ve just moved out here; she’s probably struggling a lot more than I am, because I’m going to train at least while she’s stuck in here with the kids.
“Everything’s been great (at Dinky Ninjas). I’ve won the Cage Warriors title twice, it was good to win that back. Robert’s in the UFC – he won his last fight, Jo’s on the Ultimate Fighter and she’ll be signed for the UFC now. By seeing them get to the UFC I know I’m not far away, and that’s where I want to get to.
“We’ve got up and coming guys, people nobody knows of yet that are doing really well. I’m in a good team and a lot of successful fighters is always a good thing.
“Even Conor McGregor – the success he’s got right now in the UFC, and the amount of money he’s probably making now, whereas he was on BT Sport the other day saying he was signing on the doll a week before his UFC call. That’s exactly what I’m looking to do, I’ve not got the most amount of money either as MMA doesn’t pay the greatest, and I’ve got a family. I’ve won the belt and I like fighting, if I had money I would fight for free.”
Photo credit: Steven Ray – Dolly Clew|Cage Warriors, Steven Ray vs. Sean Carter – Mark Blundell