Neil Magny (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

UFC 202’s Neil Magny: Rolling with the Circus

If rankings don’t mean anything, what is the motivation to sacrifice everything you have to try to become the greatest fighter in the world? If title shots are supposedly the best against the best, how do washed-up veterans get title shots?

The answer is money.

The evolution of MMA as a mainstream sport — which it still is not — has come along a very bumpy road. It has taken decades of instituting everything from the Unified Rules to USADA to try to get a small inkling of a foothold in the mainstream-sports scene, and just when it got close to gaining true legitimacy, along came Conor McGregor.


McGregor has been as much of a problem for fighters as he has been a money grab for the promoters. He is not the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He’s not even close. However, he talks a bunch of crap, and, thirsty for drama, people listen. Promoters love it. McGregor has also not defended his “undisputed” UFC featherweight title since December, and there is no upcoming defense in sight. Fighters hate that.

Ever since McGregor’s larger-than-life ego got bruised when Nate Diaz came in on short-notice and embarrassed the Irishman at UFC 196, the fight game has taken a turn for the worse. In less than a year, fighters who have been spending their entire careers climbing the ranking ladder to get their own title shots are now having to take the backseat to ridiculous match-ups.

After the McGregor-Diaz spectacle, Michael Bisping snagged the middleweight strap and called out a soon-to-be retired Dan Henderson for a grudge match, and newly minted welterweight champ Tyron Woodley is calling out long-retired former champ Georges St-Pierre. Meanwhile, guys like Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and a whole slew of other fighters are wondering why their title shots aren’t scheduled yet, and if they ever will be.

UFC welterweight standout Neil Magny is on one hell of a run. He has only one loss in his last 11 fights. Magny has beaten two potential contenders who were ranked above him — one of whom still is — and, even if he wins his next fight, he has no idea when his title shot will come. When Woodley beat Robbie Lawler for the strap last month, it really threw a wrench in the division.

“To be honest, I’m happy for both men,” Magny told Combat Press. “Robbie Lawler was a former training partner of mine when I was coming up through H.I.T. Squad, and Tyron was my wrestling coach when I was at Southern Illinois University, so I’m really happy to see both guys where they’re at in their career.

“That was definitely a surprising fight for me. Knowing how Woodley has fought in the past, I expected him to go in there and be more cautious, but he didn’t do that at all. He just came out hard and looked for a knockout early.”

Magny is one of the kindest human beings around, so he is not about to speak ill of anyone. However, when Woodley turned around and immediately called out Nick Diaz, who has lost three in a row and was suspended for marijuana, well, that would rub anyone the wrong way. That’s not what is supposed to happen in a real merit-based sport.

“A lot of people are saying that Wonderboy gets the next shot, but [Woodley’s] saying that he wants to hold out for Nick Diaz,” Magny said. “It will be very interesting to see what happens with that fight. I would like the rankings to actually mean something, and the guy who’s ranked number one is the guy who becomes the next contender, but I don’t know how this all works out. For my sake, I hope the rankings mean something and they apply when it comes to title shots. Right now, it’s like, ‘Oh, I want to fight so and so because that seems like a good fight.’ It’s kind of a circus right now with how people get title shots.”

Well, that circus took a huge turn for the worse when a beyond-prime GSP was brought into the mix.

“I’m at the point now where I realize that those rankings don’t mean anything,” said a concerned Magny. “The only opponent that sticks out to me is the guy with the belt. Whether a guy is ranked one through five, or even 10, it doesn’t matter to me. Both of the guys I beat already, Kelvin Gastelum and Hector Lombard, the guys who beat them prior to me both got title shots — Tyron Woodley and Dan Henderson. It’s just a matter of opportunity for me. The biggest thing for me is just waiting for the opportunity for the title shot.”

When the UFC hit the scene back in 1993, it was a new spectacle, but it was not a new sport. The sport had actually been around since Ancient Greece. Even before the Fertitta brothers’ Zuffa, LLC, came in and bought the UFC from the original owners in 2001, Pancrase had become the biggest global promotion, Pride FC was gaining steam, and the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts had passed legislation in New Jersey. The unified rules actually instituted guidelines outlining round duration, weight classes, fouls, the 10-point must scoring system, and even the use of protective equipment. These were all steps toward legitimacy. Giving an oversized featherweight with a big mouth free rein to pick his fights based solely on paychecks only takes away from that legitimacy. It’s a step in the wrong direction and, now, others are following suit.

“It definitely opened up a different side of mixed martial arts,” Magny said. “It’s a sport, but there’s also this entertainment side as well. It’s just another part of the sport that we all have to get used to now.

“I’m not a guy who can get on the mic and say the kinds of things that Conor McGregor says. I do my fighting in the cage, and it shows from fight to fight. I just kind of have to roll with it and see what happens.”

Well, coincidentally enough, what’s happening is that Magny will be headlining the preliminary card of UFC 202 on Saturday night. The event happens to play host to the McGregor-Diaz rematch that many would argue does not need to happen and serves no purpose in any UFC title hunt or even divisional rankings. Through an unfortunate turn of circumstances, Magny will not even be facing the top-10 opponent he was originally slated to face on the main card.

Until about a month and a half ago, Magny was set to meet Dong Hyun Kim, who is currently ranked 10th in the welterweight division. About halfway between the acceptance of the fight and the actual event, Kim had to pull out due to an injury. He was replaced by unranked Lorenz Larkin, who is only 4-5 in the UFC and enters the fight after posting a split decision win in his most recent outing. Larkin is a game opponent, but Magny really deserved a higher-ranked foe.

“It was just frustrating,” said Magny. “I finally get my opportunity to go against a top-10 opponent, and he ends up getting injured after seeing him all weekend in Las Vegas. I mean, he and I were both there for UFC 200. I had seen him that Friday through Sunday, and he didn’t seem injured to me at all. Monday, I get back from training and I get a call from [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva saying that my opponent’s been injured.

“It was just frustrating, more than anything. If he didn’t want to take the fight or he had an injury, it would have been fair to me [for him] to say that three months ago when the fight was coming together, rather than six weeks ago. Then, I could’ve gotten a top-10 opponent. Rick Story’s on the card, and him and a bunch of other welterweights are fighting at that time, so I just felt it was unfair on his part.”

Just like Wonderboy, Jacare or any of the other contenders who are at or very close to a title shot, Magny wants his fair shake. At this point, he’s ready to just keep rolling through opponents, and Larkin is next in line.

“He’s going to be a tough opponent,” Magny admitted. “He’s one of the only guys to beat Robbie Lawler outside of a title fight in the last four years, so he’s definitely a tough opponent. I can’t overlook him, and he’s an exciting fighter. It’s an opportunity to go out there and show what I’m capable of and then get another win under my belt so I can keep moving toward that title shot that I’m working for.

“If I put up a great win against Lorenz Larkin, a lot of fans will be like, ‘When is Neil going to get a title shot?’ I’ve won 11 out of my last 12 fights, finishing guys like Hector Lombard, beating guys like Kelvin Gastelum on two weeks’ notice in a five-round fight, and things like that. I just need to go out there, put up another dominant performance, and the fans are going to keep talking about me getting a title shot.”

Well, a win over Larkin will keep him moving in the right direction, but it’s difficult to know how long it will take Magny to get his title shot when a guy like Wonderboy walks through two top-10 guys after cold-cocking 15th-ranked veteran Jake Ellenberger. The good thing is that while Magny might be frustrated, he’s still the same hard-working nice guy.

Magny is a member of the Elevation Fight Team in Denver. The camp houses one of the largest concentrations of top-level fighters in the entire Rocky Mountain region. With coaches Leister Bowling, Christian Allen and former UFC fighter Eliot Marshall at the helm, the team continues to grow in its headquarters at the MusclePharm training facility.

“It’s been business as usual,” Magny said. “We had Matt Brown move out to Colorado permanently and join our team, and he’s been a great training partner. We’re all working toward the same goal. If I can push him to get a title shot and he can push me to get a title shot, we’ll do the same thing for each other. We’re both just grinding and looking for that title.”

While training is still intense and a lot of drama is brewing in the UFC, life is on the upswing for Magny. He moved to Denver less than five years ago with no place to call home. After his recent successes in the Octagon, he has been able to establish his life well beyond his presence in the ring.

“Recently, I’m trying to use all of those bonuses from my last fights, so I’ve been purchasing some real estate,” said the newfound landlord. “Last year, I purchased my first home, and this year, I purchased my second home. I’ve been trying to start investing in real estate.

“It’s been pretty cool so far. I haven’t had any issues — no strange tenants or anything — and it’s been going pretty well. Four years ago, when I moved to Colorado, I was in a rough spot where I was renting out a spot in a fighter house, and when I switched gyms, I pretty much had nowhere to go and was scrambling to try and find a place. I’m in a position now where I own a home, and it’s a pretty good feeling. It just shows that being faithful and working hard really pays off in the end.”

Unlike some fighters who think they can blow all their money on Bentleys and fancy clothing, Magny has a level head on his shoulders. He is grateful for what he has been able to create for himself. He is not throwing good money for bad. He even competed in the charity grappling event Submit Cancer last weekend at the MusclePharm headquarters, even though it was a week before his fight, because he had made that commitment prior to getting his next opponent. It was by no means a death match, but he was happy to help raise money for cancer research.

Magny is one of the good guys. He works hard and fights hard. He is one of the outspoken proponents of the USADA drug-testing program, and he loves the fact that it levels the playing field as the cheaters are dropping like flies.

While the ridiculousness that McGregor has brought to the UFC is muddying the waters, Magny has faith in the fact that it will all work out in the end. The UFC cannot just ignore the winners forever, simply because an entitled champ wants to make an extra buck. On Saturday night, Magny is ready to remind the world why he deserves to be in the mix.

“Expect another exciting fight from me. I bring it every single fight. Four of my last six fights have all had post-fight bonuses. I bring the most to my opponents and make it exciting for everybody. My fans shouldn’t expect anything less this time around. Even if Lorenz Larkin is not a ranked opponent, I’m looking to get in the books as one of the best welterweights out there.”

Magny would like to thank all of his coaches, training partners, and sponsors at the Elevation Fight Team and MusclePharm. He would also like to thank his family, friends and fans. Follow Neil on Twitter: @NeilMagny