Before there was Georges St-Pierre fighting in Montreal, there was Sean Pierson. Sure, Pierson is not a world title holder and you will never hear the humble Ontario native comparing himself to his training partner, but facts are facts, and in 1999, three years before GSP stepped into the ring for the first time, Pierson was putting on the gloves and stopping future UFC fighter Steve Vigneault in the first round.
Back then in Canada, it wasn’t like it is now for mixed martial artists. There weren’t 23,000 people packing the Bell Centre the way they will this Saturday night for the UFC 124 event, and the sport wasn’t even seen as a sport in many locales. To some, mixed martial arts was “two men enter, one man leaves,” with a plate of raw meat going to the winner.
“It wasn’t that far off. We definitely weren’t fighting for the money. I had the dream of one day trying to fight in the UFC, and that was my UFC back then – we had IFC in Montreal. There were a lot less rules, I think there were two weight classes, and I don’t remember if the athletic commission was involved, but if they were, they weren’t involved to the same level that they are now, so it was almost like the original UFCs. But skill still prevailed, even back then, and as the sport’s grown, it’s gotten a lot better and a lot safer for the athletes.”
But in those early days, fighting was a way for Pierson to keep the competitive juices flowing after a stellar wrestling career that earned him the following accolades: Multiple-Time Canadian National Greco Champion, Canadian University National Freestyle Champion, and a seventh place showing at the World University Games. MMA was a natural next step for the Scarborough native, but after posting a 4-3 record from 1999 to 2003, a four year layoff ensued.
“I’m definitely a family guy, first and foremost,” explained Pierson. “I had a serious girlfriend for a long time who I’m now married to, and for me it was that I needed to start building my life. I just wanted to get established a little bit. And in case the fighting didn’t work out, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t chasing a dream and making my family sacrifice for my dream. I got myself a house, I got married, we had a baby, and I wanted to make sure all that was established and I had a strong foundation. But then, like always, mixed martial arts draws me back in. I’m starting to watch shows, I’m training with friends, and I got that competitive itch again to do this.”
It didn’t hurt that Vigneault, who he beat twice before losing a decision to him in his last fight before the layoff, found his way to the UFC for a 2006 bout against Mike Swick. Well, it did hurt emotionally, but in terms of providing a spark for a comeback, it was a biggie.
“To be honest, I was upset a little bit,” he said. “I’ll never make an excuse for a loss because it’s all a hundred percent in my control, but I actually thought I won my last Vigneault fight. Then he’s in the UFC and I’m sorta sitting there going, ‘okay.’ But I wasn’t looking at fighting as a career choice back then and I wasn’t making the best decisions.”
In March of 2007, Pierson returned to active duty with a first round TKO of Chester Post, and with the exception of a loss to Jesse Bongfeldt in July of that year, he hasn’t lost since, winning five in a row, all by KO or submission in the first round. Now he’s on the verge of realizing a dream as he makes his UFC debut this Saturday against Matt Riddle, and he’s not just fighting for himself anymore.
“When I had my son two years ago, I made the decision that if I was going to continue fighting, I had to make a real go at this, because he’s gonna see these fights six, seven, eight years from now and I just want him to be proud of what I tried to do rather than just wasting my time,” he said. “On top of that, any time I spend away from my family is valuable time. And I can’t train half-assed because those hours that I miss my family need to mean something. So that was when I re-evaluated and said that if I want to make a go at the UFC, I need to do it now.”
And while he’s older than most UFC newcomers at 34, his maturity and experience, both in competition and out, along with his wrestling credentials, make up for the ten years in age he gives up to Riddle.
“Obviously being young has its advantages, but the one thing this is for me is that it’s kept me grounded,” he said. “I’m at a spot in my life right now where I know what the important things are to me and I realize that the five minutes of fame that I might get or whatever it is, I still have the focus in my life to be a good role model to my son and a good husband and father overall, and everything else is just gravy. I’ve accomplished my goal by getting to the UFC, and now I’m setting new goals – I want some wins, I want to do this and I want to do that, but this is all gravy for me. I’m going out to do the best I can and I’m focused on the fights.”
That focus begins with The Ultimate Fighter alumnus Riddle, who has grown up in the Octagon, a place where he’s had all his pro fights.
“He’s a very tough kid,” said Pierson. “Obviously he’s young and a little outgoing, which is much like I was earlier in my career. I give him a lot of credit - to go 5-1 in the UFC is no easy task and I know that he’s a solid fighter just based on that alone. I watched almost all of his fights and he’s a game fighter and improving with every fight, so I anticipate an even better Matt Riddle in the fight with me than he was in his last fight, so I’ve got to go out there and show that I belong here, and I think it’s gonna be a bit of a war.”
In a war, it’s always important to get the first shot in. In this scenario, Pierson knows what he wants to do in order to get his respect immediately, and that’s be aggressive.
“I always fight like that,” he said. “All 10 of my wins ended in the first round, I’m very aggressive, and at the same time I can only control what I do. I’ve learned to realize that over my career as a wrestler and as a competitor in MMA. I can’t control what Matt does, I can’t control his strategy, so I’m gonna go in there and try to put my will on him on how I want the fight to happen, but I know that Matt’s training to do what he wants to do, which may be completely opposite.”
If it sounds like Sean Pierson has run through every possible scenario for his UFC debut, it’s because he has. He knows the lay of the land in the Bell Centre since he’s fought there before, he calls Montreal a home away from home, and as far as preparing for a UFC fight, he’s done it a thousand times in his head. Now he’s got to put that knowledge to use in the biggest fight of his life, one he’s been waiting for almost that long.
“I’ll be honest – if I win, you might see a tear,” he said. “When you do something and you’ve got a dream that you set 14 years ago and all of a sudden it comes to fruition, it’s weird because people are always asking me how it feels (to be in the UFC) and it’s a mixed bag of emotions. I’m so happy that I’m here, but I’m not just here – now I’ve got to go out and perform now. Just because I got here doesn’t mean anything; I want to stay here.”
Free Prelims on UFC.com/Live
For the first time ever, two preliminary bouts will be aired live and free online at http://www.ufc.com/live.
The Dustin Hazelett vs Mark Bocek and Dan Miller vs Joe Doerksen fights
will be available to everyone worldwide at no charge starting at 9pm
ET/ 6pm PT/ 2am GMT.