Kissing a Legend: Craig White Rides the Chaos Back Home to Cage Warriors

Kissing a Legend: Craig White Rides the Chaos Back Home to Cage Warriors

By Keith Turrell  

By any measurement 2018 was a chaotic year for Craig White. ‘The Thundercat’ made three appearances in an MMA cage; moving from UK promotion Cage Warriors to the UFC inside three months where he would go on to battle two highly talented veterans before being surprisingly released from the organisation as the year wound down. White will now return to Cage Warriors at its 102nd show, taking place at London’s O2 Arena in March of this year.

At the start of 2017 White had a professional record of 10 wins and 7 losses and though he had certainly shown improvement during his career you could be forgiven for assuming that the numbers spoke more about a journeyman than a surging prospect. For White though, February of that year would be the start of a path that would see him claim some of the MMA spotlight for himself and a weigh-in memory that will live long in the minds of UFC fans the world over.

Now 10 years into his professional run in the sport, 2019 see’s the 28-year-old looking for the Cage Warriors title that had to be side-lined last year due to his unexpected call-up to the big show.

In late March of 2018 White had beaten Alex Montagnani with a triangle choke in the second round of their Cage Warriors 92 scrap that extended his unbeaten run to four, with all four being impressive finishes. Meanwhile, the UFC was beginning to put plans into place for a Fight Night event in Liverpool that was set to be headlined by a blockbuster main event at the top of the welterweight rankings between Darren Till and Stephen Thompson.

As the year headed toward the May date for this show a bout between Neil Magny and Gunnar Nelson was looking like the favoured matchup for the co-main, that was until Nelson had to pull out due to injury. An unfortunate circumstance that led the UFC to have to consider a late replacement to keep Magny on the card.

“All I could hear in my head was, ‘You’re 98 kilos (216-pounds) — what the f..k are you doing?’ Two seconds later I accepted the fight.”

It would be just two weeks away from May 27th when Craig would get the call. At that time he was weighing 216 pounds but with a UFC call-up being a long-held dream for the Dave Matthews’ trained fighter there was no doubt he was about to embark on the mammoth weight cut required to get down to 170 for the opportunity. It’s an incredible achievement to make it at all but I can’t help but think that the intense focus on shedding the weight hindered his performance in the fight.

White would start the bout well; engaging Magny in a clinch battle and not looking at all overpowered by the UFC stalwart who was a -600 favourite going in. It would be towards of the end of the first round that the pressure would eventually become too much for The Thundercat, the fight going down to the ground leading to some heavy strikes from the then 12th ranked welterweight who would take the win by TKO.

Neil Magny is a tough challenge on your best day for even the elite in the UFC so a loss here with all the circumstances surrounding the fight is not something White should ever be ashamed of. For his part he would get another chance with the aid of a full camp but it wouldn’t be an entry-level opponent, instead White would again test the deep end, this time against one of the fiercest competitors in UFC history.

Diego ‘The Nightmare’ Sanchez is one of the most legendary figures in MMA. A man with 39 full professional fights and the winner of the very first season of The Ultimate Fighter way back in 2005. To say he has been around the block would be an understatement, Diego was no doubt an onlooker as the block was built. He was, remarkably, coming into this fight with Craig White at UFC 228 a slight underdog at +170 with the Las Vegas bookmakers. He had just suffered two straight losses by finish however, so this was lined up as a golden opportunity for White to build a name off the back of a fan favourite and make his mark in the promotion’s welterweight mix.

“Within five minutes it was on BBC news. Everyone back home was texting me, ‘What the f..k are you doing? What have you done that for? You never do this’. I was just like, ‘I don’t know, it just felt like the right thing to do at the time.’”

The weigh-in faceoff between the two is set to become something of an MMA urban legend. As White was about to come face to face with Sanchez’s customary scowl he leaned in and planted a kiss on Diego’s nose. This of course drew great cheers from the fans in attendance but visibly incensed Sanchez who began to insult and threaten White on stage.

Craig would look back on the incident recently and with hindsight have no regrets: “It’s so out of character for me and I don’t know if I’d ever do it again. It was just in the heat of the moment. I said, ‘I’m going to do it to hype the fight up.’ I knew it would get to him and it was all for that. It was to try and build a bit more behind the fight.” Whether it impacted Sanchez’s performance can never really be known but unfortunately for White the resulting contest wouldn’t go in his favour regardless.

White would start each of the fight’s three rounds well; coming out of his corner aggressively and pushing Sanchez back. In the first he would go for an early guillotine attempt, in the second he forced Diego to retreat with strikes and even more impressively in the third he dropped the New Mexico native to the mat but as in the previous rounds as soon as Sanchez was able to pull the fight to the ground he would take over.

White appeared unable to get back to his feet once his back hit the canvas, taking heavy shots and pressure underneath Sanchez who ground the fight out to a unanimous decision victory. While The Nightmare had not finished a UFC fight since 2008 there is still a moral victory in surviving his dominating style, particularly as a promotional newcomer, but it still didn’t change the fact that White was now 0-2 on the sports biggest stage.

He would find after the loss that an encouraging invitation to attend the UFC Performance Institute would not be a good omen as he received the call shortly following his trip there to inform him that he had been cut from the roster. A whirlwind few months had not ended with another chance but Craig took the experience with the maturity of a fighter eager to learn from the opportunity and the hunger to get back there as soon as possible.

“I wouldn’t change any of it, the whole experience that I had with the UFC…taking the Magny fight on short notice and struggling with the weight cut, I wouldn’t change that. Going to Dallas and kissing Diego Sanchez, I wouldn’t change that. Obviously, I’d change my performances if I could, but there’s no point dwelling on it. It’s just something that happened and it’s done now and I’ve got to look to the future.”

The future that White refers to is a March 2nd date in London for Cage Warriors, the promotion that launched him onto the world stage; a homecoming of sorts for the Devon based fighter. He returns to a much more complex welterweight picture than the one he left behind.

A strong champion in Ross Houston currently holds the belt with UFC veteran Nicolas Dalby taking on Alex Lohoré for an interim strap in Copenhagen just a week after the London event. The quality at the top of the division is higher than ever but although White took the scenic route to it he will be confident that one or two impressive wins will put him right back in the hunt.

There is no substitute for publicity and his exploits in Dallas have raised his stock in the MMA world immeasurably, ensuring that a fighter once feared to be treading water is only a couple of big moments away from getting another crack at the elite in the sport and being a couple of inches distance from planting a kiss on the nose of another legend.

Quote Credits: Eurobash with Peter Carroll / MMA Fighting

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