WHEN Casey O’Neill lost her first MMA fight as a fresh-faced 15-year-old, the prospect of progressing to the UFC, which represents the absolute pinnacle of her sport, seemed a long way off. 

Indeed, in the aftermath of that first loss, her coach tried to persuade her that she was just not made for the cut and thrust of what is probably the most brutal sport on the planet, suggesting she give up on the competitive side of things and instead, take part merely for fun. 

However, O’Neill would not be deterred, even though the absence of any female fighters in the UFC as she was coming through the sport made it seem fanciful that just a few years later, she would be penning a UFC contract herself. 

Just a few weeks ago though, at the age of only 23, O’Neill put pen to paper, becoming the newest member of an elite group of Scots who can call themselves UFC fighters. It is, she admits, a dream come true. 

“I always dreamt about reaching the UFC but when I lost that first fight I would have thought you were crazy to say I’d end up there,” she said.  

“Only a few people make it to the very top so it’s always a bit of a pipe dream until you actually get there.  

“Losing that fight didn’t put me off, although it put everyone around me off. But I’m so glad I didn’t listen to anyone else and so now to have signed for the UFC is brilliant.  

“This is what every MMA fighter dreams of, fighting for the top promotion in the world. With everything that’s going on, it made it hard to be really over-excited and so I think it’ll be when I get my first fight the real excitement kicks in.  

“But I’m so grateful I’ve got the contract and I’m where I want to be.” 

O’Neill was born and bred in Kilmarnock before moving with her family to Australia at the age of ten. She still retains an unmistakable Scottish accent, although it is now mixed with an Australian lilt, and it was on Scotland’s west coast she began to build the foundations that would eventually take her to the UFC.  

O’Neill began kickboxing alongside her father and although she took a short break from the sport when she moved down under, she never lost that love of fighting. At the age of thirteen, she developed an interest in jujutsu but it was when her dad set up an MMA promotion in Australia she began to see herself moving in that direction, although the UFC still seemed an impossible goal. 

“I remember telling my dad at the first show he ran that I was going to be fighting for him soon and he just said ‘no way – my daughter isn’t going to be an MMA fighter’,” O’Neill recalled.  

“I think that as a parent, it’s a hard thing to accept that your kid wants to get punched in the face for a living but actually my dad came round pretty quickly, although my mum took a little longer. 

“I’d always watched MMA but I never thought it was possible for me because at that point, there were no girls in the UFC, there were no girls in the higher levels of the sport at all for you to see. I was always watching the boys fight and so I’d never seen it as an option for me.” 

Her debut loss was not a sign of things to come though. O’Neill moved through the ranks, turning professional last year before becoming Eternal strawweight champion and boasting a 5-0 pro record with her most recent victory being an impressive win at the UAE Warriors event in Dubai in September. 

Having relocated to Las Vegas this summer with the explicit target of securing a UFC contract, O’Neill didn’t take long to fulfill her goal. Her first UFC fight appearance looked to be imminent but a positive test for Covid in mid-October put the brakes on that.  

O’Neill has not suffered any ill effects from the virus and while she admits she was hugely disappointed to have to delay her UFC debut, it has only served to make her even more hungry when that day does come.  

And for someone who confesses to be more intense than most even in normal circumstances, the signs are she will be firing on all cylinders when she does make her debut, which will most likely come in the next few months. 

“It was devastating to test positive for Covid and not be able to take that first fight but this all happening has really lit a fire under me,” she said. 

“If you ask other people, I think they’d say I’ve always been very intense. I’ve never shied away from a challenge or a fight. When you watch my fights, my opponents usually aren’t as intense as me. I think it’s just my style - I like to be aggressive and I won’t let anybody take what’s mine – if they’re going to beat me, they’re going to have to knock me out. 

“I can’t wait to get in there now. I’ll hopefully have my first fight by the end of the year and I like to be very active so I’d love to get three fights in next year if possible.  

“I guess it depends on when my UFC debut comes but I definitely see myself going in there and making some waves very quickly.”