How did you get started in MMA?
I started from a traditional martial arts background like most people I think. At around age 6 I started in TaeKwonDo and kept that up until I was about 11 or 12. I had a couple of troubled years then and got back into martial arts around age 15 with some boxing, Thai boxing and kickboxing. The first time I saw jiu jitsu was in the Loughlinstown leisure centre. It was coached by Next Generation MMA’s coach Dave Jones. I was doing a karate class next door and we went in to see what jiu jitsu was like. My first impression of it at the time was that it wasn’t for me. Then in 2007/08 I was training in Legends Gym under Stefan Moriarty and he started coaching MMA and BJJ classes. I avoided those classes for a long time because I was very focused on kickboxing but I eventually gave in and gave it a try. My first fight was back in 2009 in an in-house fight that Stefan had set up within the gym. He divided the members into two teams, each team had separate training times and at the end of the 12 weeks you would fight a member of the other team. It was right around the time when MMA was starting to become more popular and from there it was mostly just a natural progression over time.
I took a pro K1 fight against an Irish champion after his original opponent pulled out. We had a five round war during which I actually cracked my sternum. At that time I had just opened up my own gym in Loughlinstown called Rising Phoenix MMA. I was only 19 years old and had no idea how to run a business so it only lasted for around 6-8 months. After I closed the gym I fled to Australia and took a four year break from fighting. I kept up my jiu jitsu training at a gym called Absolute MMA, in the same gym that Craig Jones trained in. This was around the time of the rise of Conor McGregor in the UFC. I remember watching his fight against Marcus Brimage from a hotel room in Sydney and when I returned to Ireland later in 2013 I joined SBG under John Kavanagh and was determined to make it to the UFC.
What was the experience of representing Ireland at the IMMAFs like for you?
I had lost a few fights in a row at the time, one of which was against Will Fleury, who is now one of my close friends. I felt like I was being counted out and that nobody thought I was any good so when I heard about the European championships coming up it sparked an insane drive in me. I was committed to winning it just to prove everyone wrong for counting me out. I think I perform better when people think I can’t do something. I’ve never been so determined to prove a point. It was the first IMMAF European championships and it had a real air of grandeur about it. Kiefer Crosby, Lee Hammond, Dave Fogarty and Tommy Martin were all there too and it was an intense week. The thought of having to fight four or five times in as many days was quite daunting. At the end of the tournament when I was standing on top of the podium with the Irish national anthem playing was when it finally hit me that I had actually accomplished something really big. John Kavanagh even missed his flight home on purpose so he could stay to watch the medal ceremony. It was definitely the highlight of my whole career. I had my pro debut after that and fought in the 3 arena which were both amazing experiences but I still believe that winning gold at the IMMAFs was my greatest achievement in the sport.
How did you get the fight name ‘The Spider Monkey’?
My Friend Gary Corcoran was making fun of me one day and said I was a big awkward looking dope who looked like a spider monkey, and it stuck. He and his wife Linda helped me a lot with opening my gym back in 2009, long before I had any accolades to my name. They’ve been lifelong friends and a great source of support throughout my career.
What are the biggest benefits that MMA has brought to your life?
I had a lot of anger issues as a kid and a teenager, to the point where my mother felt the need to put me into therapy and anger management. That’s one of the reasons I got into martial arts in the first place, because she was able to spot the signs of my issues early on and having that outlet made a huge difference to me as I was growing up because it gave me focus and drive. It gave me a sort of an identity at the time. It also prepared me a lot for life. In MMA you experience extreme highs and lows, what goes up must come down. So now I know to prepare myself for the low that inevitably comes after the high when I achieve something I’ve been working towards. I built a lot of mental resilience from it which hugely affected the rest of my life and gave me the knowledge to know that if I really apply myself to something then I can achieve it. Even now in my career I’m a videographer, photographer and filmmaker but I’m entirely self taught through youtube because I know now that if I put my mind to something then I can do it, and that self-belief came from my experiences within martial arts. John Kavanagh also taught me a very important lesson about accountability and made me understand that where you are in life is a direct result of your choices, actions and reactions.
Who inspired you within the sport?
I looked up to Conor McGregor a lot. His mental strength and self belief is second to none. Being around that energy had a huge impact on me during that time. Will Fleury has one of the strongest minds I’ve ever witnessed and an undying self belief that could even rival Conors. Kiefer Crosby and James Gallagher were two of the most determined people I ever met. John let me take a lot of liberties and supported me so much over the years. I had the best support from the people who really mattered. I could always count on Tommy Martin to be in my corner, Sam Slater, Franz Mlambo and many more. I was surrounded by super focused and determined people. The saying goes “A rising tide raises all the ships” Conor was that tide and it made us all raise our mental game. It was a fascinating time to be around all of that. Even at the IMMAFs people referred to me as the next McGregor.
What are your plans for the future?
After spending such a long period of my life being very goal orientated, I no longer strive to have my life defined by any outward event or accolade. I’m more focused on living a healthy life and continuing to pursue something I’m passionate about which for me is about creating, filmmaking and coffee. I still do yoga and jiu jitsu but I’ve pulled everything back to the basics and instead of working towards anything specific I just focus on the moment at hand. Over the past few years I’ve been on a sort of self-discovery awakening process where I feel that I already have everything I need. I’m just trying to live a life of gratitude and I feel abundant right now. If this is my life then I’m very happy. If I was going to aim towards anything it would just be to be a more understanding, compassionate and loving person.
Anyone who wishes to follow Ben’s work can find him on Youtube, Instagram or Twitter by his username JustBenForsyth.