In its 17-year history, Cage Warriors has paved the way to the UFC for nearly 100 fighters. On June 29, for the first time since the inaugural Cage Warriors championships were unveiled in 2005, six of the coveted titles -- considered "golden tickets" to the UFC -- were put on the line in London, England for the 'Night of Champions' event. Victory there would put the winners firmly in the sights of the UFC, but the path to glory seldom runs straight.
LONDON, June 30 -- If Cage Warriors is Europe's proven path to the UFC, the promotion's matchmaker, Ian Dean, is the man who paved it.
By no means a household name, Dean is revered by those most entrenched in the sport in Europe. He is the only remnant on the current Cage Warriors team that was present when they first unveiled the coveted title belts that would go on to become the last port of call for a long list of legends before reaching the UFC.
Michael Bisping, Conor McGregor, Dan Hardy, Gegard Mousasi and Joanna Jedrzejczyk -- as well as around 90 others -- have passed through Dean's hands on the way to the UFC, with many of them punching their golden ticket to the Big Show by winning one of the Cage Warriors titles that were inaugurated almost 15 years ago.
In 2010, Irishman Graham Boylan took the reins of the promotion. He often jokes that when he took command all that he inherited was a few boxes and Dean. His mission statement from the get-go must have been music to the matchmaker's ears.
"The strategy I put in place in 2010 was to stay away from the big names that were in the spotlight," says Boylan. "We wanted to create the future stars, and the future stars after that."
Saturday's Cage Warriors 106: Night of Champions could be one of Dean's masterpieces.
From Nicolas Dalby's shot at redemption against undefeated champion Ross Houston, to James Webb defending the title that was once held by his coach Chris Fields; as well as two of the best prospects in England, Jai Herbert and Jack Grant, facing off for the vacant lightweight title -- there was no shortage of compelling plots.
And of course, the shadow of the UFC matchmakers loomed heavily over the night.
"When we put these cards together, we always know that if a certain fighter wins, we'll be getting a call that week," Boylan explains. "I strongly believe that there are five guys in these six fights that could be getting a call from the UFC in the coming weeks."
Dalby gives off an aura of experience weeks out from his attempt to regain his Cage Warriors belt.
A former Cage Warriors champ, he has reached the promised land of the UFC once before, opening with a win and a majority draw, but two subsequent losses saw him unceremoniously cut.
"I think a lot of people, with the doubts I had, they would've given up. I was overweight, I hadn't been training for a long time, it would have been easier to seek out a new career in photography, customer support or whatever," he says.
For years, the celebrated striker partied destructively between fight camps. As soon as a bout got booked, Dalby would clean everything up. The poisonous cycle had already gained momentum on his night of glory in Copenhagen five years ago -- the same night that winning the Cage Warriors title put him on former UFC matchmaker Joe Silva's radar.
It wasn't until he was fighting in the Octagon that his off-peak habits began to have an impact on his performances.
Dalby laid himself bare to the world a year after his last UFC outing, shedding light on the demons he was attempting to face with a social media post. Six hundred and two days after his last UFC fight, his Cage Warriors return felt like it would be a physical expression of his fight against mental illness, and the MMA world prepared itself for a ballad of resurgence.
But just when everything was set up for a glorious comeback, the fight game delivered another gut shot.
After a ding-dong battle, his counterpart Carlo Pedersoli -- a Cage Warriors debutant -- was awarded the split-decision win. The Italian's UFC debut came a month later. Dalby remembers considering retirement when the judges' scorecards were declared to the Gothenburg crowd.
"I was thinking, 'Should I just retire now?' I had actually wanted to propose to my partner in the cage if I won. So, Graham Boylan came up to me and went, 'Do you still want to do this?' In the moment, I thought they had seen something in me that told them I was contemplating retirement. I wasn't thinking right, and I felt like he was asking if I wanted to retire. So I replied, 'Yeah! I still want to do this', and I kind of surprised myself by my gut reaction. At that moment I knew that I was still going to fight."
Most fans and media believe that his main objective at Cage Warriors 106: Night of Champions was to unify the welterweight belts to underline his intent to compete on the UFC's maiden voyage to his native Denmark on September 28. But he was fighting for something far more important than that.
"I hope that when my daughter becomes a woman and she's her own person, this journey will make an impression on her. I hope that she will know that it's okay to feel bad and if you really want to do something, don't stop chasing it and never give up until you get it."
A perfect 8-0 as a professional, Houston finds himself in a similar situation to the one that Dalby was in during his first Cage Warriors ascent. Five years ago, the Scot packed in his full-time job in the oil and gas industry to focus on his goal of making it to the UFC. Now Dalby stands in his way.
"I was doing 84-hour weeks for nine months straight. You'd just hear an alarm going off all day and it was really heavy work. Have you seen 8 Mile? It was kind of like when Eminem was working in that factory; it was like that, but for good money," he remembers.
Houston gets chills when he thinks about adding his name to the list of legends that already made the journey from Cage Warriors to the UFC.
"It would mean the world to me. There was no way that I thought I'd be this close to being among those names five years ago. I can picture it now: sitting in my room and looking at those black UFC gloves thinking, 'We did it, man!'"
In the medical room after Saturday's main event at London's Apollo Theatre in Hammersmith, Dalby and Houston sit yards from each other, laughing and joking. Due to the fight happening on the hottest day of the British summer so far and the amount of blood both men have lost, a metallic odor hangs heavy in the small prefab. There's blood all over the floor and both fighters are still leaking like broken faucets.
Despite the enormous anticipation that surrounded it, the event still exceeded all expectations. Modestas Bukauskas and Samir Faiddine overcame the odds to claim vacant world titles. Mads Burnell, a countryman of Dalby's, took one step closer to getting back to the UFC by dethroning promotional stalwart Dean Trueman. James Webb retained the middleweight crown after a tremendous back and forth clash with Nathias Frederick that ended in a controversial draw. Jai Herbert overcame Jack Grant's early grappling onslaught before putting on a striking clinic to win the vacant lightweight title.
Despite all of the earlier thrills and spills, it's the visceral violence of the main event that steals all the headlines.
Houston, speaking to Dalby in the medical room, dismisses the prefight trash talk.
"What did you catch me with? A right?" Dalby replies, his hand reaching for the gnarly laceration high up on his brow that he suffered in the first round.
Referee Marc Goddard waved the fight off toward the end of the third round, deeming the bout a no-contest.
After suffering that brutal cut in the first round, Dalby came out like a lion in the second, bursting Houston's nose with a right hand. The blood splattered profusely on the vinyl surface until it eventually became so treacherous that Goddard brought the fight to an end.
The action over, Houston and Dalby climbed to the top of the fence together, receiving a standing ovation from the Apollo assembly.
"I saw a hole in the top of Ross' nose from the break," Goddard says, reliving the experience later at the hotel. "Three things are happening: blood is going into his eye, he was swallowing blood, but the most worrying thing for me at that point is aspirating blood -- the blood wasn't going down his esophagus, he was breathing it into his lungs.
"Both fighters were bleeding heavily. I brought the doctor in at that point because there were three things that were disadvantaging Ross. If the doctor had called it at that point, I would've stopped the fight, but he didn't."
When the fight resumed, the material on the cage floor became undependable. During every exchange, both fighters continuously slipped, "like Bambi on ice," as Goddard put it.
"It got to the point where they were skating around so much that I'm thinking, 'I don't want a world title changing hands due to an outside influence' -- in this case the vinyl surface. That would've been on me, and I can't have that. If the third round had been completed, it would've went to the scorecards. It had already become too unsafe at that point for everyone in the cage, so that's why it had to be stopped.
"I've never seen anything like it."
A doctor tends to Houston's nose. Despite the likely mandatory medical suspensions that will be handed down to both fighters, the shadow of the UFC is still hanging over him.
"I've never been in a fight with so much blood," Houston says as he lays on a gurney. "I was thinking in my head, 'Does this look as crazy as it feels?' My nose was running like a tap and as he was hitting me on top, I could feel myself gurgling on my own blood. I'm gutted that it got stopped, but I'm glad we put on a good fight. I feel bad because I know that the momentum was in Nicolas' favor.
"We both want the same thing. I've got nothing but respect for Nic. I think we should do the rematch with the UFC."
After exchanging t-shirts with Houston and posing for some pictures, the emotion of the occasion sinks in for Dalby when he gets back to his locker room. He plops himself down on a leather sofa as his teammates produce some cans of beer, but for Dalby, this is no celebration.
Suddenly, the notion that the outcome of the fight might mean that the UFC contract he craves is still out of reach hits him like a ton of bricks.
"That would mean the world to me, getting to fight on the UFC card in Copenhagen," he says as the tears begin to run down his crimson face. "I was so close to finishing it, man. Honestly, I just hope that the way this ended doesn't mean that I won't get that shot that I feel I deserve."
Ahead of the fight, Dalby outlined how he hoped that his performance would be an example to his daughter to fight tooth and nail for everything she wants to achieve in life. But with the thick smell of blood in the air and his future still uncertain, it's hard for him to process everything that's transpired.
"I hope I've shown her that, but right now I'm just so hung up on the UFC thing. Right now, I feel like I'll only be proud of the situation if that becomes a reality. Perhaps, some time in the future, I can look back at this fight and know that I've done everything that I could."