Peter Queally never intended to be an MMA fighter. He never intended to dedicate 11 years of his life to a sport he knew nothing about growing up as a kid in a coastal town outside of Waterford in Ireland.
The 32-year-old certainly never intended to be the first Irishman to challenge for a major MMA world title on Irish soil.
“It happened by accident. I wasn’t this nine-year-old kid dreaming of being a fighter,” Queally explained to BBC Sport.
“I didn’t know anything about ground fighting or jiu jitsu. But I was a good striker, young and I wasn’t afraid of anyone.
“That just slowly morphed into a career. All of a sudden I’m in South Africa fighting and I’m getting paid decent money and it’s turned into this career.
“And then it morphed into something else and then something else.”
‘There was no path until McGregor’
That something else is a Bellator lightweight world title fight against Patricky ‘Pitbull’ Freire on home turf this Saturday. The 3Arena in Dublin will play host to a historic night as Queally bids to become Bellator’s first Irish champion and the first Irish fighter since Conor McGregor to hold a major world MMA title.
Queally works alongside McGregor at the Straight Blast Gym in Dublin and was training with the two-weight UFC champion before he begged SBG founder John Kavanagh to let him join.
“There was no career when I was starting,” he said.
“There was no path. There was no way of doing it. There were barely any gyms. There was nothing. It was just not realistic.
“And then Conor, of course, made it realistic for all of us. When Conor became Conor, that was when I said ‘I can do that too’.”
‘I’ll never forget that 10 minutes’
And so after a short spell of boxing and then doing Muay Thai, Queally sent Kavanagh a message on Facebook, asking if he could join his ranks.
“I remember him being very dismissive of me,” Queally said, laughing.
“I didn’t take no for an answer. He told me to come up on Monday night and I did. I have a cousin who is an actor, Michael Sheehan, he’s actually on [Irish soap opera] Fair City. He was training there at the time. I was all excited.
“Michael told me Monday night was his advanced jiu jitsu class. I was like, ‘oh’.
“Kieran McGeeney, this Armagh [Gaelic] footballer, was training there at the time and he was good at jiu jitsu. At the end of the night I was wrecked and ready to pack up and John said get back on the mat and points at McGeeney.
“I’ll never forget that 10 minutes. It was the most horrific 10 minutes of my life. I cannot describe to you how bad it was.
“There’s one thing I can vividly remember. Kieran was on top of me and I’m not messing, he started putting his hand underneath my rib cage and I am not messing, his hand was inside my body.
“He was pulling on my ribs. I thought I was going to break my ribs and I was going to tap, but I didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I kind of knew what was going on, even though John didn’t say anything, it felt like a big set-up.”
It was just that. Kavanagh had told Kieran McGeeney – a legend in the GAA world – to “torture” Queally, to see if he was serious about becoming an MMA fighter.
‘Failure is a great teacher’
Queally passed the test and quickly began training with the other pros at the gym. He would become close friends with fellow fighters Artem Lobov and Chris Fields.
The SBG gym has housed some excellent fighters down the years. While McGregor made history in the UFC, Queally never imagined it would be him who would be the first to fight for a world title in Dublin.
“Ten years ago if you told me I was fighting for a world title in a packed out 3Arena and they’re all coming to see me, I would have laughed at you. Get a grip,” Queally said.
“As the years went on it becomes less funny. But when I started this was not something I ever thought I could achieve, being honest about it.
“As the fights go on you start to believe more. It’s like the Matrix, he’s beginning to believe. But I don’t think many would have picked me either.
“I wouldn’t have been high on the list. Maybe Owen Roddy, I would have said him. He was the best back then, I always thought. He was the most skilled, best guy in the gym.”
With a 13-5-1 record, Queally does not describe himself as the most naturally gifted fighter. He has suffered countless setbacks in his career. At 32 years old, it did seem any chance of a title shot had passed him by.
But Queally beat Freire just a few months ago. He will have a famously fervent Irish crowd behind him.
“I had this little feeling this would happen, the stars would align for me,” said Queally, who has never been stopped in his career.
“I kind of climbed the mountain a few times in my career to get to the next stage and then failed.
“It’s so hard, so hard to put a string of wins together at this high level. I could have quit, but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I did. That heartbreak you feel after a loss, you don’t want to live with that for the rest of your life.”
Queally continued: “Focus on yourself, work really hard. I’m a good example of that.
“It took me a long time but slowly, slowly, slowly and now I’m here. I hope I can win this world title and it can be a kind of vindication that this is the right way to do it. Take the hard path.
“Failure is a great teacher.”