With sweat dripping and fists flying, Sean Pierson feverishly punches the heavy bag hanging in front of him. His wincing expressions say he’s feeling the burn but his eyes glare with determination.
After all, he’s waited almost 12 years for this.
Come April 30, Pierson will be featured in Toronto’s first-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship event. And for the Pickering native, who trains and coaches in North York, being able to fight close to home has been a long time coming.
Mixed martial arts had always been deemed as illegal by the Ontario government — until last year when it released its stranglehold on the sport.
“I didn’t know if it was going to come by the time I finished my career because we’ve heard word that it’s coming for the last six or seven years,” Pierson says just before one of his boxing workouts. “So when it came, that was amazing.”
After being a professional fighter since 1999, he will finally do something that has been a rarity in his career — fight as the home team.
“For the first six years I was definitely the away team,” said Pierson, whose had 12 of his 15 career fights in Quebec. “It was one of these things where I found myself becoming a fan favourite because I was one of those long-term guys who started off in Montreal.”
That admiration from fans showed in the UFC’s last Montreal event, where he drew cheers throughout the three-round beat-down of his opponent.
As a few-holds-barred combat sport, MMA enables fighters to knock out, submit or outscore their opponents by using an array of martial arts.
Pierson’s background is a prime example, having started wrestling in grade 4, finding judo in grade 10 and Brazilian jiu-jitsu in university. Plus he’s dabbled in Muay Thai and began boxing just last year. That boxing training is done at Grant Brothers Boxing & MMA Gym, which is on Dufferin Street, just south of Steeles Avenue West.
Not just a student, Pierson is also a teacher, running wrestling classes and occasionally jiu-jitsu.
While Pierson said he loves being in the UFC and is ecstatic about having the opportunity to fight in Toronto, he won’t forget the road to the top wasn’t easy.
Pierson even left the sport for three and a half years, saying his reason for doing so was simple.
“Everbody was sacrificing for me,” he said. “When I’d go out and do these fights, I was taking time off work, time away from my family, and I didn’t think it was fair at the time.”
During his hiatus, Pierson got his life together. He worked hard, bought a house and started a family. But it wasn’t until he felt his life was in order that he decided to go back to fighting.
“I went back when I knew everybody didn’t have to sacrifice for me anymore,” he said. “I got a chance to chase a dream. I saved up enough money so that no one else was sacrificing for my selfish wants.”
The decision to go back to fighting clearly worked in his favour, as he’s gone 7-1 since, with the only loss being nearly four years ago.
Part of his motivation can be found on his website in the form of the words, “Limitation is only your imagination”.
He got his perserverance from his mother, who would do anything at the drop of a hat, he says with a smile. Growing up, it’s something both his parents instilled in him.
“To me, it’s like we’re only limited by what we think we can do,” he said. “And if you’ve got a great imagination, then you can do anything, and that’s what I want to instill in my son and other people.
“Just go out there and try and conquer the world.”
While Pierson doesn’t know whether he’ll conquer the world — or the UFC welterweight division — he does know what his next steps are.
“I just want to inspire people right now … my goal is met, I’ve made it to the UFC,” he said. “It took me 11 years. A lot of people would have quit — I wanted to quit a couple times — but I stuck to it and here I am.”
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