Exclusive interview: The London-born fighter ended a two-year absence from the Octagon with a split-decision victory in Las Vegas this month
Danny Roberts has just emerged from a two-day slumber – the best he’s slept since he was about six years old, il dit.
Malheureusement, his secret remedy for restlessness is no solution for the average insomniac. In the London-born welterweight’s case, the cause is his three-round war with Ramazan Emeev in Las Vegas.
The bout, Roberts’ first in two years, was one of the most brutal in the 34-year-old’s MMA career. It marked only the second time in 23 fights that Roberts (18-5) has been taken to a split decision, and after 15 minutes of disorientating, exacting pugilism, the short wait for the judges’ scorecards was a nervy one.
“It happens very quickly, so you don’t really have too much time to think about it,” Roberts tells L'indépendant, “but in that short space of time, your whole world gets flipped upside down.
“Your stomach turns a bit, you hope for the best – hope that the right people have seen that you’ve actually wanted to get the win and that you’ve taken the fight to the opposition. Finalement, these are the small factors that can win a fight.”
Two of the three judges at the UFC’s Apex institute deemed that Roberts had done enough to secure the victory, validating the 34-year-old’s decision to exert himself almost beyond comprehension.
“I had to kind of answer questions for myself mentally in the second round and in the third, because I knew that the first round was definitely his,” Roberts says.
“It’s the second time I’ve had a split decision in my entire career as a professional, in over 20 fights – 11 in the UFC. It just goes to show that I’m that guy that always comes and looks for a finish.
“I don’t want to be in there for 15 minutes, I don’t want to have to work harder than what I plan to. You leave areas where there’s questions to be answered, and a lot of people – whether they’re sat watching with a pint in their hand or a brandy and coke – they won’t really assess the fight round by round; they will just say what they see.”
Roberts, a keen striker, credits his takedown defence, cage control and pressure for giving him the most narrow of wins over Emeev – a highly-touted Dagestani grappler, fighting out of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s gym, et the second Russian in a row that the Londoner has defeated.
“I’m seeking perfection, and in this game you’re never gonna get it,” Roberts admits. “I always use that quote, ‘you can’t take a shower without getting wet.’ If you put yourself in harm’s way, you can pretty much guarantee that the cracks are gonna show sooner or later.
“We had a plan for Saturday’s fight, and as soon as we started moving about, that plan went out the window because my opponent didn’t want to engage. I’m predominantly a striker and was trying to get a grappler to come forward rather than me going to find the fight and put it in his hands.
“It was about looking at plan B, being able to out-hustle him in the areas where he was supposed to out-hustle me.”
Emeev, qui était 20-4 heading into his showdown with Roberts, is the sort of fighter that MMA fans joke about in flattering terms; the last kind of name you want to see on a bout agreement: a Russian wrestler with a strong record of dominant showings.
But while Russia has bred a new generation of fighters that seeks to follow in the footsteps of Khabib, who retired almost exactly a year ago with an undefeated record and as UFC lightweight champion, British athletes are also making a case for their country to be seen as a key contributor to MMA’s flagship promotion.
Roberts’ victory over Emeev has therefore given the British contingent of UFC combatants some brief bragging rights.
“I like that,” Roberts tells L'indépendant. “I want to fight the big names that have come from big gyms – we know the aura that the Russians have, and it stems from the likes of Khabib. I want the tough challenges and to be able to overcome them.
“Back-to-back, two Russians, we’ve got them stamped on our record now.”
Back-to-back is right, but it is also the joint-best run Roberts has managed since joining the UFC in late 2015. On three occasions he has won two fights in a row, but he has never gotten over that hurdle – despite having achieved much longer win streaks prior to his UFC stint.
“It’s funny you should say that, my agent mentioned it the other day,” Roberts says. "J'étais comme: ‘What?!’ I never had a record like that [before joining the UFC].
“But when I look at these setbacks, I know my biggest fight is with me, and me only. I’ve had a lot of things in my external life that have hindered the way I’ve attacked fight camps, but it’s been settled for a while, it’s been chilled.
“I’m in a very good place mentally, physically, spiritually. At the end of this story, I’m gonna be able to write a book on it. I’m one of these guys who came from a council estate, who suffered with mental health, so for me to be excelling… I think it’s something people can resonate with.”
Danny Roberts is one of a handful of British fighters making an appearance in the Octagon this month. Watch Lerone Murphy in action against Makwan Amirkhani at UFC 267: BLACHOWICZ vs. TEIXEIRA on Saturday 30 octobre, at a prime-time slot on BT Sport 2 from 5pm. UFC Fight Pass Prelims are live from 3.30pm.