Not many fighters consider a draw to be the high point of their career, but then again not many have had a career like Aaron Aby.
It was the main event of UK Fighting Championships 12, in Preston, England, as Aby stood in the middle of the cage, he was able to look up at everyone that had been by his side for his battle with stage three testicular cancer.
They were supporting him yet again – this time in a different kind of fight – from the crowd, opposed to beside a hospital bed.
Many had all taken a coach down to Preston, from North Wales.
“There’s only one Aaron Aby! There’s only one Aaron Aby! Walking along singing a song, walking in an Aby wonderland,” filling the coach on its way.
Aby went straight to his takedowns in the first round, controlling his opponent Daryl Grant, taking a 10-9.
He was hit with adversity in the second, Aby attempted to get his man down again, but was brutally pounded by elbows to the side of the head, for over a minute, as he held onto a single leg.
Dazed, he pulled guard for respite, but was now met with punches mixed in with elbows from half guard, the referee coming in closer to the action knowing he may have to save the 32-year-old from himself.
A tight guillotine attempt and many more punches later, the fairy tale return looked to be over as the round ended; 10-8 Grant.
A battered looking Aby took a deep breath and came out for the final round.
The commentators were already trying to soften the blow, talking about how the win for Aby was just being in the cage that night, but he wasn’t satisfied with that.
Whatever he had left went into a takedown attempt, securing it he remained in the guard until the end, exchanging elbows and punches with his opponent.
The clapper went for the last 10 seconds of the fight, the crowd in front of him rose up to deliver the Welshman a last shock of energy.
This prompted him to posture up next to the fence, landing the best strikes of the round and finishing in side control; 10-9 Aby.
Just nine months may have been a bit fast in hindsight for Aby to get back into the cage, after getting the all clear from doctors, but the draw of fighting always lingered during his battle with cancer.
“I was always holding on to that hope that I would fight again.” Aby said.
“And even when I got the all clear from cancer, for me I wasn’t clear cancer until I competed again.
“So that was my aim to keep me going because that was a goal I always set when I was going through everything.”
Aby grew the mentality to perform a feat like this from a young age, battling cystic fibrosis (CF).
Even as a baby he was fighting against the disease, and nurses, with all the heart and determination he showed in Preston, as his father Jon recalls.
“I could hear a lot of pandemonium coming from his room and basically the nurses, because they couldn’t get an intravenous line into his body, were trying to get one into his foot.
“What they’d done is they wrapped him in a sheet, to stop him from fighting to get this intravenous line into his body, and there were two nurses trying to restrict his movement and all he continued to do was fight to prevent it.
“So, I suppose you could suggest that from birth he was going to be a fighter.”
CF is an inherited condition from a mutation in the gene that produces the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) protein.
This can disrupt the normal production or functioning of the CFTR protein found in the cells of the lungs and other parts of the body.
In terms of how it can affect physical performance, CF causes mucus to build up in the lungs, leading to shortness of breath, and difficulty putting on weight.
It also affects life expectancy, with currently half of people with CF predicted to live past the age of 40.
The fly weight has always ignored the technical jargon about CF, however, instead measuring his health by how well he was doing in athletically, not by what doctors would tell him.
This started for him whilst he was still at school.
“If it was cross country in school and I was winning, I was like see, I’m just like everyone else.
“And that was my way of proving that I was still fit and healthy, and I was still one of the boys, it motivated me and inspired me to beat them.
“That’s what got me through stuff. If I was doing well in football, rugby, if I was playing for the school teams, if I was winning all the long-distance races, for me, my lungs were healthy because how can I be unhealthy if I’m not losing to them.
“I’m doing well against them, so I’m healthy. You know, sometimes I used to be like, ‘maybe haven’t got CF.’
“So that was almost my cure because exercise made me healthier, but also my way of proving to myself that I was just a fit guy growing up.”
Having an athletic lifestyle and wanting to push through barriers is something that was nurtured into Aby, by his father Jon Aby, whilst growing up.
A standout athlete himself, formerly playing rugby for Sail Sharks, and active in training athletes throughout his life, Jon saw the importance of raising a child with what should be athletic limitations, to overcome them.
“You have to take into account the nurturing environment.
“I think the nurturing that he was given from an early age contributed to whatever sport or whatever thing in life he was going to be engaged in, it was going to give him that fighting mentality, that underdog mentality.
“In that, obviously your mindset potentially you could argue is put to you through birth, but the nurturing of that is critical.”
This nurturing athletic aspect was something Jon took very seriously to help his son combat CF.
He refused to accept the doctor’s prognosis of his son, telling him that he need to do limited physical activities, and eat a high fat diet.
Instead, along with making sure Aby had a strong mind, he had Aby eat well, and do as much sport as possible, whilst making sure no slack was given even at school.
“A schoolteacher wanted to put him in, for lack of a better word, disabled group for sport.
“I said to them, no, whatever you give the normal kids give him double, and they looked at me like there was something wrong with me.”
An athletic lifestyle, nurtured by his father, set Aby up well for a career in MMA.
He first attended an MMA class when he was 15, that was fundraising for CF, with his dad and uncle.
Aby was literally a boy amongst men and didn’t think it could get any cooler hanging with the big boys, who weren’t taking it easy on little Aaron.
“We did throw him from pillar to post and there was no holding back,” Jon said.
“And he loved that competitive part of it, that’s why I think he has no fear.”
Aby caught the bug for the sport right away, and knew he was all in on fighting when he started missing football training to go to the gym.
Whereas many parents who have a child with CF would do whatever they could to keep their kid away from an MMA gym, Aby’s were much different.
They had a willingness not to coddle their child, instead exposing him to everything a normal kid should be, literally tearing up the rulebook.
“I was fortunate that when I was born my mom and dad were given a leaflet on how they should look after someone at the time with cystic fibrosis and basically they ripped it up, chucked in the bin and were like ‘he’s gonna just be a normal kid.’
“So, growing up I was like always doing normal stuff with friends and family.
“I think I had a little advantage with that, and then also playing sport at a high level growing up and having a dad who was interested in and played sport, played rugby and everything; my nutrition was always good.”
When Aby was born the attitudes of doctors toward the disease was incomparable to today.
Doctors used to encourage parents to keep their children away from athletic pursuits.
Thanks to elite athletes like Aby, it has now been shown that exercise is key to staying healthy with CF, and people can achieve a higher potential than previously thought.
As Aby explained, things are very different in hospitals now.
“In the CF clinics in hospital, we have our own gym, so if we’re staying in the hospital having treatment, they still take you to the gym.”
So, Aby grew up like any other kid in North Wales, running cross country, playing rugby and football, all whilst being fiercely competitive to prove to himself that he was just like any of his classmates.
Along with this his parents never making a big deal out of his condition, this made it almost seem invisible, minus the pills he had to take on a daily basis.
It only truly became real for him after a biology class, in year nine.
“I remember I was in biology class when I was like 14 and we were doing genetics, and the teacher is like ‘someone with cystic fibrosis, they’re very lucky if they live until they’re 16.’ And I remember my friends looking at me.
“I remember getting home and saying to my dad ‘why are you sending me to school if I’m gonna die in two years, shouldn’t I be out traveling and doing all these things?’
“And I think from that lesson, that’s when they started to educate me a bit more.
“I started to learn a bit more, and look into it myself, because like I said, when I was born, my parents were just gonna treat me normally.”
Due to Aby’s upbringing, CF didn’t affect him much in his MMA career, apart from being able to keep weight on his body to compete at the lowest male weight class of 125 pounds in MMA.
Health concerns seemed to be a non-factor in his career, just like it was when he was a child, it only motivated him to push harder and break the stigma behind CF.
This was until he took a kick in the balls both physically and metaphorically, in the form of testicular cancer.
At the time when Aby was diagnosed, he was 10-3 and on a three-fight winning streak in ACB – now ACA – causing him to take two years out of the sport from 2017 to 2019.
As would happen with many people to be befallen by multiple bouts of bad luck, Aby found it hard to come to terms with just how cruel life can be.
“It was a bit of like being in denial. Like, nah no chance I’ve I got cancer as well.
“I paid for 3 private scans just to prove it was actually cancer.
“And then one day I was in the garden, just sunbathing, I’m still going training and everything, and a big, big lump was sticking out of my stomach.
“I remember thinking ‘oh crap, best go get this checked.’ I got it checked and obviously it was cancer.
Then it just came to a point where I was like, ‘right I’m gonna fight this as hard as I can just like I fought everything else.’”
The last fight before his absence from the sport was against bitter rival at the time, Daniel Missin, who had defeated him in the first round three years prior.
There was no love lost between the two in the leadup to the rematch, and Aby was suffering pain his testicles and lower back, which was passed off as a water infection by doctors.
He won a unanimous decision over his opponent at ACB 70, closing a door on the Missin chapter of his life, but the pain continued, and the tone from doctors took a turn when he was properly diagnosed.
“I was told I was gonna die, and not compete again.
“It had spread to my stomach, so I had to have an emergency operation for that as well, where only one surgeon in the in the UK would do the operation because of where the mass was, it was close to the artery that takes blood to and from the heart.
“So, I had to wait for one surgeon to be able to do that and operate on me.
“I had three stages of chemotherapy, which was 20 hours on, four hours off, over like 10 months of that.”
Aby doesn’t see his roll of the dice as any kind of hinderance, what he gets out of it is a mindset of steel, forged in hospital beds and struggling for breath.
The mental game may be one of the most integral parts of any sport, there have been many supremely talented, hardworking athletes, not reach the heights they were destined for through a lack of mental fortitude.
Even if Aby is handicapped by disease, or has his career put on hold by life threatening cancer, he has the mental game dialled in superiorly to most other fighters.
“The thing is with mixed martial arts and life, I think they go hand in hand.
“The lessons you learn from life, you can transfer to mix martial arts, lessons you learn from mixed martial arts you can transfer to life.
“My dad used to say to me ‘show me the fighter I’ll show you the person, show me the person I’ll show you the fighter.’
“That’s why I think I like mixed martial arts is an expression of who I am.
“Some of my fights I’m in deep, deep places, but I always find the way out, I’ll always be able to push through, I always keep moving forward, and I think that’s an expression of who I am in life as well as outside of mixed martial arts.
“There’ll be times when I’m stuck in a bad position, or I’ve had a bad round, and I’ll go back to my corner, and I’ll be like ‘I’ve been through this before I’m gonna be good.’
“There’s been times in life where I’ve been going through a tough time and I’ll be like, ‘well remember when in mixed martial arts and this happened?’ And then I use that lesson.
“I think sometimes growing up with what I’ve grown up with can give me an advantage in the mental aspect of the game.”
Just how his family and friends have stuck with him through his struggle with CF, they were also rocks when battling cancer.
Most of this support came in the form of keeping his spirit up, whether it was his mates plastering page three girls around his room or making fun of the nurses and oncologists.
“They just keep treating me normally and were there if I needed a kick up the ass, or just a day out.
“My family have always been great and supportive, and they worked together as a team.”
There was also the sports science and methodical outlook of his father creating a clear pathway towards Aby’s recovery, not allowing him to lose focus on his end goal.
Having someone from that kind of background was something no one else in his family could provide, and it was key to his recovery.
Jon said. “You always look for the positives that come out of something like that.
“We had a lot of fun, we laughed a lot.
“But we never lost sight of the fact that it’s a process that gets you to the end where you want to be.
“So, it’s that training, that education that that environment gives you that nurturing in sport that allows you to see it as a process and an outcome.
“Now, you know, there’s going to be variables in there, as there is in any training regime in any competitive sport, but it’s how you deal with those variables.
“You don’t want to be rigid, you have to be able to flow with those variables and overcome them.”
However, the strains this put on Aby’s family can’t be underestimated, and there were times when his outlook wasn’t so positive.
Aby doubted whether he would ever recover, and live the life he led before cancer, but his father did what he had been doing since he was a child, nurturing a positive mindset.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘what if I don’t recover?’
“And I said to said to him, you have done this your whole life, this is what we do.
“You will recover and I don’t want to hear that again.
“He just looked at me and just went, ‘okay.’”
Motivation to pull through also came from an unexpected source when Cage Warriors matchmaker Ian Dean picked up the phone to contact Aby, whilst he was in hospital.
Whilst having cancer not much career progression can’t be expected, with toxic chemotherapy being pumped into your body and no opportunity to train, but on a three-fight win streak Aby was on the radar of Dean.
Cage Warriors 97 in Cardiff was fast approaching in September 2018 and Dean wanted more Welsh talent for the crowd to get behind.
“I was in hospital having chemotherapy at the time and Ian Dean text me offering me a fight in Cardiff, in like three weeks, and I told him the situation and he said, ‘there’d be pair yellow gloves waiting for you when you come out the other side.’
“So just having that hope that no matter even if I was told that I was gonna die, or I wasn’t gonna compete again, I was always holding on to that hope that I would.
“Even when I got the all clear from cancer for me, I wasn’t clear cancer until I competed again.
“So that was my aim to keep me going because that was a goal I always set when I was going through everything.”
This support was also needed after he had recovered from cancer too, as trying to get back to fighting a high level of MMA is hard after much smaller setbacks than cancer.
But Aby found out he was on the right track to return to where he had been with the help from his teammate Steve Nightingale, who made sure he put Aby through the ringer to ensure he was ready for a fight.
“He was like ‘come spar me and then we’ll decide if you can fight’.
“And that was the first spar I had and he’s like, ‘yeah, I think you’re gonna be alright.’”
Help from family and friends, as well as motivation to prove himself in one of Europe’s biggest promotions, brought Aby through his over a year long struggle with cancer.
Although Aby had a heroic return fight and then earnt a decision victory over Mohamed Gamal, two months later, his first fight in Cage Warriors didn’t go as planned, losing by decision to current flyweight title holder, Sam Creasy, at Cage Warriors 123.
Aby struggled with his weight in the lead up to the Creasy fight and weighed 124 pounds during the fight.
Most fighters can come into fights 20 pounds heavier than what they weighed in at, and giving up this advantage is not sustainable in MMA.
He has been placing a focus on coming into fights heavier recently, which he feels is having a positive impact on his performances
Aby said. “It improves my technique in the scrambles and then in the wrestling.”
“I do think that’s helped in my last two fights.”
Since then, Aby has put together a solid two-fight winning streak against Samir Faiddine by decision, and most recently submitting Gerado Fanny, in the third round at Cage Warriors 136, in April.
This fight in a packed out BEC arena in Manchester is up there in terms of importance to Aby with his comeback fight.
Such an impressive performance in a co-main event slot, in front of a big crowd, looks to be propelling him to a shot at the Cage Warriors flyweight title.
Aby was a big underdog against Fanny, but did what he’s been doing his whole life, proving doubters wrong.
“Doubters are fuel, I remember this last fight on Tapology, I think 88% picked Geraldo Fanny to win, 12% picked me, that’s fuel for me.
“Growing up I always wanted to prove I was okay. I wanna prove people wrong. If people are gonna doubt me, that’s just motivation.
“It doesn’t get me down, it just makes me work harder.
“That’s something that I’ve always been motivated by, as well as people telling me I can’t, people telling me I won’t, people telling me I’m gonna die, people telling me I shouldn’t be doing it.
“My coaches in my last fight, they said, ‘no kicks in this fight’ and then I’m there kicking in the fight more than I’ve ever kicked. I’m just one of them people.” Aby said, with a big smile on his face, clearly proud to still be proving everyone, even those closest to him, wrong.
Aby is now looking like he can create a new high point in his career, with contact being made between his management and the UFC about a potential opportunity on the contender series.
For now, though Aby will be welcoming Italian Michelangelo Lupoli to Cage Warriors, at Cage Warriors 142, in his home country of Wales on August 13.
This time a 96% favorite on Tapology, which it’s unclear whether he’s happy about or not.