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Outside of the UFC, Tristan Connelly focused on journey, not destination

Canadian scrapper doesn't care where he's fighting so much as the fact he gets to compete at Wednesday's BFL 74.
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Tristan Connelly (14-8) is back on the regional circuit, back taking tough fights that don't necessarily make sense for someone with his level of experience and his record.

But "Boondock" doesn't want it any other way.

"I never thought I would make it to the UFC – that was a dream, not a goal – but I want to fight, and I want hard fights," said Connelly, who returns to action against Xavier Nash (6-5) at BFL 74 on Wednesday night. "This fight against Xavier Nash, on paper, is a terrible fight for me: his record is not good, he's fought really good guys on the regional scene, and he's a really strong wrestler, and almost all my losses have been that I've lost on control time, really.

"For me, this is about trying to fight the type of opponent that is hard for me and overcoming that, because I know if I stick to what I need to do, I'm going to win," continued Connelly, who enters on a two-fight skid. "If I take time at the wrong points and I let him get the positions he needs, and I settle, that's what's going to happen.

"I have to make sure I'm on point for all 15 minutes because he's a strong dude, a tough dude, and he's not going to quit."

Quitting is something that crossed Connelly's mind when he was released by the UFC earlier this year following his loss to Darren Elkins. Having already begun doing a ton of work as a coach with fighters across the Lower Mainland, and on the wrong side of 35, continuing to step back into the cage and push his body wasn't something the 12-year veteran necessarily needed to do.

It is something he wanted to do, however, especially after everything he's been through over the last couple of years.

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Connelly's arrival in the UFC was the kind of thing Disney used to make saccharine, family-friend films about back in the day, and it came complete with the remarkable happy ending.

After going 5-5 over his first 10 professional bouts, the Victoria-born, Vancouver-based fighter had rattled off eight wins in his last nine bouts to establish himself as one of the top Canadian regional talents.

A little more than a week before the UFC touched down in Vancouver in the fall of 2019, word spread that welterweight Michel Pereira's original opponent was forced out with visa issues and the UFC needed a replacement. In those instances, the promotion usually looks local, and after throwing his hat in the ring, Connelly eventually got the call to replace Sergey Khandozhko and take on Pereira at Rogers Arena.

Not only did he get to make the walk at home in front of a partisan crowd, but Connelly pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year, earning a unanimous decision win, with the added plus of banking all of the evening's "Fight of the Night" bonus as a result of Pereira missing weight.

It was a fairytale start, but the good times didn't last.

A neck injury Connelly had been dealing with continued giving him troubles and prompted him to undergo surgery, keeping him out of action for well over a year before landing on the wrong side of the results against Pat Sabatini at UFC 261.

He'd have a second surgery following the bout and spend another 371 days away from competing, returning to drop a unanimous decision to Darren Elkins in April of this year.

Along the way, Connelly battled withdrawal symptoms from the opioids he'd been prescribed following his disc-replacement surgery and struggled with depression. 

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"When you hear about people with depression – we've all had times where we're depressed; it's part of life," began Connelly, whose struggles were chronicled in the short documentary "Tough Pills," by filmmaker Gabe Roy. "If we didn't have our ups and downs and some depression, we'd never have these great times, as well, but it's when it doesn't make sense anymore (that you need to get help).

"I was trying to think my way out of it, and the doctor was like, 'Once you get to a certain level, that doesn't work anymore.' I understood that I was getting upset over things that don't matter and I don't even remember why I'm upset, and then there is this cascade of feeling terrible after, and it didn't make sense, and they were like, ‘This is what happens. This is part of going through a withdrawal; it just sends your whole brain chemistry out of whack.'"

Now in a much better place and equipped with ways to identify oncoming struggles and cope with them, the 36-year-old fighter is happy to share his story so that more and more people can hopefully recognize that mental health issues are health issues like anything else.

"I'm a pretty open person – I don't think trying to hide every really helps anything – and talking about it helps you understand, because it doesn't make sense," said Connelly. "The fact that I was talking about it and seeking help, looking for answers was huge as to what a lot of people won't do, but this is the type of thing where it only takes you a couple minutes of feeling really bad to do something you can never take back.

"Obviously I feel good now, and I think going through something like this, there are things that stick with you," he added. "Part of it is a psychological awareness and I know that, so I know how quickly things went down, and there is still part of those feelings that stay with you. That means it's important to stay up on these things, pay attention to what the good things in life are, and really soak them in."

In addition to his friends and family, getting to fight at home is one of the "good things" that he's making a point to savor.

As a recently released UFC veteran, there were plenty of places Connelly could have chosen to continue his MMA career and really try to monetize his time competing inside the octagon. But given that he's taking a "one fight at a time" approach to things and admits that he could retire at any moment, Connelly opted make his return at home instead.

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"Honestly, I could have gone and fought anywhere," began Connelly, who enters Wednesday's contest with a 14-8 record, looking for his third win in four appearances inside the Battlefield cage. "The reality is that I was getting offers – I'm a UFC vet; I was getting offers from everyone.

"The goal is that I want to fight, I want to be comfortable, and I want to learn, so why not fight at home while I can?"

While he's obviously aware that his career as an active competitor can't last forever, Connelly is genuinely fired up to be returning to action on Wednesday – not just because he's getting to compete at home in front of family and friends, but because for the first time in a couple years, he's healthy and making a relatively quick turnaround.

"I was hoping with the UFC that I could fight three, four, five times a year, jump on short-notice opportunities, but then the neck stuff happened, and it really threw a wrench in the mix," he said. "It really came at the worst time.

"Such is life, you roll with the punches, so I'm excited to be in here twice in one year. It hasn't been that long since I fought."

Many times, when a fighter gets released by the UFC or another major promotion, their sole focus becomes to return to that stage.

For Connelly, the fact that the UFC was never really on his radar makes this next chapter a little different and, for right now, he's excited to just continue his martial arts journey by returning home and making the walk on Wednesday night at BFL 74.

"I don't know what the future holds, but I'm willing to take it one fight at a time," said the veteran. "I do know that I'm almost 37 years old, I feel great right now, feel like I'm improving, so why stop now?

"It was never about the UFC — it was I want to be the best fighter I can be, learn the most I can learn, and so let's just keep taking fights one at a time, see what happens. I could retire at any moment, but I still feel like fighting.

"This is still what motivates me. I wake up in the morning, I'm excited to go train, and I'm training just a hard as I ever have. I'm still learning, I'm still improving, and that's why I do this: it's the journey, not the destination."

This story first published at UFC.com.