UFC 234: Kiwi fighter Shane Young overcomes personal struggles to return to Octagon

Seven months ago, Kiwi UFC featherweight Shane Young was celebrating the definitive victory of his professional career to date.

Standing in the centre of the Octagon in Singapore, hand raised, after dismantling Rolando Dy with a surgical second-round KO, the 25-year-old appeared to have a sparked his UFC tenure to life with the kind of performance that he could use to springboard up the division's pecking order.

But beneath the surface, Young was grappling with a much more sinister opponent, one capable of bringing his momentum to a halt, without throwing a single strike.

"I basically just went through some mental strife," Young told Newshub. "I got really depressed."

For somebody whose default level of effervescence would put a Soda Stream to shame, it was difficult to come to terms with, let alone recognise what 'it' was.

"I'm a pretty happy go lucky dude, so I didn't really know how to take it. I thought I was being a sissy, that I needed to harden up, and that's kind of our mentality.

Young became proficient in what he describes as "wearing a mask", persisting with training sessions - or at least attempting to - convinced that his traditional safe haven may help him "snap out of it".

"When I was in it, I was like, 'man, this sucks', crying all the time and unable to have conversations even with friends," he recalled.

"I was coming in to the gym and I'd start tearing up, and then I'd just leave. It was just too much."

Eventually, 'Sugar' realised that some time away from his grind was required, some quality time with whanau in his hometown of Napier.

UFC 234: Kiwi fighter Shane Young overcomes personal struggles to return to Octagon
Photo credit: Getty
UFC 234: Kiwi fighter Shane Young overcomes personal struggles to return to Octagon

"I packed enough clothes for two nice dinners, thinking I'd go home and spend heaps of money on my mum, and then boost back up and get ready for a fight. Then I ended up staying for six weeks."

"I had to go back and revitalise myself, and going back home really helped that. It was exactly what I needed - heaps of korero with my family."

That hiatus proved just the therapy for Young and has galvanised him to re-enter the cauldron for his next big challenge - a spot on the preliminary card of UFC 234 in Melbourne on Sunday and with it, a gold-plated opportunity to re-establish his momentum.

"It's the exact opposite now. I'm on a weird high, but the thing I channel that into is just to work harder and it shows.

"I've just channelled this new sense of positivity and positive energy, and it just charges me all day and every day to work way more than I used to do, and I'm just smashing everything."

That next target comes in the form of opponent Austin Arnett. The American - a graduate of Dana White's 'Contender' series - is coming off a unanimous decision win in November, which snapped a three-fight losing streak.

The studious Young, who confesses to being a science fiend during his high school days at Dilworth School, has already conducted his own unique brand of research on his adversary.

"I watch him have conversations with people and I don't like the way he speaks. He's not eloquent, he doesn't plan his sentences at all and he swears a lot.

"I've got his height, then I go down to his movements as a fighter. I see the same things all the time - he's predictable - so it's up to me now to exploit them.

"Between those two levels, you can see the person, because fighting is an expression of yourself."

Speaking of self-expression, Young confirms that he'll again proudly fly the Tino rangatiratanga flag - a symbol of Māori sovereignty - behind him, as he enters the Octagon this weekend, an initiative he began in his last fight, as a result of a period of reconnection with his indigenous heritage.

UFC 234: Kiwi fighter Shane Young overcomes personal struggles to return to Octagon
Photo credit: Instagram/@itskiwirob

He also has every intention of delivering another post-match victory speech in te reo Māori, once he's added another blood-stain souvenir to his flag to accompany that of his most recently vanquished foe.

As far as Young sees it, his ring-craft is simply an evolution of the feats of his warrior ancestors.

"Whenever I'm training, all my analogies relate back to the fact that I'm a 25-year-old Māori on Aotearoa right now - that a couple of hundred years ago, people were doing the same thing I'm essentially doing now. That empowers me so much and fills me with so much mana."

That includes those of the more contemporary variety. While Young will enter the arena alongside City Kickboxing cohorts Kai Kara-France and Israel Adesanya on what shapes as a milestone day for New Zealand MMA, he's quick to recognise the feats of those who laid the ground work for their success.

"The thing I'm most thankful for is this gym [City Kickboxing], and people like [coaches] Eugene Bareman and Doug Viney for giving us the foundations. They put in the work, this didn't happen overnight.

"They were at the front of that wave. We all watched the DVDs - Jason Suttie, all the bros on the K1s, Mark Hunt. Without them, we wouldn't have thought it was possible - the blueprint wouldn't have been there.

UFC 234: Kiwi fighter Shane Young overcomes personal struggles to return to Octagon

"Everyone who was from that era of kickboxing that came thru and inspired us all. This is from the hard work that came before, and now it's our turn to make our own wave for the kids later to ride."

The analogy extends to Young's own turbulent experiences through the past year - both inside and outside the Octagon.

"Everything comes in waves in life - ups and downs. I've felt the surge and I've had one of my fights while I've been in one of these big surges, but this is a new sort of surge.

"I've been here by myself before, training really hard, but it's different when Kai [Kara-France] and Izzy [Adesanya] are on their surge as well, riding this wave with me."

You get the sense that the affable Young, who dances through topics and tangents with the kind of deft footwork and unbridled energy he displays in the Octagon, has rediscovered his balance.

Refreshed, refocused and with full with renewed purpose, there's one main - and very Shane Young - goal on his mind for 2019.

"Blow up and act like I don't know nobody," he says, throwing his head back in laughter.

Newshub.

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