In front of the Octagon, cool and collected, stood Pearson in a suit, laying his arm around a young fan who grinned wide-eyed into the camera that captured the moment he met one of his idols in the sport.
“I knew back then that I’d be fighting in the UFC at some point but it’s still surreal sometimes to look back,” said Ray, who returns to the Octagon this Sunday to battle Paul Felder, almost five years and as many UFC wins later. “A lot of things have happened over the last few years but I’m not finished yet. It’s really only starting now.”
A lot has happened, indeed. Having already sported a respectable record of eleven wins and three defeats at the time he had his picture taken with Pearson, Ray rattled off another four wins in his next six fights. Just after he had completed a three-fight series with UFC veteran Curt Warburton, outdoing his rival 2-1, the big show came calling.
Filling in on short notice, Ray pounded his way to a second-round TKO victory over Marcin Bandel in the Polish submission ace’s home country before excelling in front of his own home crowd. His Performance of the Night knockout over Leonardo Mafra netted him a $50,000 bonus, as well as the attention of the MMA world.
Still, Ray is just as motivated for a win in 2017 as he was when he was starving to feed his family before getting called up to the UFC.
“To be honest, it hasn’t changed that much. Of course, I got the bonus and everything and I could afford a few new things, but with taxes and my 11-month layoff, I almost went bankrupt. If you’re not fighting, you’re not making money so I’m still just as hungry as I was when I got to the UFC. It’s still that same mentality.”
Ray had to sit out for almost a year after his first three UFC wins due to injuries and he promptly lost a decision to Alan Patrick in his return bout.
Taking the opportunity to face Ross Pearson on short notice last November in Belfast, Ray got back on the winning track via split decision before edging another veteran by majority decision in Joe Lauzon last April.
Ray won’t accept the notion that these recent close calls put additional pressure on him to perform explosively, though.
“No, I don’t feel like I have to put a stamp on guys (to continue moving up in the rankings),” Ray insisted. “The fights get tougher as I’m working my way up, and it’s very difficult to beat these guys. A finish is just a bonus.”
After watching the fight against Lauzon back and having had a talk with the veteran, Ray is convinced that there’s no controversy worth talking about in his win at UFC Nashville.
“It might’ve been a draw at most but I’m fairly certain that I won the fight,” Ray said. “People are saying that he won the first round 10-8. But a 10-8 round is given when one fighter has done huge damage or when the fight was almost stopped.
“I think the damage was not as decisive as people say. He landed hard shots, he got to mount and he definitely won that round, but in the last round, with another ten seconds, I would’ve finished it. If he got a 10-8 in the first round, you’d have to give me a 10-8 in the third and I would’ve won the fight anyway. If they were both (scored) 10-9, I would’ve won as well.”
The past won’t matter one way or another when Ray returns home this weekend. Even though Ray would’ve liked to receive main event treatment for his second Octagon appearance in as many UFC events in the Scottish capital, the Fife native said that he is content with his spot on the main card opposite Paul Felder.
Still, “Braveheart” expects another tough outing against “The Irish Dragon”.
“I’ve seen him around and he’s a good guy,” Ray said. “He’s tough, but obviously I think that I’m the better fighter. He’s been in the UFC for a while so I hope he comes forward and brings a show.
“He’s been one of these guys where I always suspected I’d get matched up with him at some point so I’m excited to fight him in Glasgow.”
He most likely shares that feeling with just about every fan who will take a seat in The SSE Hydro this weekend. With both lightweights being known as aggressive strikers who are able to put relentless pressure on their foes, this battle has the potential to steal the show on Sunday.
“With Felder being a tough, experienced guy, of course I’d like to finish, but it could be a three-round war. I’m prepared for whatever. Fans should tune in because it’s a great matchup, stylistically. We both come to fight and it’s going to be a great show.”
So, for now, between wreaking havoc in the cage and raising three children at home, Stevie Ray doesn’t have time to look back all too often, unless it’s a picture with a future foe.
Five wins into his UFC career, the 27-year-old doesn’t plan on wasting his prime on his path to the top. Should everything go well, he might actually find another link to his past once he gets there: The man Ray succeeded as the Cage Warriors lightweight champion vacated his title back in 2013 to chase bigger fish. Conor McGregor is now the biggest star mixed martial arts has ever seen.