FORMER UFC lightweight contender, George Sotiropoulos this week fulfilled a long-standing ambition when finally arriving in Derry - a city where he has forged strong bonds and a place he claims ‘feels like home!’
Married to Derry girl, Cliona, the super talented 37 year-old Australian, who was once a notorious submission specialist in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and on the cusp of a world title shot after seven straight victories in the Octagon, finally made good on a promise to his wife and arrived in the city last Friday.
And he wasted no time getting settled into his surroundings, quickly locating Strike Martial Arts Academy on the Bay Road (with a certain level of difficulty) where he met up with Derry’s four time world professional kickboxing champion, Daniel ‘Pinta’ Quigley and British and European jiu jitsu titlist, Martin McLaughlin.
Once there he delivered a seminar on mixed martial arts techniques in his usual gentleman-like manner as the members of both Strike and Torres BJJ picked the brains of one of the UFC’s top lightweights whose career has taken him across the world, fighting in Australia, Japan, Korea, Guam, the USA and now Ireland!
Explaining his link with Derry and how he met Elaghmore native Cliona - the niece of INLA hunger striker, Patsy O’Hara - George ‘Sots’ said he was delighted to strike up a relationship with members of Derry’s budding mixed martial arts scene, insisting the people of his wife’s hometown ‘don’t realise how good they’ve got it!’
“My wife, Cliona is an O’Hara,” he explained. “I met my wife in 2007 and we got married in 2009 so I’ve always wanted to come here to Derry and she’s always wanted to bring me here.
“Today I’m here so it’s great,” he smiled. “I got off a plane on Friday and I did the seminar on Saturday. The things I spoke about were things like technique and other things I’ve been working on for a long time.
“I was really happy with the turnout and everyone’s hospitality and just the friendliness of everyone in Derry.
“I was happy to give something back,” he added . “I know everyone appreciates it. I can see it in people’s faces and in their smiles - they’re excited and that makes me feel good.”
While George, who is of Greek descent, spent a lot of his time at Torres BJJ and Strike this week, Cliona and their six month old daughter Clio Kalliopi have been spending precious time with her grandmother, Peggy O’Hara and their extended family in Templegrove.
Cliona, who moved to New York to live and work with her mother in the healthcare profession back in 1998, claims she was ‘inspired’ by George when they first met three weeks after he filmed season six of ‘The Ultimate Fighter ‘ in August 2008.
Fast forward two years and they were married and living in Washington State where they currently reside, as George’s UFC career began to take flight.
“I met George in 2007, three weeks after the Ultimate Fighter show,” explained Cliona. “He was in New York hanging out with his friends and cousins before he was supposed to return to Australia. We immediately clicked and fell in love. I love the warrior spirit in him and I was attracted to his discipline and work ethic. I was inspired by him and he changed me for the better,” she claimed.
Originally from the small Australian town of Geelong, where he won the Victoria State 75 kgs Amateur Boxing Championship in 2004, George, who has a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, insists visiting Derry brings him back to his roots and is a timely reminder of how far he’s come over the past decade in the sport.
I was happy to give something back. I know everyone appreciates it. I can see it in people’s faces and in their smiles - they’re excited and that makes me feel good.George Sotiropoulos
“I’m from a place in Australia called Geelong which is about the same size as Derry so I feel like I’m at home,” said the Ultimate Fighter 6 cast member. “This is my first time in Ireland and when I got out at the airport in Belfast it felt like Geelong.
“I drove to Derry and it looked so similar to home with the roads, the signs, the police cars and uniforms, the people. So it’s good to finally be here.”
George struck up a relationship with Derry’s four time world champion, ‘Pinta’ Quigley on Facebook and from there he arranged to offer his valuable time and unrivalled experience to the students of Strike this week while also getting in a few sparring sessions of his own - and he’s loved every minute of it!
“I’ve known ‘Pinta’ from Facebook and we’ve talked in the past and I follow him. I really like the videos he posts and I really like the guy. I swore I would get to Derry one day. So when I told him I was coming to Ireland and I wanted to do some training while I was here, it all fell into place.
“I got the address on Facebook and got here and saw six lights on and thought ‘awe man there’s not too many people here’ but it was a great turnout in the end.
“I had a great conversation with Martin (McLaughlin) and he reminds me of myself. I always want to talk about mixed martial arts and ask questions and it was just good to be here.
“I guess I take things for granted because I’ve been doing it for so long. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years, every day for six hours a day and it’s just become part of my psyche, part of my life.
“I sometimes forget how far I’ve taken things and how far I’ve gone.
“So having these conversations and getting asked these questions and giving people responses you realise you know more than what you think you know.
“I watched the videos ‘Pinta’ posts on Facebook and I’m so impressed by what I’ve seen. The sparring, the technique, so this school is an amazing school. And I think people here probably don’t realise how good they’ve got it!”
With a six month old daughter now at the top of his priority list, George admits he can’t spend as much time dedicated to the sport which has served him so well for the past 10 years.
Coming off a loss in his last fight in August last year against Mike Ricci, George can’t resist the urge to return to the cage and show the MMA world that it’s not yet seen the best of what he has to offer. Although he revealed his next project is to en a martial arts academy of his own back in the US.
“My last fight was in August last year and we had a baby in September last year and for now that’s the priority in my life,” he said.
“That’s taken centre stage as it should. But I’m probably going to start an academy myself at some stage in New York.
“I want to continue fighting and competing but right now it’s about starting a business and starting a school which will probably take up most of my time.
“And I’m happy to do that. I’ve been fighting for so many years it’s probably time I gave something back.”
So the cage door hasn’t shut on George ‘Sots’ just yet!