Aussie UFC rookie’s ‘frightening’ COVID battle
Casey O'Neill, in the past five months, has not only traversed four countries to earn a UFC contract, but couch surfed, fought and battled COVID.
The last of which, she concedes, "was a little frightening".
Especially when even three weeks after finally being cleared by doctors, this 23-year-old Gold Coast fighter - by way of Kilmarnock, Scotland - still found herself struggling to breath during workouts.
"But a lot of people were far worse of than me," she says.
Which is true.
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But, geez, as far as UFC arrivals go, the debut of O'Neill in Las Vegas this Sunday is a cracker.
Up against American featherweight Shana Dobson, Australia's newest UFC face is finally being rewarded for a journey that hasn't only been moving from Scotland to Australia aged 10, or overcoming two losses to start a career now boasting 10 straight wins, but shifting to Thailand in 2019 to train at famed Tiger Muay Thai Gym.
"I just booked a one-way ticket and went for it," O'Neill says of her move to a camp that also boasts UFC champ Alex Volkanovski.
"I didn't know if I'd make, if I would have enough money … I just took the leap."
Immediately, too, the Aussie was rewarded - with her next two fights the most impressive wins of her career.
Yet as COVID shut down most of the world in 2020, O'Neill suddenly found herself trapped.
"I was living in Thailand, in lockdown like everyone else," she recounts. "There were no opportunities and I was continually messaging my manager saying 'I really need to fight'.
"Eventually I got an offer to fight September, in Abu Dhabi.
"But the catch was that if I let Thailand, I wouldn't be allowed back in (because of travel restrictions). I'd only just started getting settled in Thailand after moving from Australia.
"I was thinking 'do I really want to do this, do I want to move again?'
"But I just couldn't say no to a fight."
So despite having no idea where she would go, or with whom, O'Neill flew to Abu Dhabi, won, and then at the suggestion of her manager, headed to Las Vegas, where she spent the first couple of weeks couch surfing with fellow fighters.
Then, after a fortnight - boom - O'Neill finally got herself UFC offer, a late call up against Lauren Murphy at UFC Fight Island.
"But I had to leave next day," she says. "So scrambling, I got my COVID test, then packed."
Yet the following morning, a call came in.
"My manager called to say I wasn't flying anywhere - I had COVID," she says. "Thankfully, I wasn't too bad.
"I was run down for a while and my cardio took a month to recover.
"As an athlete, that was a little frightening.
"Especially three weeks after getting the all clear and I still didn't have my lung capacity back.
"Obviously a lot of people had it much worse than me, but you do start to wonder if it's going to come back.
"Thankfully though, everything is fine now.
"I just can't wait to finally fight."
Originally published as Aussie UFC rookie's 'frightening' COVID battle