Spend some time talking to Scotland-born Aussie Casey O'Neill, and you get the sense that she’d rather be at the gym. She’s polite and eloquent, and more than accommodating with her time. But the palpable feeling is that as she’s recounting her martial arts journey to date, her mind is very much on getting back to work -- hitting pads, sparring and getting rounds on the mat.
That’s an obsession that O’Neill, who goes by “King” when she steps into the cage, has had since she was a four-year-old, when she convinced her Father Cam, then a professional kickboxer, to let her train alongside him and the other adults. Kickboxing tournaments were to follow, supplemented with jiu-jitsu competitions when the O’Neill family moved from Scotland to Australia. At 14, O’Neill made the transition to MMA, followed quickly by a jump into amateur competition. Today she’s ranked by some outlets as the No. 1 pound-for-pound female fighter in Australia, and has her sights firmly set on becoming the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s next big Australian import.
“When I was a kid my dad was fighting in kickboxing in Scotland,” Casey told Sherdog.com. “I didn’t really have anywhere else to go after school. I always went and watched him. I was like four and I was asking him ‘can I join in?’ He would say ‘no, you’re too young.’ Eventually I was allowed in just before I turned five, in the adult’s class. I was that annoying child in the adult’s class, just shadowing my dad. Ever since my first day, I knew I wanted to fight kickboxing. I wanted to fight.
“Eventually, I wore him down and he allowed me to start doing kickboxing tournaments,” she continued. “I would fight against boys and most of the time would get my ass kicked. Maybe I would do well some days but I was always crying. It was hard. Once I started, [dad] said ‘you’re in it: you’re either doing it or you’re not.’ I always knew that I wanted to fight since then. I did kickboxing my whole childhood, then when we moved to Australia [we] started at a jiu-jitsu gym. I followed [Dad] there, like always shadowing whatever he did. When he started jiu-jitsu so did I. There was a natural transition to MMA with both kickboxing and jiu-jitsu.”
The move “Down Under” came when Casey was about 10, meaning she’s officially been an adopted Aussie longer than she was a Scot. Five years later she began competing in mixed martial arts as an amateur in her Father’s Eternal MMA promotion, but fell short in her first two fights -- two first round TKO losses. The experience rattled O’Neill’s confidence and sent her back to the drawing board.
“The life that you have as a teenager or a young adult in the UK isn’t great,” O’ Neill said. “My parents obviously knew that, both of them growing up there. They knew that the best life they could give us was somewhere other than the UK. A lot of kids fall into bad circles, or just don’t do anything with their lives. They just wanted something different for us, and we ended up moving to Australia, and I found what I want to do with my life pretty quickly, so I’m grateful for that.
“I always thought that I could make it [in fighting],” she elaborated. “I had a rocky start in MMA – I lost my first two [amateur] fights. One when I was 15, one when I was 16. That was really hard for me. Even in my first fight, I was like ‘I’m going to be the best, this is my life’ – then I lost. Then I lost again. I had everyone, teammates, coaches, telling me ‘maybe you’re not too good at this.’ I actually had people saying that to me when I was young. You’re very impressionable when you’re young. I started to think maybe they were right, maybe I’m never going to be good enough at this. Maybe I should give up.”
O’Neill would spend nearly two years on the sidelines, returning in August of 2017 with a vengeance and kicking off a run of eight straight victories -- three of which came in 2019 as a professional. It’s a resurgence the 22-year-old credits to her move to Southside MMA and Pasha Stolyar.
“I went through a very dark time for a little while [after the two losses]. I lost the love for it almost. I was like ‘do I want to do this for my life?’ Eventually I thought, yes, I do. I needed to go somewhere with people that believed in me. I moved coaches, moved gyms [to Southside MMA]. I found a really good fit for me. After training under [Pasha Stolyar] for a couple of months, he was like ‘do you want to have another fight?’. I said yes, I want to give this my all and make a good career out of this. The rest in history. Ever since then, I’ve won every fight.
“After I won my first fight, I was like ‘OK, I’m going pro.’ And [Stolyar] was like, ‘no you’ve only had one.’ Then I had another fight shortly after that, and I was like ‘OK I’ve won this one too, let’s go pro!’ Everyone was trying to slow me down while I was trying to rush. I knew then that I could beat any girl in Australia. It was just a matter of proving myself to my coach, that it was time to go pro. You can’t go back once you’re a pro.”
O’Neill would have three more amateur fights before she finally got the greenlight, rounding out a 5-2 amateur career before making her pro debut this April. In the space of six months, she’s pieced together a perfect 3-0 record, including a stint as the Eternal strawweight champion, and is in the process of permanently relocating to Phuket so she can train full-time under George and Frank Hickman.
Her last fight, a dominant three-round decision victory over the undefeated Miki Motono (O’Neill relinquished her Eternal strawweight title due to missing weight by half a pound), was the first she’s had fighting under TMT. O’Neill was happy with the “W,” but says her best is yet to come.
“That was my first fight out of Tiger Muay Thai,” O’Neill recounted. “I’d recently moved to Tiger and been training full-time for that fight. Maybe [I was training] a little bit too hard. I felt a little bit over-trained. Obviously, I also missed weight -- no excuses on that. But I had a lot of things pop up that week. New environments so I’d been getting sick really easily. I ended up with staph that week, I had my period. Everything just happened and I couldn’t make the weight the way I wanted to. Given the way I felt I was happy with the performance, but obviously as a professional you’re never really happy. I wanted to finish her and I think I could have if there wasn’t so much grappling [in the fight], which is what she wanted.
“I think my striking is really underrated at the moment and I wanted to show that off,” she continued. “I fell back into old habits and I ended up grappling with her. I’m a little bit of an ego fighter, I fight people where they’re at their best [the ground] so I can show that I’m better. But I beat her decisively I think. That was a good stamp on my record -- I fought someone who’s 2-0 from another country; coming up as a prospect. I beat her on the ground where she’s good. It was a great night, I couldn’t really ask for more apart from finishing her and getting my belt. Sh-t happens.”
Even though she’s only just turned 22 – her birthday was spent in transit between Melbourne and Phuket the day after she beat Motono -- O’Neill feels that in in many ways she’s already transcended the Australian MMA scene. Today, her sights are set on competing in the United States for her next fight, and she sees herself as a contender in the UFC’s ultra-deep strawweight division inside two years
“At the moment I actually have no desire to fight in Australia again,” O’Neill said. “I feel I’ve done that. If a good opportunity comes up I’ll take it for sure. But I’m definitely looking at the bigger picture down. I feel like I’ve proven myself in Australia – I’m No. 1 pound-for-pound [ according to Tapology], I’ve fought pretty much everyone that they’ve said to fight. So now I’m looking at getting a fight in America early next year, that’s a big goal. Looking at someone picking me up hopefully soon.
“Obviously the UFC is where I want to be,” she continued. “I’m only 3-0 right now and they probably wouldn’t pick me up unless it’s an Australian show. Invicta is a really good feeder league for the UFC. That’s a great stepping stone. All roads are leading there at the moment…. I picture myself in the UFC at the latest, June next year. Once I get a few more wins, I’ll get into the UFC, and within two years I will be a UFC contender.”
For O’Neill, there are no half-measures. She’s given up her job and her home, living a spartan existence in TMT in pursuit of something special. It’s an unenviable lifestyle, but one that gels perfectly with her lifelong aspiration to be a world class fighter. After 17 years since she first jumped on the mat, her dreams appear very close to morphing into reality.
“I gave everything up. I did have a job [as a barista] until August last year, and I just decided [to go] all-in. I took everything I owned and moved to Thailand with one suitcase. Obviously I don’t have very much money at the moment, but that doesn’t really matter to me. All that matters to me is making it. I believe in myself 100 percent.
“This is it. I put everything into [MMA]. I don’t have the time, or mental capacity for anything else. Where you’re here at Thailand, training at Tiger, you’re training 2-3 times a day. The only other thing I do is sleep. When you want to make it…”
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.