Rivalries: Steven Ray

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Steven Ray could never have envisioned himself in this position when he retired from mixed martial arts during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Yet here he sits, on the precipice of a $1 million payday.

“Braveheart” will attempt to complete his improbable climb when he confronts Olivier Aubin-Mercier in the Professional Fighters League lightweight final as part of the 2022 PFL Championships on Friday at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in New York. Ray, 32, enters the cage on the strength of back-to-back victories. He has already held titles in the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts and Cage Warriors Fighting Championship organizations.

As Ray moves ever closer to his clash with Aubin-Mercier at 155 pounds, a look at some of the rivalries that have helped shape his career to this point:

Curt Warburton

Ray retained the Cage Warriors lightweight crown when he put away the Englishman with a rear-naked choke in the second round of their CW 73 main event on Nov. 1, 2014 at Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle, England. Warburton conceded defeat 2:00 into Round 2. The third encounter between the two European standouts was competitive at the start, as they spent much of the first five minutes battling in the clinch and on the ground. Ray took the reins in the second round, where he floored his counterpart with a straight left. With the Scotsman zeroing in on a potential finish, Warburton made a pass at a kneebar and tried to buy time to recover. His efforts went for naught. Ray progressed to full mount and postured up to apply heavy ground-and-pound. Warburton surrendered his back in response, opening the door for the fight-ending choke. The decisive victory gave Ray a 2-1 edge in his head-to-head series with the Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran. Warburton won their first pairing under the BAMMA banner by unanimous decision in March 2013, only to have Ray even the score via five-round split verdict at a Cage Warriors show a little more than a year later.

Alan Patrick

The X-Gym export pushed his flag deeper into the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight soil when he captured a unanimous decision over Ray as part of the UFC Fight Night 95 undercard on Sept. 24, 2016 at Nilson Nelson Gymnasium in Brasilia, Brazil. Alves swept the scorecards with 29-28, 29-28 and 30-27 marks from the judges. Ray always seemed to be a step behind the crafty Brazilian. Alves executed takedowns in all three rounds and imposed his will on the former Cage Warriors titleholder. Ray’s frustration built as their 15-minute encounter progressed, even though he briefly advanced to full mount in the first round and later threatened with an armbar. The Scotsman could not stay upright for any significant amount of time and proved to be an inferior grappler when the action spilled onto the canvas. The loss snapped a five-fight winning streak for Ray and established his ceiling at 155 pounds.

Ross Pearson

Ray put a significant feather in his cap when he was awarded a split decision over “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 9 winner in their UFC Fight Night 99 co-headliner on Nov. 19, 2016 at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland. All three members of the cageside judiciary struck 30-27 scorecards: Pawel Harasim and Takeo Kobayashi for Ray, Andreas Gruner for Pearson. A short-notice replacement for James Krause, Ray kept the Englishman out of his comfort zone for the duration of their 15-minute affair. His kicks were the story, as he landed regularly to the legs, head and body. Pearson spent much of his time chasing the Scotsman around the cage, and though he connected on his share of strikes, none were particularly memorable or damaging. By the time it was over, Ray held advantages in significant strikes (49-38) and total strikes landed (50-48). He was also credited with the fight’s only completed takedown and piled up more than three minutes of control time.

Leonardo Santos

The Nova Uniao mainstay punched out Ray in the first round of their UFC Fight Night 153 prelim on June 1, 2019 at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm. Santos—in his first appearance in nearly three years—drew the curtain 2:17 into Round 1, all but assuring “Braveheart” would never reach contender status inside the Octagon. The Brazilian set up shop in the center of the cage, pawed with his jab and targeted Ray’s body with a series of kicks. Before long, the Scotsman’s ribs were a bright shade of pink. Santos stayed composed, dodged a wild head kick and caught his opponent moving in with a devastating overhand right on the counter. A semi-conscious Ray hit the canvas in a supine position, at which point it became clear that no follow-up shots were necessary.

Anthony Pettis

Tactical takedowns, positional advances and suffocating control carried Ray to a unanimous decision over the former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting titleholder, as their Professional Fighters League lightweight semifinal headlined PFL 7 on Aug. 5, 2022 at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in New York. Scores were 29-28, 29-28 and 29-28. Pettis—who had submitted to a modified twister from the resourceful Scotsman in June—once again struggled and ultimately failed to maintain a manageable distance. Ray set the tone with a strong first round, where he executed a takedown, passed to side control and threatened with a north-south choke. Pettis survived but conceded another takedown in the middle stanza, at which point his counterpart transitioned to the back and cemented his position with a body triangle. Ray slowed down across the final five minutes and allowed the Roufusport star some spurts of effective offense, but by then, the die was cast.
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