A little over two years ago, Nicolas Dalby sat on his stool between second and third rounds in his fight with a fellow undefeated opponent Darren Till, not sure what he had left to give. Dalby was the favorite coming into that bout in Dublin, but after nearly being knocked out with an uppercut late in the first round and an exhaustive second — where Till began to demonstrate the composure and skill that has made him a welterweight contender in 2018 — he had to dig deep. Sensing that slipping resolve, his coach, Tue Trnka, provided the shovel.
He asked Dalby if he believed in himself. Dalby said he did. A proud fellow Dane, he then lit a fire under his ass. He told Dalby in that case it was time to spring back to life — to resurrect, and represent the Danish flag. To make the next five minutes a testament to all the things he trained for, and to be that inspiration he imagined a thousand times he could be when he coated himself with such warm ideas coming up. Trnka then asked him, while holding that psychological thread, if he would fight on. Dalby said he would.
Only at that point, in the fleeting space of a single minute, did Trnka launch into the plan.
“You must attack!” he said. He reinforced the idea to use his angles. To activate the one-two they worked on. To deploy the left high kick, when the openings where there. But above all else, to attack, attack, attack — to pressure mercilessly until the final horn. To take a piece of Till home as a souvenir. Dalby stood up.
He did what he was told.
He moved forward and landed a head kick early on, then connected with a violent flurry. He was alive. A minute-and-a-half later, he dumped Till to the ground. Till’s face began to bleed, and suddenly it was Till looking at the clock. Another head kick, followed by a series of right hands. He was alive, by god. He took Till down again, and went right into mount. Hammerfists. Till, the Scouser with the easy composure, was fast coming unraveled. Somehow he had become the exhausted fighter, while this other man — this Dane straying so far off script — unleashed his powerful reserves. How deep did they go? Dalby slammed a knee into Till’s head on the fence, and picked him off with his hands. He didn’t stop attacking until the horn sounded.
Till’s fight was now anything but. The scorecards were read: 29-28 Till, 28-28, 28-28. A majority draw from a lost cause. Maybe one of the most glorious majority draws in company history, given the circumstances. Two judges gave Dalby a 10-8 round to pull even.
The competitors did a joint interview in the octagon with Dan Hardy, and Dalby — exalted by his own feat — said that they laid it on the line. The happy-go-lucky Till called Dalby a “beast,” and said he took those punches like a madman. There they were, fighterly equals. They hugged continuously, the gratitude of having gone to war, of having pushed each other into such deep spaces. Hardy asked the crowd to give it up if they wanted to see a rematch.
The crowd let out a roar.
The rematch didn’t happen. Till went on to win his next three straight, including a plastering of Donald Cerrone in his first main event this past October, to cement himself as a contender in the division. Dalby, after flashing his heart for all to see, suffered a come down. He lost a decision to Zak Cummings in Zagreb his next time out. Then in his Sept. 2016 fight with the German Peter Sobotta in Hamburg, he took an uppercut that broke his orbital in the first minute. Tough as ever, he hung on for the next 14 minutes to hear the judges’ scorecards. They didn’t favor him this time.
There would be no comeback. He lost the fight.
And he hasn’t fought since.
Recently, somewhat out of the blue, Dalby explained his absence via an Instagram post in early February. Accompanying a shadowy photo of him beneath a neon “fight” sign, he wrote that he had been battling a “deep depression, which resulted in alcoholism, apathy and hurtful behavior towards the people I hold dearest.” It was an introspective and very thoughtful post, the crux being that he had accepted a fight in April as a way of reemerging on the other side. There wasn’t any blowhard language; there was only a confrontation of self-doubt being made plain for all to see, along with some hashtags for redemption. And there was an undertone of exhilaration, too, especially as he acknowledged the one prospect that excites fighters in different ways: The fact that he may lose.
“There’s only one way to find out,” he wrote, “and that’s by f*cking doing it! And doing it 110 percent! This is a fight to determine my future. Now is the time to prove to myself, my girlfriend, my friends, my family & the rest of the world what I’m made of. That I am going to follow up to the promises I made myself. And that is the real fight. If I do that, do the very best I can. Then I will win the fight in the cage. And the fight for my life!”
What’s been going on with Dalby, the Danish blue-chipper who began his professional MMA career by going 14-0, including a victory over Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in his UFC debut? He says he slipped inward, and only now — 14 months after his last fight — does he feel he’s broken the trance that had him on a southbound trek to nowhere.
“I feel like I’ve been in this bubble for a year, a year-and-a-half,” he told MMA Fighting. “I’ve existed in the world, but it hasn’t been Nicolas Dalby. It’s been some other person living in my body, and my brain. It’s maybe difficult to understand unless you’ve been there. But that’s how I’ve been feeling. The feeling I have, it’s like I’ve been in a steam shower or a sauna for a long time, and I’m finally stepping out of that door and catching a clean breath of air, and seeing the world as it actually is again.”
Having posted a perfect 13-0 record fighting primarily in Denmark, Dalby — who carries a nickname of “The Sharpshooter” — got signed to the UFC in early 2015 as the Cage Warriors welterweight champion. There was a lot of Scandinavian hoopla surrounding him, and a fair amount of it could be heard across the pond in the U.S.
Especially after getting his hand raised against dos Santos in Brazil in his UFC debut, a fight in which he scored six takedowns and showcased his dogged tenacity. By the time he fought Till five months later, it was an early intrigue bout between undefeated European prospects, each of whom was capable of making waves at 170 pounds.
Still, Dalby felt the onset of dark moods through the early fights, even if he hadn’t identified it yet as depression.
“I’ve always felt that I sort of ran into a sort of mini-depression in between fights, and especially right after a fight,” he says. “Because you’ve been having all that lead up to the fight, all that training and focus on fighting, and then fight week and media, interviews, and the fight itself.
“Then after the fight, there’s kind of this void. Where you don’t really have anything to focus on. For me, it just ended up with me feeling, not depressed per se, but kind of down usually after a fight. Even if I won the fight, I fell into this hole of apathy, where it took an extra burst of energy to get out of bed and get the day going.”
The feeling darkened further when he lost his first fight against Cummings, a clear one-sided decision that he didn’t compete well in. From there it became the fight within the fight, as the sagging minutes turned to hours, and hours into days, especially with his last bout going down the way it did.
“It’s something that just got worse and worse and worse, and then after the last fight when I lost in Hamburg against Sobotta and my eye was injured, it bottomed out,” he says. “I’ve never had any serious injuries in fighting, so that was kind of the final straw.”
That was in Sept. 2016, and for the next six months Dalby fell into a bad pattern as he recovered from the eye injury. He couldn’t train, which had been his way of re-centering himself through rough times. Worse, he had nothing looming for him on the horizon to focus his energy. He was out of shape. He was offered a fight for the inaugural New York card, but his eye hadn’t recovered enough to take it.
He grew increasingly despondent, spending most of his time shuttered up at his place in Copenhagen. When he did manage to go out and meet friends, he found himself drinking copiously, sometimes until the sun came up. When at home, he would spend entire days on his iPad, a mind-numbing exercise in distraction.
“I couldn’t cope with the outside world,” he says. “But because I’m also a social human being, I needed that interaction with people. So usually as the weekend came about, I was like, I got to get out — I got to get a shower at least, meet some people. It would be going out for what was supposed to be a few drinks with friends, and it always just escalated. I guess drinking was a coping mechanism as well, but you get lost in a hole when you’re depressed.”
As the UFC underwent some changes in the matchmaking department — namely Joe Silva’s retirement and the revamped division of duties between Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard — Dalby’s future became even more uncertain.
“There were rumors that the UFC was going to come to Copenhagen in May 2017, and that got me excited,” he says. “I wanted to do that. And when I let my manager know that I was up for that, he contacted [matchmaker] Sean Shelby, who took over my weight division. I guess something got lost in translation, and I don’t know how matchmaking works as a job. I was told in March, half a year after I fought, that Sean hadn’t had the time to look at the divisions before now, and he didn’t for now want to continue on with me.”
Rather than compete in May, Dalby was unceremoniously released during a roster purge that month.
“The word was that if I had a couple of wins, I could be back,” he says. “I get that the UFC is a big company and they have a lot of business, so I get their perspective on that. But being on the other side of it sucked a lot. Waiting half a year to be told that you’re released from something that happened six months ago.
“I thought I had one more shot at least, and that felt like a slap in the face. It kind of put me a step back. I was feeling better, and that threw me back into depression again.”
Dalby holed up at his place. Over time he ballooned up to 103 kilograms (227 pounds). His drinking eventually began to affect his family and friends, until one day he realized he no longer bore the slightest resemblance to himself.
“I think it came about at the same time I realized I was depressed, because that was when I woke up,” he says. “I got woke, as the young kids say. That kind of made me realize that the behavior I’d been showing was, maybe not directly hurting my friends and girlfriend and family, but it was definitely a huge contributing factor. If you have a fight with your girlfriend, it doesn’t help to drink your brains out until 10 the next morning.”
As sometimes happens for those caught in a downward spiral, Dalby says there was an incident that prompted him to take action.
“What triggered it was a really bad experience that I don’t feel like getting into,” he says. “But what finally pushed me to actively dealing with this thing was a pretty traumatic experience. I guess I needed that kind of kick start, not that it was a good one — but it made me realize, okay, I need to do something now if I want to be able to return to the life I want to live. From there I started seeking help. With friends, I started talking to them more. I also found this very good psychotherapist, and that helped a lot as well.”
The 33-year old Dalby has his return lined up for April 28 in the Cage Warriors promotion. The event will take place in Gothenburg, Sweden, at the Lisebergshallen. At the time of this post, his opponent is still being determined — not that it matters so much to him. Dalby’s comeback is all about the internal conquerings. About moving on. About getting back.
And maybe taking the first step towards returning to the UFC, where he still he says he left so much business unfinished.
“I feel like I need to redeem myself, both for my own sake and because I want to show the world what I can actually do when my head is working right,” he says. “Maybe I have somewhat of a chip on my shoulder, but I’m going to use that in the best way possible.”
With a fight on the schedule, he sounds revitalized. He’s back to posting pictures of himself in the gym on his social media, in many cases smiling. He says he felt it was important to be up front and honest about his situation, and to let fans know the depth of his struggles. There is no human side of the fighter; there are only human beings.
“I feel that me being just open about what I’ve been battling the last couple of years not only makes my fans understand it better, but also just to get the message out there that even UFC fighters get depressed and have difficult stuff they go through,” he says. “So, some of the motivation was sharing that experience. I’ve been sharing some on my Facebook profile as well, and it seemed like it struck a note with some people I know who’ve been battling some similar issues.
“It was something for myself to do, to explain where I’ve been and what’s going on, but also maybe to help people out there that read those posts, too.”
For now, the Till fight — and the way it ended — is just a glimpse of what Dalby believes he’s truly capable of. There’s a poetic parallel to being down two rounds in a fight, a beating heart under a crush of self-doubt, ready to quit. And then to find something, in a moment’s notice, and take control.
“The Till fight will probably always been — for now — on the top shelf of fights I’m most proud about,” he says. “Not because it was a draw and he is what he is now, but more because of the internal battle I had with myself during that fight. Because it wasn’t like I was losing the first two rounds big, I was hanging in there, but inside of my head I was.
“I was really about ready to give up and not come out in the third round. But then my coach helped me reignite my self-belief, and for me, that moment, it showed me a great part of who I truly am. Even through the strongest adversity I can find that within myself to keep going. I might not win the fight, but I can keep going and try.”
Dalby’s not a household name in America, and he never achieved status as a top-flight contender. It never got that far. But he fought, and he tried. And he’s going to fight on, and he’s going to try again.
“I know I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t feel ready,” he says. “Who knows how this training camp’s going to turn out. If I don’t do it, I won’t know. This was a decision I made because it felt right, and now I just got to ride with it and take the consequences that it has. And there is probably a bit of self-doubt, but I’ve always used that part to push myself even harder in training. That’s how I work. In the end I think that will motivate me even further towards my goal. To have that itch in your brain that’s going, well, can I do this?”
Just like when he got off the stool in that Till fight, Dalby has found it in himself to rise up. To move forward. To show, in his quiet way, that sometimes there’s a meaningful difference between the pursuit of victory and personal triumph.