Dramatic as it was, Gregor Gillespie is taking his first loss in stride.
Gillespie was poised for a breakthrough at UFC 244 this past Saturday, facing one-time interim title challenger Kevin Lee and competing in front of a hometown crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York. For two minutes, it looked like a fairly even matchup on the feet, but Lee would strike pay dirt with a wicked head kick that instantly dropped Gillespie to the mat.
It was the first loss for Gillespie in his 14-fight career, which included wins in his first six UFC appearances, five by finish. He isn’t letting the setback get him down.
“You know how it goes. You get knocked out, I had a headache for a day or two, but I’m good now,” Gillespie told MMA Fighting. “I’m in good spirits, you know my ego was hurt a little bit, obviously, someone who never loses and then they lose and you’ve gotta imagine that there’s gonna be some emotions about that, which there were. But my spirit is intact.”
It wasn’t the first time Gillespie has had his bell rung.
During his storied wrestling career, which saw him win a national title in 2007 and earn All-American status in each of his four years at Edinboro University, Gillespie took his fair share of bumps and bruises. He’s even experienced flash knockouts in MMA training. But he’s never been knocked out cold like he was on Saturday.
Gillespie has re-watched the fight plenty of times already and has no regrets about standing with Lee nor about calling for the matchup in the first place.
“I asked for a step up in competition. Kevin Lee is a really good opponent,” Gillespie said. “A lot of people were saying, ‘He’s on a losing streak.’ Kevin Lee is not on a downward spiral and I knew that going in. Not for one second did I think I’m picking a guy going down, he’s not. You look at his last four or five fights, they’re all guys who have fought for a title or have a belt, he’s super f*cking good.
“I know that when you ask for better fights like that, your risk of losing goes up. That’s kind of how that goes. So that’s something I was definitely very, very aware of. That’s the risk when you’re fighting anyone, especially in the UFC, but when you take a fight against a guy who fought for a title at one point, your risk of getting beat—not just beat, but knocked out—goes up. That’s a risk I was willing to take.”
For those second-guessing Gillespie’s decision to stand-and-trade with Lee as opposed to immediately going for his trademark wrestling, the fighter explained that he realized early it wouldn’t be easy to get Lee down. He doesn’t regret resorting to striking, though he plans to put a further emphasis on kickboxing training in the coming months, and he shrugged off the suggestion that Lee had any significant size advantage.
“No, that’s not something that I’m really interested in,” Gillespie said when asked if he was considering a move to featherweight at any point in the future. “To be completely honest with you, I don’t know what Kevin weighed the day of the fight. I can’t imagine him being much heavier than me, I was pretty heavy the day of the fight. I may not look like I’m huge for lightweight, but I carry weight well. I was over 170 [pounds] the night of the fight. I don’t know what Kevin Lee weighed, but he couldn’t weigh that much more than me, we weighed in the day before at the same weight.
“And again, the size had nothing to do with that. He landed a perfectly executed, perfectly timed, unbelievable kick. People have been saying it was lucky, it was not lucky. It was not unlucky. It was an absolutely perfect kick and it was very well-executed and I give him all the props in the world.”
The loss has given Gillespie a lot to think about, though reflection on what it means to his relatively young career has left him with what he described as “mixed feelings.” Gillespie went from the highest-level of collegiate wrestling to competing on the international scene and then transitioned to fighting, making his pro debut in January 2014.
His early UFC returns positioned Gillespie as one to watch in the loaded 155-pound division and he looked to have the wrestling to present an intriguing challenge to current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov somewhere down the road. It’s been a rapid rise for Gillespie and he barely had time to register as a prospect before being placed into championship talks.
“I can say that I have a decent amount of experience at this point, that’s probably how I would look at it,” Gillespie said. “And then on the same token, I still feel like, ‘F*ck, I am kind of green.’”
Gillespie was handed a 90-day medical suspension from the New York State Athletic Commission, so any timetable for a return is out of his hands as he awaits clearance from a physician. He does not expect to be out for long, certainly not as long as the 10 months between his two 2019 outings.
The fishing enthusiast has already been back out on the water since the weekend and in the coming months he’s looking forward to spending some long hours on the Connetquot River in Long Island, which he says doesn’t freeze in the winter. And when the time is right he wants to come back rejuvenated and improved.
“I’d like to get in there, I’d like to get back in, but we’re not gonna rush it,” Gillespie said. “I’m not gonna wait as long as I did this time. I didn’t purposely wait [10 months], it’s just that the opportunity to fight a guy I wanted to fight wasn’t there, then this came along and it was the right opponent, so that’s why the time took so long. It’s going to be sooner than it was this time.”