Untapped Potential: ‘Smooth’ Sam Spencer talks Cage Warriors comeback

Since Sam Spencer’s amateur mixed martial arts debut over ten years ago, the ‘Smooth’ one has been touted as a top prospect on the UK scene, and for those familiar, still is. Way back when, Spencer amounted a perfect 6-0 amateur record – his final win coming over former Cage Warriors bantamweight champion and undefeated professional battler Jack Cartwright.

Sam’s professional career began with as much momentum as one could hope for, with noteworthy battles and outstanding fights of the night. Just one little thing has plagued him.

Outside of the fighting itself in mixed martial arts, the injuries are just as prevalent and problematic. For a scrapper who has been around as long as Sam, a professional record of six wins and two losses since 2014 doesn’t reflect a whole lot of activity, but that’s for good reason.

Injuries; they have played just as big a part in Sam’s career as his competition has. Most notably and most graphically, Sam suffered one of the worst broken jaws UK MMA has scene back at FCC 15. Knee issues also began to bother Spencer as his career progressed.

Since his last outing in 2019, Sam entered a headspace where fighting didn’t seem like an opportunity which would return or one that he’d particularly be interested in. Injuries, each by each, chip away at the fighting soul and as well at a man’s livelihood. So much so that fighting seemed to be something Sam was happy to put on behind him. By putting fighting on the shelf and taking a step back, Sam saw a lot of the things in fighting he didn’t like or want to return to.

“Being on the sidelines in the gym, I saw a lot of issues being battled by teammates,” Sam said. “Guys putting loads of pressure on themselves to fight and it seemed to me that they were trying to fill a void in themselves or get validation from fighting. I didn’t ever want to fall in to that as I’ve always been pretty conscious about it.

“You don’t have to fight. There’s plenty of other stuff you can do in and out of the sport. Obviously, it’s a stressful thing and it’s supposed to be, with the repercussions of the fight itself, but if it’s ruining your life to try and be a fighter then it’s best to swerve it.”

On the same note, that’s kind of where Sam was at on the sidelines being proper injured. His knee, as Sam would put it, was “really fucked.” During the 2020 lockdown, with every gym closed, Sam bought a mountain bike in an attempt to stay fit around around the global circumstances. It is just his luck that a major accident and another setback would occur from the simplest of exercises.

“I was out riding and went over the handlebars and landed on my feet,” Sam explained. “But my knees turned inward and everything torn. Out of the seven structures in your knees, I torn five of them; my ACL, partially my PCL, MCL as well as both meniscus’. I had to get home in the back of my mate’s van! I never thought I’d get back to the physicality levels I was at beforehand. It took twelve months to the point where I could even run on it.

“Then at the same time we had COVID happening, so no gyms were open to do anything either, so I think it’s been around two years trying to recover from that. Only in the last six to eight months has my knee felt confident enough to train fully on it.

In Sam’s words and many people’s experiences around him, the injuries have almost been a constant. From jaws and knees to broken hands and digits. The one thing that kept fighting in his mind, and something that would continue to come up in the conversation was ‘untapped potential.’ When many have held you to great heights, time on the sideline will bring that back to the front of your mind. Friends, supporters asking when your next fight will be, it’s like you can never escape the identity. A nametag you can you can never remove.

Taking it back to 2019: Sam was returning from eighteen months out of the cage since his debut Cage Warriors showing, which resulted in a doctor’s stoppage from a nasty cut against Paull McBain. This return bout took place at FCC 23 – a tough return bout against a 4-0 prospect in Ryan Holdham for the FCC bantamweight title.

In his first bout since late-2017, Sam Spencer had never looked so good. In and out in a flash, Spencer stopped the prospect with a beautiful counter left hook in just thirty-two seconds of the very opening round.

Back, booming and ready to bounce back into his previous Cage Warriors contract, Spencer was matched with UK veteran Corey Tait in a scintillating summer bout. A win on the night would have certainly placed Sam amongst the division’s most elite names. That August night, however, would never materialise.

“As soon as that was matched, I snapped my bicep tendon,” Spencer revealed. “Literally in the second spar of the camp I threw a left hook to the body and felt it go. I was back on a six month process to get that reattached. Boy, that was going to be a mega fight. Maybe it’s something we can still do in the future.

“The plan after the Ryan Holdham fight was to get back to Cage Warriors, get some wins and make a run at the title as I had had eighteen months off before that fight on FCC, so in the last five years I’ve really only fought thirty-two seconds which is wild. It’s been so stop-and-start but I’ve never not been in the gym or training around the world, so I’ve always been active. Shit happens but it’s never knocked me off.”

So, what’s different this time? Another setback unfolding into another return. It’s a recurring theme in the career of the Manchester Predators senior athlete.

“This time has been the longest time out,” Spencer said. “I feel like I’m starting fresh from day one all over again. Because of the nature of the lower body injuries, compared to my previous upper body ones in my broken jaw and shoulder, I’d been able to run, stay fast and sharp, but a knee injury keeps you sat on your arse for twelve months.

“My cardio was non-existent, my spring had gone, my hips had tightened up, my legs had forgotten how to skip and jump. I felt like I was learning how to use my boy again. It’s been fun coming back as it has taken me back to when I first started training. Now it’s really rewarding to have everything firing again. It’s been a long arse comeback, but it has been enjoyable.”

After another two years out, Spencer’s return looked set to lift off once again right where it landed on FCC territory versus another 4-0 battler in Stefano Catacoli earlier this month at FCC 28. However, in the makings of that fight announcement, a slight occurrence of promotional malpractice occurred. Despite his original return in 2019 being allowed to take place on Full Contact Contender, this time around Cage Warriors wanted their man back on board.

The return after a long hiatus raised some concerns in Spencer’s mind. This game changes and moves so fast that if you’re not in amongst it, you might as well be past it.

“That was my fuck-up,” Sam confessed. “I didn’t realise or I’d forgotten because it was so long ago that I’d re-signed an extra contract. After the Holdham fight, I’d signed an extra five-fight contract with Cage Warriors when they matched me with Tait. I’d forgotten about it so quickly as I was injured right afterwards. I’d assumed my initial contract had expired and was able to pick and choose where I fought like a free agent, but I was notified by Cage Warriors about my contract and wanted me back for the Manchester card which makes sense.

“I’ll admit I was a bit thrown at first. I was thinking, after all this time off do I want to jump straight back in to one of the highest promotions in Europe in Cage Warriors after less than a minute’s worth of competition since 2017? It probably isn’t the smartest thing in the world, but on the other hand the fight on FCC was no easy fight either as Stefano was an undefeated young prospect.

“So I thought, if I’m going to have a hard fight, I might as well have it on Cage Warriors. It’ll give me more time to prepare, better exposure and a bigger promotion with contacts where everybody wants to get to, so why not oblige and go for it? This fight feels far more rejuvenating and gets me going way more.”

Present day: Sam is just shy of four weeks out from what will be his longest sabbatical coming to an end. On Saturday, 2nd April at Cage Warriors 136, the twenty-eight-year-old will slip into those famous yellow gloves for the second time. Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child’ will play loudly inside the BEC Arena and the Manchester native Sam Spencer will walk out to the Cage Warriors battleground to be met by his latest foe, the Scotsman Reece McEwan (3-1).

Back into the fire immediately, that’s the Spencer way. Aware of the challenge awaiting him, the calibre of opponent is exactly what Sam wants in his promotional welcome back.

“I think this is a really well matched fight, to be honest,” Sam told. “He’s got one of the best amateur pedigrees in the country. There aren’t many guys who have such competitive records in the UK at that level. He’s relatively new to pro and has only really fought one tough name so far, but he’s far from new to this game with only one loss to a top amateur and one loss at pro to Luke Westwood who is a very high black belt.

“He’s been in there with good and he’s serious. That’s the calibre of fight that I want. He’s a cardio machine and style-wise I think we match up very well. I think I can beat him and that my skills are better overall. My style is the kind that beats guys like him. It’s going to be physical, but I think I’ll just be that bit better.”

While it is wise for a fighter of Spencer’s kind not to plan too far ahead given his history, he does have ideas on big fights, rematches and crossing paths will an old scrapping partner, as aforementioned, namely Jack Cartwright.

“I have five fights on this Cage Warriors contract and I want to get through at least three of them, ideally,” Sam says, jokingly touching wood for luck. “I’ve got the first one coming up in April and with everything going to plan, I could see myself fighting for the title by the end of the year or this time next year. Then, it’s not unknown what comes after that.

“I’m twenty-eight now, I’ve been at it for thirteen years. My apprenticeship has come to an end. If you look at what people say about MMA, you don’t reach your peak technically until you’re fifteen years deep if you can hold it together, so I think I’m beginning to reach that final form.

“I’d love a chance to rebook the fight with Corey Tait. That’s a fight I’d still love to have. I also don’t know what is happening with Jack Cartwright, but if he comes back to Cage Warriors I’d love to get back in there with him now. We have history. I’m the only guy to beat him way back for an amateur title, so I think there’s a good story there that we can tell. It would be a great fight. Bantamweight is flying in Cage Warriors at the minute, so it’s the perfect time for me to get in back there and mix it up with the rest of them.”