Ashley Williams walked away with the Polaris Lightweight Championship on Saturday night after coming up against Ethan Crelinsten, a member of the Danaher Death Squad. After back-and-forth action over the whole fifteen minutes of this fight-of-the-night candidate, he won the decision and the title. I caught up with Ashley to get his views on how he thought the fight went, and his plans for the future.
First things first, I know you were the UK’s youngest black belt back in 2015, but what got you started in the sport to begin with?
I started when I was like 6, there or thereabouts, in traditional jiu-jitsu. Just for like self-defence purposes, you know the standard stuff parents put you in for and then when I was about 14, someone told me to try out Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I thought I’d give it a go and just realised that I really loved it, absolutely loved it from day one. Back then it was just two classes a week though so I just did those two a week up until I was probably about 17 or 18, I just started training more and more as I got older and older. Obviously even more in recent years, we’ve got a full-time academy with two classes a day now and I’ve been training full-time since I left university about five years ago.
Well you’re one of the more active competitors from the UK, but we’ve got more than ever before, so who do you think is up there with the best right now?
I’ve got to be honest, the UK is producing a massive talent pool across the board you know? If you just look at any of promotions or the world-stage then everyone’s killing it! UK BJJ is definitely under-estimated in my opinion, you’ve got guys like Bradley Hill or Oliver Lovell who are just killing it in the gi. Then you’ve got Ross Nicholls who, in my opinion is probably the number one competitor in the UK, I think he’s brilliant! Then there’s a couple of others who are clutching at it, getting close to the top level. I do think there’s a distinct lack of UK guys who’ve fought internationally enough and when you fight that kind of world-level black belt, I feel like it’s a totally different ball game. There’s a still a level to jump up but there’s definitely some talented guys coming through.
Well you’ve done quite a few international IBJJF tournaments in the past, but not so much recently, is there any reason for that?
I think the main reason I don’t do as much IBJJF is just because of the expense compared to the reward. I love sub-only matches because I feel like I can go out there and just do me, you know? I can just go and be exciting and if I mess up and get caught, someone passes my guard or they get a submission attempt then there’s not a scoreboard so they can just stall off the back of that. I feel like you can make a mistake but you can still come back and prove yourself. Then obviously with submission-only shows, you’re either getting paid or getting expenses so you’re not paying out a hundred pounds to compete just to lose by potentially an advantage and go home. I’ve fought multiple world champions now in IBJJF tournaments and I’ve lost narrowly sometimes but it doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t boost your profile at all and if that happens in the quarter-finals then no one cares. I just think the super-fight method gives you a much better chance to boost your profile.
In your title-fight on Saturday I think we saw exactly that, you were able to give up position sometimes but the match itself ended up being a lot more fast-paced and exciting as a result.
Yeah well, that’s the whole point. I think if people want Jiu-Jitsu to be professional then you’ve got to make it exciting for the spectator. I just don’t understand when I’ve talked to some guys about sub-only shows and they say “Oh, I just want to win and if I can stall to do it, then I’ll stall.” I feel like there’s no point in going on stage then, when I’m on stage I want to fight for every second. If I can get a submission then I will but I’ll still do everything in my power to keep getting better positions and keep moving through the game, I’ll exchange with the other guy if needs be. But I just want the crowd to enjoy it because I feel like people who are more concerned with the outcome instead of the spectator value of it, they do the sport a disservice and they’re just going to make it harder to get paid!
That attitude definitely makes for better fights! But when the decision was being announced on Saturday, you genuinely seemed a little surprised that you came away with the win. Did you think it wasn’t going to go your way at first?
I struggled a bit and most people know this, but I’ve obviously read a lot of comments online where I’m getting a bit of hate from the Americans and some of the guys who are “Team Ethan” you know? Credit where it’s due, Ethan came and he brought a great fight but I do feel potentially I was under-estimated by the team and the camp in general. I’m not sure if they thought I was a walk-over but you shouldn’t do that to any opponent because nobody is a walk-over and I came out to prove myself. I came out really good, I had such a good first five minutes and I feel like he was suffering under my pressure and it was going my way. I kinda burnt out a little bit when the adrenaline hit me, I think I dropped back for a foot-lock or I got swept and I ended up on my back around the six/seven minute mark.
My corner was shouting at me to get back up and get back to the game-plan, because my game-plan was to be on top, but I just remember thinking “Aw man, I feel stuck to the floor” it was kinda like a quicksand-type feeling. I was just succumbing to his pressure, usually at the gym it’s not an issue but I think the time off and jumping up to that level straight away was a big rush for my body. I managed to compose myself enough to come back in the third five, but the reason I thought potentially I didn’t win is just because it’s hard when you’re under pressure to keep an eye on the time as well.
I knew he’d won the second five-minute period but I wasn’t sure how much into the third period it went so when I managed to get back on top and start getting some pressure and getting my attacks off again, I just wasn’t sure how long was left on the timer to be honest. That was the main factor for me, it was just difficult to know, especially because I’m scrambling a lot of the time and pushing the pace. Every thing’s relatively calculated but sometimes I’m just moving to what I think is the best thing at that given time because I’m under pressure you know? It was just difficult to keep track of time and where I was, I wasn’t sure if I was on top for most of the last five or on the bottom for most of it. But a lot of people I spoke to, they seemed to think I definitely did enough and I think it was a close decision but at the end of the day, the decision is what it is! I’m definitely happy I was on the receiving end of it.
In your post-fight interview you took the unorthodox route of essentially offering Crelinsten a rematch. Now you’ve had a little time to think, would you still want to fight him again?
Oh, I’m happy to compete against any of the top level guys in the world! I genuinely believe that at the highest level, sometimes it’s just a better day for some people than others you know? I mean anyone can get caught. I’ve seen some of the best in the world be submitted in under a minute but then I’ve seen them just wipe them off the mat for the whole round. I mean, I fought Geo last year and I feel like he gave me a bit of whooping! But then I fought Frank (Rosenthal) and beat him in golden score, then two months later Frank beat Geo! I just feel like, at this level it’s very hard to distinguish who the correct match is at the correct time. It was a big risk really accepting Ethan on six week’s notice with the lay-off I’d had but I just thought, if that’s where I want to be then I need to step back up and put myself forward. Even if it’s not my day, then I know my day will come and I just so happened to be able to pull out what I believe was a very good performance on Saturday night. Now I’m just looking forward to keeping that snowball rolling, keep moving up from this and just keep trying to pick up a few more names here and there.
Well not just Geo and Frank, you’ve faced some of the best around your weight-class over the last few years, so who would you say has been your toughest match so far?
I believe they’re all tough in different ways! Ethan was definitely the toughest stylistically because if he’d got into his best game, the back attacks, then I felt like I’d be in for a really bad night so the prep for him was slightly different. Then Imanari was super-tough but in a different way, in terms of his breaking mechanics for the leg-locks, they were quite peculiar because he kinda hurts your legs as opposed to isolating it and then applying the breaking mechanics. It was just really bizarre how he actually attacks the legs to be honest! Then you’ve got Geo and man, he’s just a physical specimen for his weight, it’s incredible how strong he is and he brings a real high-paced erratic style. Unfortunately, I like to be a higher-pace fighter but when I fought Geo I just couldn’t maintain it, I couldn’t beat him to the punch and I feel like if I had that match back it might be different. I mean, he might accept the rematch but he might not. At the end of the day, he has fought me and beat me so if he doesn’t want to fight me again, then that’s cool! Not because he’d be worried about it obviously but because you don’t always deserve a rematch against someone you know? He probably wants to fight other guys at a higher level, maybe like the Miyaos or Gianni Grippo, guys like that and that’s fair enough.
Well you were scheduled to fight Nicky Ryan for the Featherweight title before, is that a fight you’d still like to have?
Yeah, I was supposed to fight him initially last year in December. Unfortunately, I was just riddled with injuries and just totally unable to train for it. The worst thing I think on the stage is just doing yourself an injustice you know? That’s my biggest fear really when I compete, it’s not really the result or how other people view me, I just don’t want to walk off the stage and feel like I could’ve done more, I could’ve fought harder or made better decisions. I just wasn’t in the right head-space because I didn’t believe in myself physically at the time, my body wasn’t able to perform. If I do compete against Nicky and he beats me then it’s not like someone’s going to go “Oh cool, have an automatic rematch next week.” He’ll go fight the Miyaos or Gianni or any of the top 5/10 guys in the world, he’ll want to fight them instead of stepping back to fight me again so if I’m going to compete against Nicky then I want to be at my very best you know?
You’ve had quite a few fights against big names yourself already though, so is there anyone you’d want to fight specifically next on Polaris?
Well I’d like to go back down in weight to be honest, I’d like to go back down to 145. Just because I generally sit at 155 anyway and as it’s a day-before weigh-in, some guys will cut and turn up 10-15 pounds heavier the next day. People think with striking and MMA that it’s a big difference, I understand if you’re getting hit in the face by someone 15 pounds heavier then that’s not a great deal! But even in Jiu-Jitsu, if someone’s 15 pounds heavier and they’re pressure-passing your guard then that weight over time is a lot to deal with! I’d rather go back down to 145, I don’t know what Nicky’s going to do with his title, I’m not sure because I’ve heard he’s thinking about going up in weight. I wouldn’t mind going down to 145 and maybe competing against someone like Tom Halpin, that might be a nice match as he’s just come off of ADCC. Realistically, an American, Brazilian or Australian because the more international they are for me, the better because it just raises my profile more.