For KSW Heavyweight Champion Phil De Fries, 2017 marked the start of an impressive career resurgence. A resurgence sparked by the recognition that for years, he’d been suffering from undiagnosed, untreated anxiety.
“I suffer from anxiety extremely badly, but it wasn’t until 2017 that I started getting treatment for it,” England’s De Fries (18-6, 1NC) told Cageside Press ahead of his return this weekend, in the main event of KSW 57. “I realized it had been holding back my career my entire life.”
If there was a watershed moment, it came perhaps after a bad loss that year, and the realization that “my life was insane.” After the loss, the former UFC heavyweight “hit the drink,” as he put it. At work, De Fries would worry that he left the stove on. If he left the house, he’d repeatedly return home to ensure that he’d locked the door. Or he’d panic while at work that he’d left the dog out in the cold.
“All of a sudden, I was like ‘this is not normal behavior. You’re living an insane life here. This is not normal,” explained De Fries. “I didn’t even know what anxiety was until I googled it. I thought, ‘you’ve got anxiety Phil.’ I wish I’d learned it sooner.”
Once De Fries recognized what anxiety was, and that he was suffering from it, it quickly became apparent that it had impacted his career as a fighter.
“I’ve always been a killer in gym,” said De Fries, who noted that he’s trained all over the world with some of the best fighters in the sport. “In the gym I’ve always been a killer. But when I would come to fight, I would kind of fall all the time because of the anxiety. But now that’s sorted. Now I’m a killer in the gym and in the cage.”
For a championship caliber fighter to openly admit to anxiety in a sport that prides itself on tough guy mentality is both courageous and commendable. Mental health struggles have always carried something of a stigma with them, especially for men. And especially in the sporting world. Talking about his anxiety isn’t something De Fries would have been able to do prior to getting treatment. Today, that’s a different story.
“When I had the anxiety, honestly talking about anything was hell,” recalled De Fries. Something as simple as talking about the weather, “I’d be terrified of doing it. Or answering simple questions like this would be like the most terrifying hell ever. Now, I can pretty much talk about anything openly. It’s nothing compared to that.”
One silver lining to his condition is that De Fries is able to help others struggling with their own anxiety issues. “I think it’s good to talk about it. I’ve got a lot of people, like friends, friends of friends, people on Facebook messaging me for advice and stuff. And I try to advise them as best I can,” De Fries told us. “It’s good to get it out there, and it’s good to help people.”
Now 34-years old, being diagnosed with anxiety, and getting the proper treatment and medication for it, came arguably at the perfect time. “I’ve got six more years at heavyweight at least,” De Fries stated. “I’m as strong and as fit as I’ve ever been. I’ll keep going as long as I’m healthy and as long as I’m not taking too much damage.” And as long as he’s enjoying it, of course.
Finding life outside the UFC and other major promotions helped as well. When it came to Poland’s KSW, “I always knew they were a big company and I heard they were quite good to people and stuff. But when I got there, I realized the scope, how massive it is,” said De Fries. “The shows are fantastic, they sell out the arena every time. It’s fanatic.”
It’s been over a year since De Fries set foot in the KSW cage. KSW 50 saw him defeat another UFC alum, Louis Henrique, for his third title defense. And his sixth consecutive win. The fight was originally supposed to be against another UFC notable, Damian Grabowski. That’s a fight De Fries would still be interested in, except that “he’s disappeared. I don’t know what’s happening, I don’t know if he and KSW fell out or something. But he’s not on the radar anymore. I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know if he’s retired or something. But maybe next, we’ll see who KSW wants. I’ll fight whoever they tell me to.”
In the meantime, De Fries fights Michal Kita at KSW 57 this weekend. Kita enters the fight with two straight first-round finishes. “I think it’s a great match-up. There’s not a lot of heavyweights in the division,” De Fries observed. “So when a guy gets a few wins, it’s time to fight me.”
“I think it’ll be an exciting fight,” predicted De Fries, who also sees himself getting the finish against Kita. “I’m fit as anything. I’m dying to go. I’ve got a point to prove. I’m definitely going to get the finish within the five rounds.”
KSW 57 takes place this Saturday, December 19 in Lodz, Poland. A live stream of the event is available via KSW TV.