These days, Ben Royle is living his martial arts dream: training on the tropical island of Phuket, Thailand, and testing his skills on the global stage of ONE Championship.
But Royle — who will face Purev Otgonjargal at ONE: BATTLEGROUND III on Friday, 27 August — didn’t have an easy route to his current position. It took commitment and fortitude to endure the tough circumstances he encountered along the way.
Ahead of his return at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, we find out how the 26-year-old featherweight made the journey from working-class northern England to his Thai paradise in search of mixed martial arts success.
Hanging With The Wrong Crowd
Royle was born and raised in Gorton, Manchester, southeast of the city center.
He grew up with his mother, who worked with offenders in the criminal justice system for most of his childhood.
“The way I describe it to everyone is, ‘Have you ever watched [popular UK television show] ‘Shameless?’ Literally, my house was on it. It’s a very working-class area, but it’s just normal,” he says.
Gorton is also the birthplace of soccer giant Manchester City, and like most youngsters in his area, the team was Royle’s first love.
However, when he got to high school, his interest waned as he spent most of his time on the streets.
“I was really passionate about football — I used to get very obsessive and very into things — but I started to hang around with different people and stopped being committed to the sport,” the featherweight says.
“I didn’t really do much of anything, just hanging around on the streets. I didn’t get into much trouble, I was pretty good at getting out of it, but some of my friends were on the path to doing bad things.”
‘Dragged’ Into Martial Arts
Royle’s mother recognized where her son’s path could lead and tried to get him into something more productive. With that, the young Englishman began working out at the gym when he was 15.
“I started lifting weights because I wasn’t allowed to see my friends, but I was allowed to go to the gym with guys outside of [the street] group, and I really enjoyed that,” Royle recalls.
“We had a friend, Harry, whose dad ran a gym, Hyde MMA, and one day, they said they were going there to try it. I didn’t want to, I had no interest in it whatsoever — I didn’t want to get punched in the face and I didn’t like hitting people. But I didn’t want to go to the gym on my own, so I got dragged along.
“Two weeks later, they’d all stopped, but I was looking for a second gym so I could train five or six times a week. I had got obsessed again.”
Along with his new passion, Royle found he had an innate ability for the grappling side of the sport, so he decided to move to a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym – Factory BJJ.
From there, he competed in five mixed martial arts bouts in his first year with great success, before switching his focus solely to “the gentle art.”
After competitive success in BJJ, he returned to fighting under ASW Manchester when he was 19. But his training was sporadic, and he needed a change.
“There’d be times when I was taking it seriously, and I’d train twice a day, and then times where I was just wasting myself and not doing anything,” Royle says.
“One of my friends had been to Thailand, and [he] encouraged me to go there. For about six months after that, I got a bad injury, barely trained, and just partied. Then one day, I realized that I needed to change my life. I needed to do something, so I messaged him and said, ‘Let’s go to Thailand.’
“He booked it the next day, and I was like, ‘I actually have to do this now,’ so I booked it. We went in May . From the first session, I just loved it. It was the most fun ever.”
- 3 World Title Fights Headline ONE: REVOLUTION, Full Card Revealed
- All-Around Sporting Talent Jenelyn Olsim Found Her Calling In MMA
- Sitthichai Has Point To Prove In Muay Thai Return Against Tawanchai
Making It Work In Thailand
From his first month in Phuket, Thailand, Royle’s coaches saw something in him, and when it was time to leave, they suggested he return on a scholarship for free training to help him fulfill his potential.
“My coach said to me, ‘What will you do if you go back? You’ll just waste yourself,’ and he was right,” the Englishman recalls.
“So I said I’d take the offer. I went back to the UK and sold everything I could to get some money together. It wasn’t a lot, but I got my flights and went back over in September.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though.
Royle’s scholarship got him free training, but he still had to cover his accommodation, food, and general expenses. His money soon ran out, as did his options, and he soon had no other choice but to sleep on friends’ couches. It looked like his Thailand dream was over.
“My overdrafts were maxed out. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for food the next day. But I was very lucky; everything just always seemed to work out,” he says.
Just before he was about to head back to the UK, Royle got offered the chance to teach BJJ, which would allow him to earn an income and stay in Phuket. He grabbed it with both hands, and even throughout lean times, he stayed the course.
“It was hard at first. Some months, I had money. Others, I had none,” he says.
“Now, I’m more established. Things are much more stable for me. But it was four-and-a-half years of not knowing how I’d pay for things.”
Fighting To Keep His Dreams Alive
There were times when others would have packed up and gone home, but Royle’s hunger — sometimes literal, but always psychological — helped him through the worst of it.
Alongside teaching, he amassed a solid record competing, mostly in Australia, before earning a callup to the big show in 2020.
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, with martial arts tourists at a low ebb in his adopted home, this came as another lifeline that kept Royle’s journey alive.
“It was everything. The situation at that time was bad,” he says. “I needed to win that fight, I needed the win bonus. If I didn’t win that, it would have been the closest I’ve been to leaving Thailand.”
He did win it — and in stunning fashion. Royle stopped Quitin Thomas with a third-round TKO at ONE: NO SURRENDER III last August and established himself as someone to watch in The Home Of Martial Arts.
Now, he’s gearing up for his sophomore appearance, and he’s determined to keep that momentum going so he can keep living his dream in combat sports.
“It sounds cliche, but I’m just doing this for the love of it now. I want to have this fight, and I want to keep fighting and having these experiences on my journey as a martial artist,” Royle says.
“I know what my level is. I want to test it, and show it by outclassing [Otgonjargal]. I just want it all to be perfect — I want to hit him with everything and make him miss with everything. Obviously, it won’t happen like that, because that’s not how fighting is, but that’s what I want to do.
“I want to submit him, too. He’s 7-1 with seven submissions. If I submit him, that will look good. I think it will be a rear-naked choke or a triangle.”