'Pretty boy' Chris Pilgrim has a penchant for cage combat

HE’S blonde, blue-eyed and baby-faced, but that was never going to stop him.

Chris Pilgrim, newcastle falcons

HE’S blonde, blue-eyed and baby-faced, but that was never going to stop him. He knew he would probably get chewed up and spat out, but that held no fear.

He did think it would take more than one e-mail though, to set up a training stint at one of the world’s most prestigious Mixed Martial Arts gym stables.

If the sparring was fierce, the planning was horizontal.

Chasing his other sporting passion in the summer between two National League One rugby seasons with Nottingham, Chris Pilgrim spent three weeks in The Pit, in California, under the tutelage of John Hackleman, who trained former UFC champion and now Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell.

“I didn’t actually do any cage fighting, I’m not hard enough to do that!” admitted the Birkenhead-born Loughborough University graduate.

“But in an off-season at Nottingham I went to California and did some submission grappling and striking over there.

“It’s a big passion of mine, Mixed Martial Arts is a great sport and almost up there with rugby for me. Technique-wise you can bring the wrestling aspect into tackling in rugby and I think it’s been pretty handy for my game.

“The grappling techniques revolve around close contact, putting people to the ground and dominating them on the ground.

“I’ve not got the size really to put it into practice in the Premiership, but it adds a dimension to your play and just makes you see things a bit differently.

“I almost considered taking that up because it’s a big passion of mine, I would love to have a cage fight one day.

“I can’t label what I did as cage fighting because MMA is a very skilled and intelligent sport, all the fighters are going up against these martial artists and getting dished up now because they haven’t got a clue what they are up against.

“I sent an e-mail out to John Hackleman, I’d read Chuck’s book, so I just sent an e-mail to him telling him I played rugby in England and that I’d like to do a bit of cross-training in my off-season.

“And he e-mailed back saying ‘yeah, sweet, come over’. It was really laid back, there was no date or anything like that.

“So I pretty much just rocked up to the gym, said hello to him, made friends with some Brazilian guy because I had Havana flip-fops on and from there it went on.

“I trained for three weeks there and I did a bit of travelling as well.

“But I did a good, solid three weeks of twice a day MMA so I came back in quite good shape actually.

“I didn’t think about rugby for a whole six weeks there, and that total escape, having to think and try to master something else really helped me out. I’d definitely love to give it a go after rugby. I get a bit of stick though because I’m a bit of a pretty boy and I’m not actually that hard – I’d probably get dished up if I did it, but I think I’d love to have a crack.”

Growing up on Merseyside, Pilgrim always made waves in rugby, but never quite saw the bigger, professional picture. Through age-group county games to England youth trials and action, Pilgrim only ever viewed rugby as a hobby.

But then he pitched up at Loughborough University and was blown away.

Two years at Nottingham followed graduation, and then came the big Premiership chance – a three-month Falcons trial.

If the 24-year-old had any lingering doubts when he joined Kingston Park, Steve Bates and Co have quickly helped him chase the pro-game dream. But above all else, the probing half-back has helped himself, even earning a full-time deal until the end of the season – just another chance to secure a longer deal, as he sees it.

“I was in New Zealand playing a bit of rugby, and then the chance of a trial came up here so I jumped at it,” he explained.

“I was probably going to sign for Nottingham for this season but I decided to take a chance on this.

“I’m loving being a full-time pro, I’ve obviously decided this is my career now and I want to be as good as possible.

“So an opportunity to work with people like Batesy and Jackie is excellent for me.

“My trial was for three months and my contract runs until the end of the season, that’s as far as it is at the moment.

“Luckily I’m pretty good at shutting off and concentrating on the moment, I’ve had a slow, steady climb, with county rugby and England Under-18s bits when I was younger.

“I wasn’t so interested in it all then, but Loughborough really opened my eyes to what it could be like.

“I can’t stress how good that programme is in terms of development, Alan Buzza and Dave Morris have set up such a good system.

“I was training pretty much full-time then, more so than I did at Nottingham and maybe more than here too.

“They absolutely flogged us and we were all students and doing it for free, and you need that otherwise you won’t be bothered – you’ll probably just go on the pop.”

 
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