By Alistair Hendrie
Since Britain opted to leave the EU in 2016, the country has lurched into uncertainty. It’s unclear how Brexit will improve areas such as trade, economy and international relations, while the future of the NHS also remains in jeopardy. Ever since the vote, reports of overworked doctors, treacherous working conditions and a chronic lack of beds have appeared week in, week out. One person who has witnessed the drama unfold first-hand is Southampton flyweight Bryony Tyrell, who works as a nurse in the haematology department at Southampton General Hospital.
Normally so diplomatic and restrained, Tyrell doesn’t hold back when discussing the “massively negative effect” Brexit could have on the future of healthcare in this country. She tells me in vivid detail about the reaction to the vote and the dwindling levels of morale in hospitals.
“I remember the morning after the vote was passed, I went in and the atmosphere in the hospital was so depressing,” she says. “The foreign nurses didn’t feel welcome anymore, they were questioning their futures, they didn’t know if they could stay or not. We’re all short-staffed and under pressure and we’re seeing the NHS crumble. The trouble is so many of our top nurses are foreign, and now they’re not coming over anymore. It’s a huge concern for the country and anyone who works in the NHS – we one hundred per cent need to stay in the EU.”
As Tyrell works through unfortunate circumstances to care for her patients as best as she can, she also has a demanding yet fulfilling family life, with her husband Tom and two young children, Soren and Amber. Her schedule has become even more packed with preparations for her Cage Warriors world title fight against Molly McCann on February 24th – a bout which makes up the main event of Cage Warriors 90 at Liverpool’s Echo Arena. Despite the strain on her time, though, Tyrell is passionate about her profession and brings up plenty of challenges which the healthcare industry faces.
“The lack of beds is crazy, but what we really need is more support for people outside of the hospitals. There’s a lack of GPs, and walk-in centres are closing as well, so if we could support these resources that would take a lot of the pressure off of us as well. Also, there’s a lack of people training to be doctors because of the pay cap, and now of course they’re taking away the student bursaries. The system needs a complete overhaul, which I know is easier said than done.”
Tyrell enjoys her work despite the embattled environment. She recently moved from critical care to the haematology department, where she cares for patients with leukaemia, a cancer of the blood cells. “I look after patients who are on trial drugs as these give them the best possible chance of recovery, so it’s very beneficial for them. I’ve got about 100 patients who I overlook. I perform their treatments, bring them through, check they’ve got everything they need. It’s very interactive, and some of them continue their treatments for months so you get to know them very well, which is nice.”
The Sevenoaks-born fighter acknowledges the contradiction between nursing and fighting. Although she needs to think of others in her day job, once she’s in the cage, she remains detached when sapping her opponents’ will with kicks to the body and breaking their spirit with ground-and-pound. “Compassion is a huge part of nursing, it’s very important. It’s a very anxious time for patients and their families. Obviously some people die, which is a huge part of treating people with cancer.”
Given the juxtaposition between her two pastimes, are her nursing colleagues surprised by her MMA adventure? “Yeah, very surprised! They can’t comprehend it and then when they Google my name it’s a real shock for them. I think it’s more to do with my personality. When I’m at work, I’m quite quiet, quite polite, I’d like to think I go out of my way to help people. My colleagues have obviously been very supportive of me and they’ve been great – there’s been no negativity towards it at all, and they all watch my fights in fascination.”
Tyrell’s husband Tom has also had to come to terms with his wife’s fighting career. She says her spouse is also “very supportive” of her MMA journey, even if she reckons he “thinks I’m nuts”.
“In fact, I know he thinks I’m nuts, but he knew that when we met, so he knew what he was signing up to. He was supportive of me when I went out to Las Vegas for The Ultimate Fighter try-outs (she eventually missed out on the full series), even though I thought he’d say I was wasting money. But he was very supportive. He’s been particularly supportive of this fight because he realises how big of an opportunity it is.”
Indeed, if Tyrell can overcome McCann in her Liverpool fortress, she could emulate Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Rosi Sexton and Joanne Calderwood, who all reached the UFC after impressing with Cage Warriors. Wisely, Tyrell is optimistic but cautious. “I need to keep my hands up and not get knocked out,” she claims.
McCann is an intimidating presence who comes forward in a calculated manner, using her destructive power to knock out three of her opponents in her 6-1 career. Despite her bravado and menacing posturing, Tyrell reveals that Molly “has a heart of gold,” and that the pair are close friends. After all, ‘Meatball’ supports local charities around Liverpool and frequently speaks out against bullying and knife crime.
“She’s definitely more mellow away from the cameras and she’s a very kind-hearted person. We trained together a lot when she was based at Ippon in Bournemouth, which is about 40 minutes away from my gym, Exile MMA in Southampton. She’s helped me out and we’ve helped each other along the way.”
However, Bryony maintains the fight is simply business as usual. “I don’t see anything personal in it, hopefully she doesn’t either. I was friends with Kate Jackson when we fought and she smashed my face up – it’s just part of the game; I know she’d do it again if she could. It gets a bit intense during fight week but I hope Molly and I will remain friends after the fight.”
Tyrell has already won 115lbs belts with BCMMA in Britain and 360 in Belgium, but her debut at 125lbs represents another step in the right direction with plenty of exposure and live coverage on UFC Fight Pass. The 38-year-old boasts a background in krav maga and kung fu, while she also utilises a solid ground game with a crafty back mount. The battle with McCann will also be ‘Killa Bee’’s first five-round encounter.
“I’ve never trained so intensely for this kind of 25-minute cardio,” she reveals. “I can’t imagine doing this level of camp while trying to make 115lbs – now, I don’t have to cut down on carbs or anything like that, it’s been fantastic, I’ve loved it. Everyone knows I hate weight-cutting and I’m against it – I make that clear every time I fight. If everyone felt as good as I do now coming into a big fight, we’d all have a little more fun.”
Still, Tyrell’s growing list of priorities mean she has “no downtime at all.” The hectic demands of family life and looking after her patients are real, but whether or not Tyrell emerges from Merseyside with a belt wrapped around her waist, she finds rare moments of calm in MMA. “I’m very busy and chaotic a lot of the time, but I actually think MMA helps me to deal with stress and the intense environment that I work in - it’s a huge benefit to my life. It’s a form of escapism, and I cope better with everything in my life since I found MMA.”
To learn more about Bryony Tyrell's unique route into MMA, read my Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain. NB: Kindle app is free to download on all platforms.