THE UFC Apex arena in Nevada will again be virtually empty tonight but the only spectator that matters to Casey O’Neill will be there by her side.  

The 23 year-old from Kilmarnock made her UFC debut in February without her dad, Cam, watching on for the first time in her career.

It was he who introduced her to mixed martial arts after the family had swapped Ayrshire for Australia around 13 years ago and has since guided her every step of the way.

With coronavirus restrictions preventing him from flying into the United States in February, O’Neill had to go through a dizzying array of emotions and new experiences without her mentor outside the Octagon to guide her.

Martial arts is a discipline where the slightest concession of any mental frailties will be capitalised on with often brutal consequences meaning O’Neill bottled up her fears and anxieties before stepping into the ring.

A second-round stoppage of Shana Dobson ensured she retained her undefeated record and got her UFC career off to a flying start.

And she admits she feels more assured heading into tonight’s bout with Lara Procopio, especially with her dad alongside her.

“The last couple of weeks have definitely been a bit better than my last fight when I was feeling all the nerves,” she admits from her home in Las Vegas.

“This time I feel comfortable and that I belong. So I’ve been enjoying the process a lot more and taking it all in.

“There was much to get my head around the last time. I had a lot of firsts in that fight. Not only was it my first fight in UFC, it was also my fight out of my new gym here in Vegas, it was my first fight in America, my first one with no crowd and my first time walking out first to the ring. So that was a little overwhelming.

“I played it all off at the time that it wasn’t a big deal which made it worse as all those nerves were compounded in the last few days when the reality of it dawned on me. So that was a lot to take on board.

“But this time I feel a lot better. I feel really relaxed and super confident going into this fight.

“And I have my dad in my corner for this one. That’s really important for me. He got here earlier in the week and it’s been great having him here for the last few days.

“I’ve moved around a lot in my life from Scotland to Australia to Thailand and now to America but the one constant at every fight has been my dad.

“That last one was even harder without him there because of the Covid situation. I’m glad they’ve made it happen this time and it’s brought me a lot of peace ahead of the fight just knowing he’s here with me.”

O’Neill’s Scottish accent comes through a lot stronger than you might expect from someone who left these shores at such a young age and her Scottish heritage still means a lot to her.

“On Instagram I was getting called a fake Scot and a fake Aussie as they don’t believe my accent is real. But I’m not faking it every time I speak!

“My heritage is still really important to me. I was born and raised in Scotland and then moved to Australia when I was nine or 10.

“But I still have a lot of family back home and it’s definitely a big part of me. If Scotland was a bit sunnier then we might never have left.

“I’ve been looking to get back there for a while but it’s been so tough with Covid. And I don’t think I could cope with hotel quarantine.

“I definitely had the most support from Scottish fans before my last fight. I noticed a lot of comments coming from back home on social media and that was super cool to see.”

O’Neill feels a lot more assured heading into her second UFC fight knowing what to expect.

“I feel like I belong now. I had to prove that before to everyone and also to myself. When you’ve never fought in the UFC, it’s like the Mecca of the sport. It’s the Olympics of MMA. And you wonder to yourself, “do I really belong there?” and I proved it to myself that I did.

“I never really had major doubts but lots of things go through your head in those minutes right beforehand. And it’s good to get that settled.”

Watch Casey go head-to-head with Lara Procopio on UFC Fight Night: Jung vs Ige with early prelims from 9PM, as well as the main card from midnight on BT Sport 1.