Like most fighters, Casey O’Neill knows that some of the toughest battles she’ll ever face happen in the gym rather than the octagon.

Especially considering she’s rarely squaring off with anybody her own size.

“Only training with guys means I’m always the littlest fish in the sea, but we keep swimming,” O’Neill recently wrote on Instagram days out from her return against Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 271. “Some days maybe good, some days maybe sh*t.”

The revelation that O’Neill only works with male fighters might seem strange, especially considering she primarily trains out of Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, which is one of the largest and most diverse gyms in combat sports. While there are other female fighters working within the same room — all of whom she considers friends and teammates — O’Neill explained to MMA Fighting that when it comes to sparring days, she only wants to see a male training partner standing across the cage from her.

“I only spar with boys. I don’t spar with girls,” O’Neill said. “I just think that it works out better for me because we can go a little bit harder and no one’s feelings get hurt.

“I love the girls at Xtreme [Couture] and I love being friends with them. A few of them are a lot smaller than me, obviously other than Miesha [Tate] and Taylor Guardado, who I do train with, but Miesha’s been busy doing her own thing. The rest of the girls are strawweights or sometimes even smaller than that.”

According to O’Neill, she’s encountered more problems training with women in the past than men. As widespread as women’s MMA has grown in recent years, O’Neill explained that the overall number of females training at the highest level is still rather small, and that can potentially create problems in a gym atmosphere.

“I’ve had multiple things that, it just doesn’t work out the best,” O’Neill said. “Because also when you look at it, there’s so little females in the sport that everyone’s ego gets a little bit in the way. I love just being able to train with the boys, because they’re not looking at me as an opponent.

“If there’s girls in the gym and they’re in the UFC or whatever, they could maybe look at you as an opponent or something like that, or you could fight them down the line, and I’m never going to fight any of these guys. It’s a mixture of both, of whether I like it better or there’s been some problems in the past.”

O’Neill added that enjoys that she’s often outgunned by her male sparring partners when it comes size and power, even if some days are harder than others.

“I like to train with people who are bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me, better than me,” O’Neill said. “Because once I start being able to catch up to them, then they have to up it on me again. I just try to train with boys all the time.”

To be fair, O’Neill said she enjoys training alongside her fellow women’s fighters at the gym as well, and she works with them quite often while getting ready for a fight.

Former UFC champion Miesha Tate is a textbook example, because O’Neill looks up to her in many ways and she would much rather call Tate a teammate than an opponent.

The way O’Neill views it is no different than why some champions in the past have shied away from training alongside other top fighters in the same weight class, as that kind of situation is just begging for conflict to eventually arise. Approaching her training with that mentality helps O’Neill get better while avoiding any possible drama between teammates.

“Me and Miesha are great friends and we have trained together in the past and we will probably continue to train together a little bit in the future, but we don’t explicitly spar with each other and we’re not in the gym at the same sessions everyday and stuff like that,” O’Neill said. “I think it’s better to keep it separate.

“Like I said, females in this sport, especially in your division, is such a small amount of people that if I become the champion or she becomes the champion, then it’s something that we would maybe look at fighting each other, but until then we are just passing ships in the gym.”

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