When Fortune Knocks – An Interview with Matt Bessette
For most people, dreams don’t have an expiration date. Yet all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Most fighters live in a world where their window of opportunity is limited and sometimes never comes at all.
Matt “The Mangler” Bessette isn’t like most people.
His story is one that would not look out of place on a Hollywood script writers desk. 33-year-olds don’t get their chance on the big stage. Especially ones that have battled the odds every step of the way to the point of so nearly walking away, believing their time had been and gone. Add to that a childhood spent fighting Leukaemia from age 3 through to 11 and a catalogue of injuries that cropped up at the worst possible times and you get a glimpse into why he could not be blamed for thinking his ambitions remained out of grasp.
Bessette remained patient and worked hard. The 33-year-old Connecticut native received a late call up to fight on the UFC 220 undercard which resulted in a respectable decision loss to Enrique Barzola but now has a second and potentially final chance for his dreams to become reality.
This Friday at the Pearl Theater in Las Vegas, as part of the undercard for the UFC’s TUF Finale, New England native Bessette pulls on the Reebok emblazoned mitts to face 28-year-old Steven “Ocho” Peterson.
I sat down recently with Matt to discuss the opportunity he so long worked and wished for.
Brad Dobbing: “Matt, thank you for taking the time to speak to us today, how are things? Are you looking forward to July 6th?”
Matt Bessette: “No worries, I’m very good, I’m excited, I’m always excited, I’m a positive, excited person! The difficult part is toning it down as everyone is always like “Are you amped up?” and I’m like “Yes but there’s still 5 weeks to go so relax!” (Laughs)”.
BD: “We all get to see from your social media accounts every day how much you love the sport, that you live and breathe it, at age 33 now have you still got that level of excitement as when you first came through?”
MB: “Ever since I was a little kid, walking down the hallways in the school I would look at people and wonder could I beat that person up, what would I have to do to break that guy down. It’s as if fighting has been in my mind since I was in diapers. I don’t know why, I’ve never been a violent person in terms of wanting to hurt people but it’s sort of a primal instinct that’s always been in my head and even at 33 I still think about it all the time even as I walk down the street, it’s just crazy. Like I say it’s nothing violent, I’m a nice guy, a humble guy but it’s just something in my mind so yeah, I still have a lot of drive to be better every single day. If you train with me you realise this kid loves what he does.”
BD: “I imagine you personally expected to be in the UFC a lot sooner but setbacks beyond your control happen, do you believe it’s happening for a reason right now?”
MB: “I wish I was in the UFC earlier, I think I deserved it a few years ago, but yeah, at 33 it is what it is and I take things as they come and things are gonna be moving in my direction soon.”
BD: “We say 33 as if that’s old but times are different now, it’s not like 10-15 years ago when an athlete hit 30 it’s all of a sudden as if they’re past their prime which is funny because 29 tended to be that you’re classed as in your prime and then just because one day to the next you’ve crossed into your thirties you were written off as past your best. How do you feel now compared to say 5 years ago?”
MB: “It’s tough to give a good answer to that because technically I’m a hell of a lot better than I was 5 years ago, I’m a lot smarter, my fighter IQ is up a lot, my strength and conditioning is better because I know more and know how to recover better so it’s a case of if I’d known this 5 years ago I probably would have been better but I’m peaking right now because of my fight IQ and my confidence so I believe (even though I’m 33) I’m way better than I was 5 years ago.”
BD: “You coach as well; do you see that in younger fighters now that it’s a case of they have some of the skillset now but it will all come together for them later on in their career?”
MB: “When I see the younger guys it’s raw speed, strength explosion and less thinking involved. It’s more of the athlete shining through and then you see the veteran guys who have the ability to slow it all down and beat them methodically using their fight IQ. If the younger guys had that ability they’d be well off, you see it rarely in guys like Jon Jones who are the exception where they have the fight IQ combined with the athleticism at a young age, more often than not you wish you had that IQ when you were younger and now at my age you wish you had the speed and athleticism. It’s funny how that works.”
BD: “Will that works in your favour going up against the younger guys now that you’re all eating from the same table so to speak in trying to get into the UFC, is that a positive in waiting until now to get your big chance?”
MB: “I don’t care if it’s younger guys or older guys I just wanna fight the best guys and taking a fight with Barzola on one week’s notice was the toughest thing I’ve had to do so far because I wasn’t really in shape for that fight. That was the first time I’ve ben tired in a fight since my second ever fight in 2008 and that sucked. Younger guys or older guys I prepare the same way for anybody.”
BD: “How did it feel the first time you set eyes on the Reebok gear with your name on it?”
MB: “It was great, I needed some new clothes too! (laughs)”
BD: “Thinking about what you’ve been through on this incredible journey you’ve encountered a lot of setbacks, you’ve listed fractured wrists, a torn ACL and torn MCL, 3 meniscal tears without surgery and a fractured hand, you’ve spoken quite a bit about what life was like as a child being diagnosed with Leukaemia at age 3 and battling that all the way through until getting the all clear at age 11, do you attribute your positive outlook as a result of those or have you always been naturally upbeat?”
MB: “Like I said before, I take things as they come, everyone has their own adversity they have to overcome and it’s just my life is no more difficult than the next person’s it’s just how you handle it. I think that comes from when I was young and had Leukaemia I always had my Mom there all the time telling me over and over when I was sick “Matthew tomorrow you will be better, how do you feel now?” and it’s always about getting better and looking at things in a positive light, my Mom wouldn’t allow me to be sad or negative, it’s a mindset she instilled upon me at a young age and I have that with me every day. I’m able to handle stuff in a way where I think “Get past this, lets figure it out and get better because of it, how can I get better from this and put a positive spin on it?”.
BD: “And that’s problem solving isn’t it? As you said before that is ingrained in you, whether it’s sizing people up that’s been you and your mindset from an early age which you carry in and out of the octagon…”
MB: “Exactly and that’s what makes me good at MMA, if I can be a problem solver in the most difficult situation you can be in – a fist fight – if you can be a problem solver when someone’s trying to kill you, that’s some elite shit! Fist fights are no joke! (laughs)”
BD: “100%, I can’t name another sport where you have to be efficient in so many disciplines, constantly being aware of what your opponent is good at, what are his strengths and what are mine, how do they match up? That mindset being ingrained in you has maybe subconsciously led you into that.”
BD: “How hard has it been, now into your 30’s, balancing chasing your UFC dream and being a family man? You thought about walking away and then the opportunities come at unexpected times?”
MB: “I’m just glad we’re here now! (laughs) It was a rough road for a while and the only reason we kept on trying was that I felt like I was supposed to be in the UFC a long while ago. My team agreed and wanted to make it happen which is the only reason why I kept fighting and holding on to that glimmer of hope.
I had a fight lined up with CES MMA and no joke, not 24 hours before I got the UFC call to fight Barzola (one 1 week notice) I was sitting in my kitchen talking to my wife and we’re talking about what’s next, how do we change things financially and that became a really serious conversation which ended with me saying “this is going to be my last fight, I’m going to get that full-time job and we’re going to move on.”. My wife told me I didn’t have to, that I could work and fight but I told her I can’t do both, I need to either work or fight at 100%, I can dedicate 50% into something I love, it’s all or nothing.
We left that conversation totally down on ourselves and it was really emotional and no joke, 16-17 hours later I get the call to go fight in the UFC… Oh my God… What a Rollercoaster of emotions, it was insane!”
BD: “Just back to square one straight away? (Laughs)”
MB: “Crazy, crazy! It was excellent though, what a feeling!”
BD: “I’m really excited for you to get this chance again with a full training camp behind you, this on paper looks a really exciting fight…”
MB: “One hundred and fucking fifty percent they’re gonna see the best Matt Bessette! Everybody is gonna be on their feet at the end of the fight whether it’s a three round banger or I finish him quickly; there will be applause I shit you not!”
BD: “It’s definitely the potential show stopper of the night. You said before a lot of people were telling you that you deserve to be on the big stage when you were riding these winning streaks but looking at how the sport has evolved over the past few years, a lot of it down to the success of Conor McGregor, do you think younger fighters are maybe looking to have to act up and bring a bit of sideshow to get their name out there and an opportunity?”
MB: “It looks like it doesn’t it? More that entertainment value is how you sell yourself and I’m kinda glad I came up in a time where the best guy gets the job rather than the guy who talks the most shit or looks the best. I’m glad I came up in the era of the Diaz brothers, guys that look to go out there and fight and I’m glad the UFC still realises that a guy like me with that old school mentality can still put people in the seats.”
BD: “You and I are of similar age and those are still the names I look for first on a fight card, they guys we grew up with like Clay Guida and Diego Sanchez, guys that you can guarantee are gonna walk in and give it everything. I think the true fans out there still appreciate that.
What are we looking at from Matt Bessette after a win July 6th?”
MB: “I’m gonna go out with 100% confidence and put on a great show, get the job done and then look to fight once, maybe twice again this year. I’m feeling strong. Gonna stay active and stay hungry!”