The King of Swing – Methuen Fighter Calvin Kattar Eyes UFC Title
Like many people at the start of 2020, Methuen-born mixed martial artist Calvin Kattar had plans for the new year. Coming off a close loss in an international headlining bout in Moscow at the end of 2019, the rising featherweight star made himself a promise. “After my fight in November, I decided to buckle down, dig deep, and focus on trying to go 3-0 in 2020,” he says before pausing. “And then the pandemic hit.”
As arenas and performance venues across the country began closing their doors and sporting events faced an uncertain future, Kattar vowed to turn a negative into a positive. “It just added more fuel to the fire, honestly,” he says of the national shutdown. “I worked harder through that time. The pandemic helped me to really focus and cut away the distractions. It allowed me to dive all-in on this, which is what this game requires.”
Optimism and perseverance have helped propel Kattar, 32, to the top of the 145-pound division, but it’s been a complicated journey. During the climb, he took a three-year hiatus from fighting, uncertain if making the leap from the regional circuit to the “big leagues” was even in the cards. Then, a fortuitous event — with a periphery cameo from A-list actress Salma Hayek, no less — reinvigorated his career and changed the trajectory of his story forever.
For the uninitiated, “the game” at hand is mixed martial arts (MMA), a nuanced combat sport that pits two athletes against one another, often in a locked cage where they must rely on an arsenal of striking, grappling and ground fighting to defeat their opponent. The sport is a beautiful exhibition of strength and skill, part chess match and part chest-caving front kicks. It’s poetry in motion, set to a symphonic backdrop of 4-ounce gloved fists meeting cheekbone, escaped breaths, and the shouts of excited cornermen.
Over the last few decades, MMA has grown in popularity thanks to the emergence of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), MMA’s premier fight league. Popular former fighters like Chuck Liddell and Ronda Rousey have parlayed their fame in the octagon (the UFC’s “ring” is an eight-sided cage) into success on the silver screen as action stars, while colorful Irish lightweight Conor McGregor has become a mainstay in popular culture, making headlines for both his dominant in-ring performances as well as his “off the field” activities (peddling his own whiskey, appearing in international police blotters, etc.).
Kattar’s path to the UFC started at Methuen High School, where he earned accolades as a standout wrestler in statewide competitions, honing a grappling game that would serve as the original ingress to his MMA career. “I never quite won any of those [state-level] events, but I was always in the mix,” Kattar recalls. “I was a tough competitor in wrestling as far as scrappiness, but I was never the most technically sound athlete.” He laughs. “I feel like anybody I lost to in wrestling, if I could have just punched them, beat ’em up a little, you know?” He trails off. Then: “Post-wrestling, I found my career in fighting. For me, it was the right mix of being technical and being scrappy.”
Kattar also developed his signature fighting style: always look for the finish. “My first 17 wins in high school wrestling as a senior were all pins,” he says. “If I can see a finish and I can smell blood, I go for the finish. I don’t play with my food before I eat it.”
After his sister, Kylee, took Kattar to a local competition at Club Lido in Revere to watch her friend Dave George fight in an MMA event, Kattar was hooked. “At the time, I was familiar with Chuck Liddell,” Kattar says. “I’d seen him getting some notable wins, but I never aspired for anything crazy like that. When Dave competed, though, I was blown away. I went up to Dave that next Monday and said, ‘I want to start training with you.’”
Kattar took his first fight six months later, in 2007, securing a technical knockout in the first round. From there, he began to carve his way through the regional fight scene, posting an impressive 14-2 record over the next six years. He developed into a more comprehensive fighter, working with boxing and jiu-jitsu coaches to complement his wrestling foundation.
His momentum stalled, however, in 2013, when he found himself at a career crossroads. “I got to be [ranked] No. 1 in New England at 145 [pounds],” Kattar recalls, “but I still hadn’t gotten the call from the UFC.” By this time, George was looking to sell Combat Zone MMA, a local fight promotion business that featured Kattar several times. Kattar seized the opportunity. “Eventually I took over ownership because he was making more money than I was as an athlete, and he wasn’t cutting weight or taking punches,” Kattar says. “I figured ownership was a good thing. It did keep me involved with the sport for a three-year limbo [period] where I didn’t know what my next move was.”
Once again, Kylee proved herself a career catalyst by signing up her brother as an extra in the MMA movie “Here Comes the Boom,” starring Hayek and Kevin James. During his two weeks on the set, Kattar learned a lot about what went on behind the scenes during the production of a major motion picture, including a lesson in craft services etiquette. “I didn’t know who was supposed to go first,” Kattar says, “so I cut off Salma Hayek in line. I didn’t realize there was an order! So I was like, excuse me, made a plate of food real quick and left. It was hilarious.” Despite his misstep with Hollywood royalty, it was a positive experience. On the set, Kattar met and befriended MMA manager Tyson Chartier, who would give Kattar’s fighting career new life.
The UFC had announced that they were coming to TD Garden in Boston, and Rob Font, a rising bantamweight (135-pound division) contender and one of Chartier’s fighters, was already scheduled for the hometown fight. “I called Tyson and I said if you can get me on the card, I’m in,” Kattar recalls. “And he’s like, yeah, I’m not really sure it works like that, but I’ll reach out to them so long as you sign a managerial contract with me.” The UFC needed Kattar to prove he still had what it takes, so he signed with Chartier and knocked off the rust with two regional fights, winning both. Then, after returning from cornering a fight for Font in Las Vegas, Kattar got the call for UFC Anaheim as a fill-in for an injured fighter. The catch? He only had eight-days’ notice to prepare for his UFC debut. Kattar jumped at the opportunity and went toe-to-toe with Andre Fili, who was a sizable favorite heading into the fight. Kattar won the three-round contest via unanimous decision.
Kattar got his wish to fight in front of family and friends in his next fight as the UFC returned to Boston, squaring off against Shane Burgos at UFC 220 in January 2018. He defeated Burgos by technical knockout. “What’s my best moment in the UFC so far? Getting the win at home in front of everybody that supported me since day one,” Kattar says. “I fought the July prior for my debut in the UFC, but it’s not really a debut until you come home and everyone can watch you live at the TD Garden, right? That was special.”
Kattar’s UFC career has been marked by several other special moments to date. The UFC was one of the first live-action sports to come back after the initial pandemic restrictions were initiated in March 2020, and Kattar was on the main card for the UFC’s return last May. “All eyes were on the UFC,” Kattar recalls. “The whole world was watching.” From everywhere, that is, except from inside the actual venue in Jacksonville, Florida, which was devoid of fans. Fighting without a crowd “was kind of eerie,” Kattar admits. Still, he channeled his inner Bill Belichick and concentrated on what he could control: doing his job. “Even with fans in the crowd, I don’t really focus on everybody when I walk into a venue anyway,” he says. “I try to stay solely focused on the octagon. I’m still there, I’ve still got a job to do.” Inside the octagon, Kattar let his fighting do the talking, knocking out veritable contender Jeremy Stephens with a perfectly timed elbow.
After its successful return, the UFC teased the concept of Fight Island, billed as a secure and safe foreign venue for fighters and their teams during the pandemic. The UFC ultimately chose Yas Island, a human-made island in Abu Dhabi, and started booking fights. Kattar’s number was called to headline the main card and he responded. He flew overseas, was victorious via unanimous decision in a bout against Dan Ige, and his stock kept rising.
In the UFC, Kattar has developed a reputation as an exciting fan favorite, earning Fight of the Night performance bonuses. But he doesn’t go it alone. MMA is a team game. In post-fight interviews, combatants often use the word “we” when dissecting a performance, talking about “our strategy heading in” or “we were looking for a takedown in the second round,” a nod to their support system of trainers, coaches and sparring partners. Kattar relies heavily on a couple of close confidantes, most notably Font, his number one teammate and sparring partner, and Chartier to prepare for his fights. And it’s far from a one-way street. Font, who was the 11th-ranked contender in the UFC 135-pound division at the time of this writing, fought, and TKO’d, perennial contender Marlon Moraes in December. This win catapulted Font to the top of the contender rankings. Kattar’s team, known as the New England Cartel, does whatever’s necessary to get its fighters ready. “When something’s booked for one of our guys, we drop everything,” Kattar says. “It’s all about that person, and we do whatever we need to do to help him get his hand raised.”
Kattar knows there will come a time when he’ll lay his gloves at the center of the octagon, a tradition for fighters announcing their retirement. He plans to continue operating Combat Zone with his brother Jamison and developing the next wave of New England fighters. “I have a great team at Combat Zone,” Kattar says. “Jamison helps run it, and my mom helps out at the front gate with ticket sales. It’s a family-run organization, and we like to consider the local scene and local fighters an extension of that family.”
As an athlete, however, the best parts of Kattar’s story remain unwritten. At press time, he’s scheduled to face Max Holloway, a former champion and currently the No. 1 contender in the UFC featherweight division, in January 2021. It will be the biggest fight of Kattar’s career, a pivotal moment in his quest for the featherweight crown. His time is now. “I’ve got at least a couple of years left in me,” Kattar says. “My foot’s on the gas. It’s now or never. And I’m going all in.”
Four Rounds with Calvin Kattar
Favorite music/musician: Drake, although lately I’ve been listening to jazz music and instrumentals during boxing training sessions in the morning.
Favorite local eatery: Easy money. Ralphie’s Cafe in Salem, New Hampshire. Thank me later.
Favorite thing about the winter in the Merrimack Valley: Man, in the winter I’m usually wrestling and running sprints up the street (laughs). Nothing good in the winter for me other than the holidays.
Favorite way to finish a fight: Knockout. Period.