Calvin Kattar made himself a promise long ago. As long as he had the fire to fight, he’d always be ready for the next call.
Even as a year went by between fights and even though he’s pushing 30, the guy who had made such a name on the local fight circuit was making one last run at the big time. Yet, even as he trained with UFC-level fighters this year, Kattar wondered if his determination was fighting a losing battle with destiny and the clock.
“I knew I was right there with anyone on passion, but I’ve been working this road for 10 years, and at some point, you wonder if that chance is ever coming,” Kattar said.
If you’re a fight fan in New England, you know all about “The Boston Fighter.” And you have likely wondered why a fighter with such a sound all-around game and an infectious personality hadn’t got that shot.
It’s part of the instant connection he has made with so many fans, from his hometown of Methuen, Mass., to nearby Boston, and up and down the East Coast. He sold out fights for years at the recently demolished Rockingham Park, as hard-working, blue-collar locals ate up the chance to live vicariously through Kattar and watch him dominate.
Three years ago, Kattar decided to stop making other promoters money and waiting for other people to determine his future. He bought Combat Zone MMA, the longest-running MMA event promoter in New England, and decided to focus more on promoting than fighting.
Little did he know he was higher on the UFC’s radar than he imagined. After years of hearing the phone would ring, that call finally came.
“You want to be on the UFC 214 card in California in two weeks?”
“It was amazing. They were giving me just days to train, I’d be traveling cross country and I wasn’t as ready as I want to be, but when the UFC calls, if you know what’s what, you don’t say no,” Kattar said.
The first call had come a few months back. UFC officials asked if he’d be willing to sub in to an undercard in Sweden on short notice. His emphatic yes kept him high on the prospects list even though the bout was eventually cancelled.
Instead, Kattar made his UFC debut on the undercard of the star-studded UFC 214 in Anaheim, California.
When Dooho Choi, the No. 8-ranked featherweight, tapped out of a fight with Andre “Touchy” Fili in early June, UFC officials looked for the right fit for the matchup. Fili was seen as a rising star on a slide and UFC 214 was supposed to be the spotlight to erase his recent middling ways.
“The fight publications, the bloggers, the Vegas bookmakers, they don’t know my son. They haven’t seen the fire,” said Calvin’s father, Jamie Kattar.
The Kattars are a well-known family in Methuen. Jamie’s brother Kevin owns Merrimack Valley Golf Club and while Jamie runs his own irrigation business, he and his brother George are both active in the family business. It was along the course’s eighth hole that Jamie first heard that Calvin wanted to be an MMA fighter.
After wrestling in high school, Kattar had taken a shine to the emerging sport. When he watched his sister’s best friend battle in his first MMA fight, Kattar was hooked. He got connected with regional promoter Dave George and got on a local circuit card in Derry, N.H. The wiry 18-year-old was to fight a 35-year-old veteran in a cage fight — but not until Calvin could get past Jamie.
“We were landscaping a yard of a house when he dropped the news. I told him if you can tap out your Dad, you can fight professionally,” said Kattar, who has much more of a hulking figure like Calvin’s intended opponent. “So all of a sudden, we’re scrapping in the front yard. A couple minutes later, the homeowner comes out and Calvin has me in a choke hold.”
“I would have tapped him out, but he said no punching, especially to the face,” Calvin said of the battle a decade ago. Kattar went on to win his first professional fight despite a 100-pound handicap. He won 16 of his first 18 battles fighting for regional outfits like CES, World Championship Fighting, American Steel Cagefighter and the Xtreme Championship Fight League.
He has mastered the game behind the game, selling t-shirts, tickets, programs, autographs – all to increase his pay beyond the fight money. He became so good at marketing and promotion that in June 2013, he took over ownership of the Combat Zone MMA regional event circuit from none other than Dave George. His brother, Jamison, long his sparring partner in brotherly battles, works with him as his right-hand man.
Yet as successful as he was with promoting Combat Zone, Kattar still had a strong desire to fight. Rather than dwell on the feeling that his chances had passed him by, that he was forever resigned to local circuits, Kattar decided to make one more legit run at the UFC.
“I love promoting, but you know, I just couldn’t shake this feeling that there’s something more in me,” Kattar said. He contacted Tyson Chartier, a manager who had earned acclaim managing New England stars like Tony Martin and Rob Font.
Chartier had seen Kattar fight, but the two really got to know each other on a Hollywood movie set. Both were signed as fighter extras in 2010 for the Kevin James movie “Here Comes the Boom.”
“I knew the potential that Calvin had. The question was always whether Calvin believed it,” Chartier said. “He’s incredibly poised and humble and so disciplined, so when he called me in 2015 and said he wanted to make a legitimate run at the UFC, I was all in.”
Chartier had spent years recruiting fighters that had been knocking each other so much on the local circuits that they often had far less left to offer nationally. He recruited fighters like Font and Martin, both in their later 20s when they began their successful UFC climb.
“For me, guys 27 to 34 are in their prime physically and mentally, but so often, by then, they’re a decade into waiting for a chance, so they’re not as confident in their abilities,” Chartier said. “It’s my responsibility to put the right team around them and build them back up.”
Kattar joined Martin, Font, coach Carlos Neto to work on BJJ basics at 617 Team Sports and coaches Mark DellaGrotte and Andy Cote to focus on Muay Thai with Team Sityodtong. He has since traveled with Martin and Font to past UFC cards, including working with Font before his UFC 213 fight in July.
Kattar had just returned from a Las Vegas trip to promote Combat Zone when the call came from MMA officials.
“It wasn’t an ideal training window and I got off my routine, had just partied a little in Vegas. I had some injuries healing but I’m also not going to live with regrets, so I took the challenge,” he said.
Days later, he, Chartier and Jamison were in the Honda Center, scoping out the 16,610-seat venue. Then came the weigh-in.
“I’ve watched those weigh-ins for years, the classic photo of the fighters posing with Dana White in the middle and you imagine yourself in that place,” Kattar said. “Not much got to me nerves wise, but that moment was incredible.”
The totality of this career jump and butterflies of performing before a national TV audience on FXX were far from Kattar’s mind.
“I’ve seen that look. We call it his zone look. From the minute he got that call, he was there,” his father said. Jamison had to call in the parents many times growing up when simple brothers wrestling turned into The Zone. “The UFC just didn’t know what they unleashing.”
The setbacks, missed opportunities, watching others get their shot, it was all part of this pent-up rage. This fight was not about the money – the undercard fighters that fought on FXX earned anywhere from $10,000 to $66,000. Kattar could potentially make a base of $24,000, but this more about the shot to see if he truly could compete on a national level.
On paper, he’d already lost the nickname game and Vegas had him as a 3-to-1 underdog. But Kattar had the advantage of being a bit of a Roy Hobbs on the technology side. None of his fights had been posted online for the past five years, whereas he’d watched all of Fili’s fights.
“I wasn’t telling folks to spend their life savings, but those who know Calvin know that this wager was worth taking,” Jamie Kattar said. “Win or lose, he was going to be prepared and show up better than a 3-to-1 dog.”
Courtesy Calvin Kattar
An overflow crowd packed into the golf course clubhouse in Methuen watched as Kattar took control late in the first round with a takedown and a flurry of punches as the horn blew. Dad Jamie had been in his own zone throughout the day, talking to few people and playing out his son’s strategy in his mind. As the undercard came on the TV, he retired to the bathroom and threw up – a pre-fight ritual for Dad.
“There’s no sleep the night before. As exciting and thrilled as I am for him, it’s still a spot where you know you’re going to watch your son potentially get beat up,” Jamie said.
Fili rebounded in the second round with steady punches, but in his corner between rounds, Kattar knew he was in control.
“I wasn’t cocky, I’m never cocky, but I knew I’d taken much harder punches from Tony and others at the gym,” he said. “I felt like I had the points, I just had to battle smart.”
A pair of knockdowns sealed a unanimous decision for Kattar. Soon, TV cameras flooded the ring, along with UFC announcer Joe Rogan. He had run into the legendary MMA hype man in Vegas 10 days before, but had not introduced himself or asked for a selfie.
“I wanted the first time I talked to Joe to be in that ring after a win,” he said. “That was just a dream come true right there. You train, you hope for that moment. So many folks never get it and I know that, so I treasured every second of it.”
After the interview, Kattar looked into the cameras, flashed a smile and mouthed the words, “Let’s go, Methuen!”
“The team we’d assembled, trainers, nutritionists, corner men, all so focused. I’m proud that I delivered this team win,” Kattar said. “We were ready and all the support, all the folks back home, I took that into the octagon with me,” he said.
Kattar now has a four-fight deal with UFC and took home close to $30,000 for the win. Close to half of that will go toward paying off flights for his team he put on credit cards. With each fight, his take will go up in increments. His next fight, he’ll make a base of $14,000 with a potential $14,000 win bonus. After that, he begins at $16,000 with the fourth fight a base of $18,000. If he earns another contract, the base per-fight rate goes up in $3,000 increments, though Chartier says with a smile, “Of course, anything is negotiable.”
“The Boston Fighter” is putting the promoter hat back on in the immediate future, prepping the fight card for Combat Zone 63 in late September. As for fighting, he figures to be back in the ring in four to five months.
“I wish everyone could be like Calvin. He knows the business and knows the numbers, so he knows the climb and appreciates it instead of getting a big head,” Chartier said. “We’re just getting him to not just believe he belongs, but that he can dominate. I honestly feel like we’re just peeling off the first layer of potential here.”
One dream down, but so many goals suddenly within reach. Kattar is on a nine-fight win streak, but he hasn’t had a knockout or submission since Combat Zone’s “Massacre in the Meadow” in 2010.
“I know I still have that knockout power in me,” he said. “I did this with five days of actual camp training. I just think about what I can do with six weeks to two months of training. I’m excited to fully unleash the animal inside here and keep this dream going.”
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