When Marino “The Scorpion” Cutendana fought Baldwin Mdlalose at EFC Worldwide 51 on July 15, 2016, it wasn’t the only battle the Angolan was fighting that day.
“A few years ago, I was supposed to fight and my father was here, but he had to go to the hospital on the ICU (intensive care unit),” Cutendana said. “I fought that fight thinking of the person that was in the hospital.”
Cutendana (6-3-0) would ultimately lose both fights. He lost his bout to Mdlalose on a KO/TKO decision in the first round. A week later, his father passed away.
It was a difficult time for the Bantamweight fighter, who felt that, with his fight coming up, he couldn’t dedicate enough time to his dying father.
“For me it was just very challenging because I had to go everyday in the morning to the hospital, then go to training, then come back at night, go there again,” he said. “Even the organization didn’t know that I was making a lot of sacrifices. They didn’t know that I had someone slowly dying in the hospital, and I was training full-time and put all of the work in, cut weight, while I had someone in the hospital.”
His late father was buried in Angola, the country Cutendana and his 10 siblings left in 1998 due to the Angolan Civil War. But Cutendana, now based in South Africa, was unable to go.
“I couldn’t go to Angola to bury him because I had to sort out my papers,” he said. “So that was really a big challenge.”
This is just one example of the difficult sacrifices a professional MMA fighter must make throughout their career. While the scarcity of fights (the average fighter fights between two and four times per calendar year) may lead people to believe that fighters have loads of free time on their hands, other things such as post-fight recovery, training, and injuries can take up massive chunks of one’s schedule.
“You’re training six days a week, sometimes twice a day,” Brampton-born fighter Matt Speciale said. “And when you’re not training, you have to recover. You have to make sure your diet is on point. You have to make sure you’re meal prepping and making sure that everything is there. There’s also film studying; just watching other fighters and learning different things. [There’s also] talking to your coach and doing film studies with your coach.”
These duties leave little room for a fighter’s social and dating lives.
“If you want to party, guess what, this aint for you,” he said. “It’s a lonely road.”
“Do what you can to put in all of that work in those two hours, and you’ll see what you’re given back in the long term.”
But Speciale knew that from the get-go. When he started Muay Thai as a 20-year-old roughly a decade ago, Speciale had to reject invitations to bars and parties. He rarely found time for social gatherings.
“All of my buddies from university would be drinking three, four, five times a week, and I could never do that once I started Muay Thai,” he said. “They did their thing, and I went a different path.”
This also applied to family gatherings.
“Whenever my family would call me, they’d be like, ‘Hey, we’re doing a birthday for so and so, and it’s on this day.’”, he said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah guys, I might make it, but you know what comes first.’ And that’s been [like that] since the beginning.”
Sometimes, loved ones will be the biggest obstacles in the way of a fighter’s goal. This forces the fighter to choose between their loved ones and the sport.
“People don’t understand,” he said. “As much as they want to say that they get it and appreciate it and they really love how you get after it, you know. Yeah, they’ll say that for the first couple fucking months, and then they’ll drop a comment like, ‘I think you can miss that training session,’ and I’ll be like, ‘No, I can’t miss that training session, I have to go.’ Then they’ll say shit like, ‘Oh, OK. If you really think that this one training session is going to make you that much better, maybe you’re not ready for this fight.’
“When comments like that get dropped, it’s like, OK, you don’t get it.”
That’s why Cutendana believes that the people you surround yourself with at the gym will determine how successful you are in overcoming social challenges.
“You have to surround yourself with the people that you want to be like,” he said. “If you surround yourself with people that are too negative, that’s how you’re going to become. If you surround yourself with losers, you’re going to become a loser. You must point out the people that you want to be like and the people that can influence you to the positive side of life, and those are the people that you want to be around if you want to succeed.”
A fighter’s time isn’t only taken up by fight-related commitments, though. Unlike other professional athletes — many of whom are paid handsomely enough to live across two lives — most MMA fighters are forced to take second or even third jobs to make a proper living.
“Not many people are full-time fighters,” Curendana said. “We don’t get paid well enough for the fights we do.”
“Challenges are to make you stronger. If you don’t die, then you’re just going to get stronger all of the time.”
Some people might point towards the UFC’s stars – the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Connor McGregor, etc. – as being examples of the lucrative lifestyle of fighters. But those are more like exceptions than norms, and most of their large income is made through their star power. If you ask someone whose brand isn’t as popular, such as current UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, most pro fighters – even those fighting in the UFC – are underpaid.
As a result, the average fighter has to take on a new challenge through the open job market.
“My second job is being a trainer at the gym where I train, [Team CIT in South Africa],” Cutendana said. “I have a lot of friends, they are bouncers. Some of them have side works.”
Speciale is no stranger to this either. Since turning towards MMA fighting, the Canadian spent many years working as an office sales rep. He would work for nine hours a day, starting at 9:00 a.m.. This was done on top of being an MMA fighter and a nutritionist.
His multiple commitments forced him to be up as early as 5:00 a.m. and until as late as midnight. A fair amount of these hours would also be spent driving from Brampton to Mississauga to Scarborough and back.
The workload, unsurprisingly, began taking a significant toll on his training.
“There would just be a lot of stress,” he said. “Obviously, that mentally weighs on you long-term, and you’d get tired and mentally fatigued. Then I’d go to training and I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know why I’m so tired. Maybe I’m overworked? Maybe I’m this? Maybe I’m that?’”
Speciale would eventually quit his office job and focus on his nutrition work and MMA training full-time. But he knew how important it was to maintain that job for the period he did in order to make a living.
“You need money to survive,” he said. “I’m not one of those people that go, ‘No man, it’s all about happiness.’ Bullshit. We live in a first-world country [and] this is how it works. I’m not going to pay my fucking bills on hopes and dreams and fucking visions.
“[The office work] gave me the ability to train as much as I wanted to and to do nutrition work.”
Despite these difficulties, both Speciale and Cutendana agree that, if you put the proper work in training, these challenges and sacrifices will be worth it in the end.
“When it comes to training — and this is what ‘Bazooka Joe’ [Valtellini] laid out for us one day at the gym back about seven years ago,” Speciale said. “Do what you can to put in all of that work in those two hours, and you’ll see what you’re given back in the long term.”
“The best thing you can do is put your time in it,” Cutendana said. “Challenges are to make you stronger. If you don’t die, then you’re just going to get stronger all of the time.”