The Janitor's last drive

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The drive from West Los Angeles to Temecula, Calif. runs a little under two hours if you're lucky. All concrete and parks and faded stars peaking out through the smog, and if the Gods of West Coast Traffic smile down on your journey, that pesky brake pedal won't feel the loathsome stomp of your foot as you merge south onto the I-15.

Fortunately, on this night, Vladimir Matyushenko is as lucky as can be.

It's the last ride for MMA's most affable custodian. The end of a career that spanned three decades, from the days of NHB headbutts and barroom tough guys, through the pageantry and half-baked schemes of the MMA boom, all the way to today's global monster, where world-class athletes vie for blue chip sponsorships and 7-year-olds everywhere trade osoto gari attempts as they once traded Topps cards.

"I'm a little bit sad, but I'm happy too," Matyushenko reflects from behind the wheel, 72 hours out from his final hurrah against Joey Beltran at Bellator 116.

"I mean, it was a good ride. It was fun."

Star-divide

Back in 2003, Vladimir Matyushenko semi-retired from mixed martial arts. A young Andrei Arlovski, still a few years away from his Pitbull apex, had slugged Matyushenko with a ferocious right uppercut that left him sporting a swollen jaw and peanuts for pay. Afterward, sullen in the locker room and pushed farther from title contention, Matyushenko asked himself, just what the hell am I doing? "I have to get a real job and go work," he remembers thinking. "Because the sport, it wasn't really going anywhere. It was kind of stuck there."

Naturally, that half-hearted attempt at normalcy didn't last. Once Matyushenko was back in the gym, ending sparring sessions against prospective UFC fighters with his blood running hot, a sly grin accompanying that gnawing realization, ‘s--t, I still can beat these guys up,' it was only a matter of time before he caved.

So, on that frosty spring night in Toronto eight years later, when Matyushenko returned the favor by blasting Jason Brilz with a right uppercut that brought 55,724 people to their feet inside the Rogers Centre, it was the sweetest flavor of irony. This wasn't a parking lot or dark-lit pub or a sleazy rundown nightclub. This was a big boy arena. A bastion of legitimacy packed to the rafters, broadcast worldwide and covered by major global outlets.

"It was my favorite moment. It was huge," he marvels. "I won my fight in 20-something seconds, and I'm just looking around like, wow... that's how far we've come.

"It's not just my achievement. It's more of an overall achievement. Like, finally, not just myself, but all the sport is being recognized. And to me it's a good feeling, because you want to be part of something big."

These days, oversaturation is the buzz word peppering every hot sports take. The era of the tough guy is behind us, killed by state regulation and a hungry young generation. With a new UFC event being announced seemingly every 26 seconds, it's easy to become jaded. But it's also easy to forget just how unlikely of a success story this all really is.

'I'm just looking around like, wow... that's how far we've come.'

We laugh at grainy video of Keith Hackney raining down blow after blow onto Joe Son's kibbles n' bits, but no one can downplay how much balls it all took in the first place. Crazy sonuvabitches like Matyushenko did this before doing this was actually a thing, for no real money, for no real fame, only for the thrill that shot down their back when they heard the crack of that one good shot.

"I remember talking to some top MMA promoters, including Dana White and those guys, Joe Silva -- nobody thought it was going to grow this big," Matyushenko says. "In a way, it's a miracle.

"Now there's a lot more that goes into it. It's becoming more sophisticated. And in a way, I like this, because it's not brawling anymore. It's not just guys coming from the bar, getting drunk and saying ‘let's fight.' It's a science.

"MMA, I think, is the hardest language to speak. You can go between Russian and Chinese or whatever -- but MMA, it's like an alien language."

Star-divide

Vladimir Matyushenko made his professional MMA debut in 1997, the same year Bill Clinton began his second term and America banded together in overwhelming support of "MMMBop." Already in his mid-twenties, Matyushenko was an accomplished wrestler for the Soviet national team, and in true NHB fashion, his first, second and third pro fights all took place within a few hours of each other in some grimy dive in Baton Rouge.

"Three fights in one night," he remembers. "And I'll tell ya, I didn't get hit at all... but my hands were freakin' swollen from just hitting the guys."

In theory, Matyushenko says, he liked the tournaments of old. They were truth. You beat everybody and you were the true winner. The true champion.

The thing is though, MMA is also the kind of sport where you tend to get hurt no matter what you do. Whether you win or lose, muscles and bones are still colliding at velocities they probably weren't designed to handle.

So now that one-nighters are effectively dead, Matyushenko must admit, he's more than happy to wave goodbye to them, just as he is to most of the idiosyncrasies that came hand-in-hand with competing in the kind of fly-by-night, borderline illegal activity that coaxes the riffraff through its doors and often forgoes any traditional sense of objectivity.

"Sometimes you had to go freakin' chase the promoter, where's my money, b--ch? And then you had a second fight," Matyushenko laughs. "A few times in my career I didn't even get paid at all.

"The wildest story is when I broke my nose. I went to fight in Brazil against Carlos Barreto. He was a big huge guy, and I don't know what my manager was thinking. He was like, no, you're going to get this guy. The guy is like 265, on steroids. I just watched him hitting pads and he's breaking these pads, like... dude, okay, I'm going to fight him?

"He kicked me as hard as he could. I remember my hands were up. Whack! Broke my nose. He freakin' tore his knee! He fell down and had torn his knee just because he had kicked so hard! He just falls down and I'm looking around like, what the hell just happened? After that we go in an ambulance, this little tiny ambulance, and they put the sirens on. In Brazil nobody cares, they're all cutting in front of us. We're both laying in back of the ambulance, and I'm like, man, is this a dream or something?"

When it comes to anecdotes, Matyushenko has hundreds of them, each one a bizarre snapshot of a time and era that exists only in the memories of those deranged few that lived through it.

Of course there's a few regrets, too, but that's a given. You don't make it 18 years in anything without a situation occasionally going awry.

"I was supposed to fight Fedor Emelianenko in Japan," Matyushenko wistfully says. "That would've been a good fight, too. If I would've done that and beaten him, then who knows, maybe you wouldn't know Fedor Emelianenko, you'd know Vladimir Matyushenko."

The 43-year-old pauses, chuckling at the idea. "But it didn't work out because my ex-manager... I don't want to say he didn't do a good job, but for some reason it just didn't happen."

The one regret that irks Matyushenko the most, though, came early; and this one's had time to marinate in all the sour juices of the ‘what ifs.'

Just a few years into his fighting career, Matyushenko was scooped up by the UFC and set right to work within its light heavyweight division. At the time, the promotion was desperate to find any half-decent warm bodies to challenge its biggest star, the bleach-blonde killer from Huntington Beach with the flames roaring up his trunks, record-breaking champion Tito Ortiz.

Matyushenko was given one tune-up fight, then fed to the UFC's young lion.

"It would've changed my life if I would've beaten Tito Ortiz for a championship," Matyushenko sighs. "I always wanted to be a champion, I know that. But I gave it to him fair and square. I think I wasn't ready mentally. I was a contender, but fighting for a championship, all of a sudden the media and stuff like that, I was a little bit overwhelmed.

"If I could take it back, I'd be a little more prepared mentally for [the big stage]. Because if I won... that would be nice."

Star-divide

Vladimir Matyushenko lost to Beltran on Friday night, succumbing to exhaustion and a third-round north/south choke in a fight he was likely winning right up until he wasn't. There were still a few flashes of the young Belarusian; the steady procession of stiff jabs, a couple winging right hands, and even the faintest glimmer of a grin that crept across his face in the midst of a firefight.

Afterward Matyushenko wiped the blood from his nose and laid his gloves down in the center of the Bellator cage. It was a good moment, a genuine moment. The end of one life giving way to the start of another.

The mention of his adored nickname, "The Janitor," even elicited a pop from the crowd -- though more than a few of those decibels were likely from amused onlookers asking their friends whether that guy with the mic really just called the old-timer a master of the custodial arts.

Matyushenko chuckles again as he thinks back to the day he was first given his flattering surname, when American coaches spotted the shabby 18-year-old mopping up mats at a qualifying Olympic meet in Siberia. The next afternoon Matyushenko crushed the tourney field to win gold, and afterward he spotted the same coaches berating their dumbfounded club.

"You guys lost to the Russian janitor! He's not even a wrestler! He just signed up yesterday for the tournament! I just saw him cleaning the mats yesterday!"

Matyushenko just smiles. "I didn't speak any English, and so when I came to America, Mark Coleman and all those guys are still calling me, hey janitor, what's up!

"Janitor? What's a janitor?," he remembers thinking, "But it kind of stuck with me, and then I realized [what it meant]. When I started fighting, they kept calling me Janitor, so it's like, okay, I'll take it."

Even back then, Matyushenko never took himself too seriously. He'd drop in on random fan expos clad in his silliest attire, embracing the gimmick with open arms. That nondescript guy standing across the room, the one who's wearing a newsboy cap and ‘Vlad the Janitor' garb? Oh, that's a UFC fighter. (Mop sometimes included.)

'Maybe I was procrastinating, or maybe I should have retired earlier. But it's fun to fight.'

So it's not a surprise that even on the last fight week of his career, Matyushenko was still enjoying the ride.

If it was up to him, this wouldn't be the end. The actual fights themselves, they were never the problem. It's the training that's become harder and harder over the years. Injuries he unwisely pushed through now come back to haunt him; joints ground down by hundreds of thousands of hours of wear and tear, making daily activities just that much harder than they used to be.

It's hard for him to say, but that slog back to the whetstone simply isn't fun anymore. "It's always something hurts," Matyushenko admits.

"Maybe I was procrastinating too, or maybe I should have retired earlier. But it's fun to fight. People watch you on TV, people recognize you in public places and say hi. It's a good time.

"It doesn't matter who it is, when they raise your hand, that's the best feeling in the world. A lot of fighters, we fight just for that feeling. Not for the money or the fame or whatever, but just that feeling, it's very addictive. And when the referee raises your hand, and all the audience is clapping, it's... wow."

Matyushenko almost tasted that feeling one last time on Friday night, although the end he got is at least easier to swallow than most. Other members of the old guard, the Randy Coutures, the Chuck Liddells, they left with another concussion and one more regret. By contrast, Matyushenko departed on his own terms, his pride tucked firmly in his back pocket and a fulltime West Los Angeles coaching gig straight ahead of him.

Maybe someday Matyushenko will win that elusive world title through osmosis. Maybe, with his guidance, one of these young whippersnappers who has it so easy will reach the mountaintop the Old Bear never could.

Either way, mixed martial arts will always only have one Janitor. And through it all, we were glad to have him.

"I'm completely happy," Matyushenko reflects. "I wish I achieved a little more. I wish I won a few more fights. But I'm happy, and I'm not done with MMA. I like what I do. Hopefully it's not my last interview, and I'm going to be coaching some big champions and you guys are still going to call me up.

"To the fans, I just want to say thank you. Without you, I wouldn't have done it. And I definitely wouldn't have fought for that long, that's for sure. So, thank you."

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