Calvin Kattar has taken the long road to the top of his division and the trip included one significant detour early in his career.
Ahead of his upcoming main event bout with former featherweight champion Max Holloway this Saturday at UFC Fight Island 7, Kattar recalled the time that he was a teenager visiting the Nick and Nate Diaz in California circa May 2008 with the goal of elevating his game.
“I was 3-0 at the time going out there,” Kattar said at the UFC Fight Island 7 media day. “I was leading into that Elite XC fight and I’d gone out there two weeks out from the fight—probably a mistake in hindsight because it was the hardest week of training and that’s usually when people dial back—but I got, like, three bloody noses a day. I was a kid from Boston training with the kids from Cali and it was all love, they respected the hard work. They blew my mind. I went out there training morning to night, I was sleeping on Cesar Gracie’s living room floor and when came time to get up and go to work, we got up and we didn’t get back until early morning, like three a.m.
“I remember we got in Nate’s gym at, like, 12:31, he was throwing on his jeans and had just finished up training. Which is late as it was, but Cesar said he had me coming in, ‘You want to give this kid some work,’ and he’s like, ‘Sh*t, alright.’ He just goes, takes off his jeans, throws his sh*t back on, just a G, man, wanting to work. That’s what it was like out there, these guys just got to work 24/7, the gym was open all day for the fighters and the gym I was at at the time was only open 6-8 p.m. You can’t really make it that far with that level of commitment to the lifestyle and I made the necessary changes and it definitely set the tone for the way I train moving forward from that day.”
Kattar worked with both Diaz brothers while also traveling around with them to various gyms. On one occasion, they visited a boxing gym in Oakland and Kattar got a firsthand glimpse of boxing champion Andre Ward. That episode combined with other lessons learned from the Diaz team had Kattar thinking that he might need to permanently relocate if he was going to take his career to the next level.
He headed back east for a scheduled fight with James Jones at an Elite XC show in New Jersey, then the biggest opportunity of Kattar’s career. While he would end up suffering his first defeat, Kattar now knew the level of commitment required to be a standout MMA fighter and he went on to win 13 of his next 14 fights before joining the UFC in 2017.
“I remember it was really cool, we were going to the Oakland boxing gym with Nick and Nate, and we walk in, Andre Ward’s hitting the heavy bag,” Kattar said. “Virgil Hunter’s there, his coach, telling him, ‘Pick it up, pick it up.’ He’s like, ‘I can knock it out now,’ he’s just ripping the bag. I’m just like, ‘Holy sh*t,’ this is wild, I’m 19 years old. Do I got to move from New England to make it in this game? Is that what I gotta do? Do I gotta leave my whole family? I’m tight with my family and it’s like, do I gotta uproot everything that I’ve ever known to go make it in this game?
“Credit to my team, we finally found each other, developed what we think, that you can develop a small camp from New England and make it to the highest level of the sport. Right now, you’ve got Rob Font, No. 5 in the world; Tyson Chartier, my coach-manager, getting Coach of the Year; and I’m No. 6 knocking on No. 1’s door. So it’s a credit to my team and everyone from New England knowing that you don’t have to leave the east coast just to make it in this game.”
Fast forward to today and Kattar and Font, proud members of the “New England Cartel,” are both headed towards a potential title shot. Kattar won four of his past five fights to set up a duel with Holloway, while Font is coming off of a first-round finish of Marlon Moraes that has vaulted him into the top-10 of the bantamweight division.
Kattar doesn’t know if he could have earned legitimate contender status sooner, but he feels like he’s where he’s supposed to be now.
“It’s been like a decade and a half, like 15 years, it’s been a long road,” Kattar said. “But I feel like I’m ready for it now. I feel like it is the right time, if it would have come earlier I’m not so sure I would have handled it right. A lot of distractions. Really, I think with the pandemic, for me, it’s really allowed me to focus and isolate my priorities and what’s important in my life and I just tripled down on it all 2020 and it’s paying dividends.
“It’s a great time, this is a great checkpoint for me and my team, putting in the work for 15 years like I said and finally getting the opportunities I feel like we deserve.”
Even during a 2020 campaign that was difficult for everyone due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kattar makes no excuses and he’s still training with a fire that would make the Diaz brothers proud.
“I dealt with the pandemic too,” Kattar said in reference to other featherweights who spent 2020 on the sidelines. “I was training out of my garage with my brother and my mom doing strength and conditioning with a 40-pound sandbag, or rice bag, or something like that. It’s the biggest weight I had to prepare. I’m just trying to find a way.
“My reasons to achieve my goals are far bigger than my excuses and I think that’s earned me a shot with Max Holloway to get that No. 1 contender shot.”