Matt Bessette remembers the moment vividly.
Sitting in his kitchen last Wednesday night, the 33-year-old mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter had a conversation with his wife Ashley - perhaps it was time to walk away from the sport he had dedicated so much time to.
“It was a sad conversation,” recalled Bessette, who trains out of and co-owns Ascension Athletics in Bristol.
Already with 30 pro fights to his name and a 22-7-1 record, Bessette had yet to hear from the sport’s top company, the UFC. He had been through the grueling schedule, the travel and the injuries, so he decided the fight to defend his Classic Entertainment & Sports (CES) MMA featherweight title on Feb. 2 would be his final round.
Then, less than a day after he reached his decision, the call he had waited so long for came. The UFC wanted him.
“Everyone has probably had one of those moments in their life when they remember the clothes they wore or what the room smelled like,” Bessette said. “That’s going to be one of mine. My whole life turned upside down in 24 hours.”
He had been close before.
Over the summer, Bessette was competing in the main event of the inaugural Dana White Contender Series before breaking his hand on the first punch he threw, which ended up costing him his fight against Kurt Holobaugh. The loss snapped a seven-fight win streak and it looked as though his opportunity to fight for the UFC had passed.
Things, however, can change quickly. Now the moment is finally here. Bessette will make his UFC debut tonight against Enrique Barzola (13-3-1 MMA, 3-1 UFC) at TD Garden in Boston at 7 p.m. Barzola’s original opponent dropped out of UFC 220.
But Bessette got more than just a one-time opportunity to make his UFC debut. He also inked a three-fight deal.
“When Matt got on the UFC contender show and suffered that broken hand, our sails felt a little deflated,” said Jeff Haddad, Bessette’s longtime friend, former MMA fighter and co-owner of Ascension Athletics.
“We didn’t know if [getting to the UFC] was going to happen. Every time he looked like he was going to get a shot, something happened. This was just a long time coming. It was not so much shock as much as, ‘damn, finally.’”
While neither Bessette nor his team chose to divulge too much of their strategy for tonight’s matchup, they expect this to be a good first UFC fight for the rookie.
That, of course, doesn’t mean Bessette or those around him aren’t confident heading into the octagon. Having the experience of fighting a variety of different fighters throughout the years has helped, as has been the fact he was already in training.
“Although it was a last-minute replacement thing, a lot of the training was similar to what I always do,” Bessette said. “I’m ready to go. I train so hard and often that I usually end up peaking too early, about three weeks before the fight, and you want to peak around a week [before]. This time, I’m peaking around right on time.
“[Barzola’s] got great cardio. He’s a real good wrestler and once he’s on the ground he’s good, but I’m better. For the striking, I have better credentials, too. This is something I’ve been waiting for, for years. It’s something I’m looking forward to, having my hand raised.”
His team also isn’t worried about the size of the stage either. Bessette has fought in front of large crowd sizes before, estimating anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000. TD Garden, however, is different.
“It’s definitely the next level,” Bessette’s manager Chris Palmquist said. “We try to get [our fighters] in the mindset that it’s a bigger fight, but when you get into the locker room, you’re going to be around guys from the local fight scene.
“Whether you’re in the TD Garden or the ballroom of a Holiday Inn, when the door shuts it’s just you and the other guy and you have to solve the issue of beating him. He’s dealt with big crowds before and he’s not going to let that worry him. Matt is prepared like he needs to be. There’s no excuses in this one.”
It has been quite a turnaround for a fighter that had considered possible retirement a little over a week ago, to getting a spot on a UFC card. And while Bessette is certainly going to go out and enjoy the moment, he also intends to come out of his debut with the most important stat - not punches landed, height or weight, but with a win.
After all, why stop here.
“It’s like a career-starter and now my UFC career starts,” Bessette said. “Every fighter’s goal is to win, win, win, and my goal is to go out there and get my hand raised at the end. I’m excited to go out there. I feel like I have new life in my fighting career.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or email@example.com