John Makdessi stands in the middle of the practice ring at Montreal’s Tristar gym, sweat pouring off his nose as he unleashes another barrage of leg kicks with hair-raising power that belies his humble and soft-spoken demeanour.
If the 25-year-old mixed martial artist is feeling the pressure of his upcoming debut in the Ultimate Fighting Championship taking place this Saturday at the Bell Centre, it’s well hidden behind the look of steely determination in his eyes.
Carrying a perfect 7-0 record into Saturday’s fight against Pat Audinwood, the matchup will mark the defining moment in Makdessi’s meteoric rise up the MMA ladder.
Only 27 months removed from this first professional fight, the up-and-comer is relatively new to MMA, which combines an essentially endless array of fighting styles into a single melting pot. But Makdessi is no stranger to success in combat sports. After earning a blue belt and Junior Olympic gold medal in taekwondo, he made the move to kickboxing, posting a 22-0 record and winning two national championships and an illustrious United States Kickboxing Association world title.
But in 2006, as the dwindling popularity of kickboxing made it increasingly difficult to eke out a living at the limited number of professional events in the area, Makdessi was forced to make a career-altering shift.
The burgeoning world of mixed martial arts beckoned to him with open arms. MMA had established itself as the next big combat sport, presenting Makdessi with an opportunity to showcase his abilities to the world.
“At the end of the day, mixed martial arts is the ultimate goal,” said Makdessi. “You’re doing like five or six disciplines. It’s not like you’re doing one discipline at a time. It’s like you’re a doctor and lawyer and accountant.”
With the blessing of his coach, who felt he had passed on all he could, Makdessi moved his training to the Tristar gym and its head coach, Firas Zahabi. With a stable of elite fighters in its fold, including UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, the gym has established a reputation as one of the best in the world.
“If you train with great fighters, you need to get to that level,” said Makdessi. “I’m always pushing to beat them and to get as good as them or even better.”
Nicknamed “The Bull” by his sister for his relentless approach inside the ring, Makdessi’s considerable skills have transferred over to MMA. While a self-admitted beginner to the intricacies of wrestling and the ground game, Makdessi is a powerhouse on his feet, combining a non-stop work ethic with explosive power from his 5’8, 155-pound frame.
“John’s a warrior. He doesn’t think about this and that. He thinks about fighting,” said Peter Sisomphou, Makdessi’s Muay Thai trainer. “He wants to prove to people that he’s a warrior, a killer.”
“The Bull” rampaged his through the first six fighters he faced in his young MMA career, dispatching all of them via technical knockout. But it was his last fight, a three-round unanimous decision over Bendy Casimir, a veteran of over 30 fights in some of the largest promotions in the world, that finally caught the eye of the UFC and earned him a call-up to the biggest brand in the sport.
“John called me and told me “I’m going to the UFC,'” said Sisomphou. “I freaked out. I didn’t expect him to get to the UFC so early. I thought maybe next year or in two years.”
While most fighters’ salaries are hardly lucrative, even in the UFC, competing on the biggest stage in the sport makes them more attractive to sponsors, helping to pay the bills.
“This is going to be my chance to do what I love,” said Makdessi quietly. “I won’t have to worry about financial purposes. I can take care of my family. I can provide for my family.”
Contracts with the UFC aren’t guaranteed, meaning the promotion can cut fighters from their roster at any time, but the secret to a long career in the company is simple: win and you’re still in. Sisomphou has little doubt that Saturday’s fight will mark the beginning of a long stay in the UFC for Makdessi.
“Absolutely, 100 per cent,” said Sisomphou, smiling. “He’s going to win.”