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How Reshat Mati kicked his way into boxing

Reshat Mati (Photo by Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing)
04
May

Reshat Mati can laugh about it. He knows none of the success he’s had would have been possible if not for a freakish mishap.

The belts that once adorned his bedroom walls are gone, safely tucked away in the family’s backyard shed. Mati seems to have discarded that phase of his life, for the most part.

He was once a seven-time international kickboxing champion. He was so prodigious there’s a video of him fighting that garnered millions of hits. As a 14-year-old, Mati was featured in a Los Angeles Times story. He was dubbed a world champion before he became a world champion.

None of this, however, would have happened if not for the missed kick. The life-altering moment at a ripe, young age that left Reshat in agonizing pain and redirected his journey.



His father, Adrian, tried introducing Reshat to soccer. The two went to a local park with artificial turf when Reshat was four. Very eager, Reshat went to kick the ball with his bare right foot—and picture Lucy from the Peanuts cartoon pulling the football away from Charlie Brown as he’s about to kick it.

Only, Reshat did it to himself, with throbbing consequences.

“I missed the ball completely, driving my right foot into the ground and broke it,” Reshat recalled, chuckling. “That ended my soccer career. I don’t think I ever tried kicking a soccer ball again. I can laugh about it now. It was a lesson to stay away from soccer. But if that didn’t happen, I don’t think I would be where I am now.”

Now, he’s a budding 5-foot-10 undefeated welterweight from Staten Island, New York, who’s 7-0, with five victories coming within the distance that used to throw punches in his crib. His parents, Adrian and Ajshe, called him “the punching baby.”

Though he’s 21, Reshat has lived a few combat-sport lives already.

Two months after his soccer mishap, Reshat was with his dad walking in New Dorp, New York, when they came by a Tiger Schulmann’s Martial Arts studio. Reshat was intrigued. He convinced Adrian to try it.

Reshat was hooked.

Before long, he was in tournaments. Soon after, he was winning. He earned the nickname “The Albanian Bear,” partly based on his Albanian heritage and his intensity at such a young age.

“My parents always wanted me to learn how to defend myself,” Reshat said. “It was mainly grappling and kickboxing. I loved that feeling of winning. It was like a drug, that I wanted more, and more, and more. I started to go into bigger tournaments.”

From seven to 10, he began collecting title belts in Grapplers Quest and North American Grappling Association (NAGA) tournaments. Around seven, Reshat began going to Bars Boxing in Staten Island, where he was introduced to boxing by Akmal Zakirov. By then, Reshat was juggling grappling, Muay Thai, Jujitsu, mixed martial arts, and boxing.

“I wanted something different, I like to be challenged, so I loved boxing,” Reshat said. “My first experience came at Gleason’s Gym. My first fight was against Bruce ‘Shu Shu’ Carrington, who’s on the U.S. Olympic boxing team. My coaches told me to fight him and not to kick. I remember that. I was seven. Bruce was a little older. He won by split-decision.

“Even today when I see him at the gym, I still hold a little grudge. I tell Shu Shu, “I can’t believe you beat me.’ After that fight, I was hooked.”

Reshat is the youngest of three. He took the blunt in scraps with oldest sisters Dianna, 24, and Lenora, 22. That sharpened him for days when as a grade schooler he went to the rescue of Lenora. She came home from school one day crying, because a kid called her names on the bus. Adrian asked Reshat what he did about it. When Reshat told his father he did nothing, Adrian fumed, “It better not happen again! You defend your sister.”

The next day, Reshat ended the name calling by pummeling the kid.

“Other than that, I never allowed Reshat to fight outside of the ring,” said Adrian, who was a soldier in an armored vehicle unit in what was then Yugoslavia, before moving to the United States prior to Yugoslavia breaking apart in the early 1990s. “Even when kids challenged him at school, which was all of the time, I told Reshat to take them to the gym. At least, that was controlled. To their credit, two kids in sixth or seventh grade, came in. Reshat finished them. After that, no one challenged Reshat anymore.

“But when he was four we first tried soccer, which is played throughout the world. It didn’t work that day.”

Reshat is promoted by Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing USA and managed by 2019 BWAA Manager of the Year Keith Connolly. Reshat could be the best among Connolly’s deep, talented group of prospects.

Eric Bottjer, Matchroom’s matchmaker and one of boxing’s keenest eyes for talent, says Reshat has the ability to win and a great mindset. Trained by Aureliano Sosa, Reshat suffered a minor setback when he underwent corrective surgery on April 4, 2019, on his right shoulder. Since then, he’s won four fights, though his schedule, like everyone else’s, has been sidelined by the OCVID-19 pandemic.

“Reshat has fought at amateur levels where he’s shown he’s a very good prospect,” Bottjer said. “He’s a good fighter. How good he’s going to be, we’ll see in three years. Reshat is in a great environment, where everyone pushes each other. The big thing I like about Reshat is that he likes to fight.

“What you see today, especially among American fighters, is that they have a sense of entitlement. They have a sense of ‘Why isn’t this handed to me?’ The reason why Eastern European fighters have made such an enormous impact on the boxing scene is because they don’t have that attitude. There is, ‘I need to earn this,’ it’s like a kill-or-be-killed attitude. It’s something that hasn’t been in this generation of fighters at all.

“Reshat has that attitude. Adrian, Reshat’s dad, is an old-school guy. I like to emphasize the positive with Reshat, because he’s hard on himself. In his last fight, he looked good and he’s improving. I like him as a prospect.”

Reshat’s ultimate goal is to make history. He wouldn’t mind being a world champion in both boxing and in the UFC. He has the background to do it.

“I don’t get nervous anymore when I fight,” said Reshat, who has fought Ryan Garcia, Virgil Ortiz and Teofimo Lopez in the amateurs. “I think that does come from fighting for so long. I fought guys who are rising stars and world champions. Those guys turned pro long before I did. I competed in kickboxing and Muay Thai until I was 18. My goal is to be the first Albanian world champion.

“And my right foot is as good as new.”

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.

 

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