The victory outside of the cage may always be the biggest for Hartford's Matt Bessette.
He's won 14 times as a professional in mixed martial arts, many under the bright lights of national television on the sport's biggest stage, but the 30-year-old featherweight has gained crossover appeal for battling and conquering Leukemia at a young age.
Open and honest about his struggles as a child -- the doctor's visits, the sleepless nights with his mother at his bedside -- Bessette has drawn a new legion of fans both in and out of the MMA community, a concept he still struggles to grasp every now and then.
"Every time someone reaches out to me," Bessette said, "I think to myself, 'Who the hell am I? I'm just a fighter.'"
But to many, he's more than just "The Mangler," the name most people know him as on fight night. To the young college student with Leukemia whom he visited on campus at the University of Connecticut, or the countless others whose day he's brightened with something as simple as a reply, Bessette is an inspiration, an example of how life's roadblocks don't always have to derail your dreams.
"It's inspiring for me, too," said Bessette, who returns to the cage Friday, June 12th, 2015 on the main card of "CES MMA XXIX" live from Twin River Casino on AXS TV, "but at the same time, I'm lucky to be here myself. We're all in this together."
Diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 3 and given a 50 percent survival rate by doctors, Bessette vividly recalls growing up with a disease responsible for more than 50,000 deaths per year. The memories are impossible to shake.
"Getting a spinal tap is terrible at any age," he said, "but it's the scariest shit in the world at 3 years old."
Aside from his family's constant positivity -- "my mother would be at my bedside no matter the time of day, grinning ear to ear even when she was exhausted from work," he recalls -- his biggest survival tool was simply living life like everyone else his age. He played soccer, basketball and baseball as a child, competing in sports year round despite the cancer and chronic asthma. By the age of 11, he was cancer-free.
"I just never thought about it. I never thought of myself as the 'sick kid,'" Bessette said.
"Nobody believed it. Even my closest friends at 20 and 21 were like, 'You had Leukemia?'"
Bessette excelled as a multi-sport athlete, becoming the only player at Stafford High School in Connecticut to hit a home run out of his team's stadium despite being a mere 130 pounds as a senior. While attending college at the University of Hartford, he took up MMA and eventually made his pro debut in 2007, the same year he graduated.
A brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Bessette quickly rose to the top of his weight class in the northeast, capturing the vacant Reality Fighting lightweight title in 2010 and debuting on the Bellator MMA circuit a year later with a win over Massachusetts vet Saul Almeida.
It was there he became a fan favorite, sharing his story with thousands of Bellator viewers who instantly identified with the humble, charismatic star. Around the same time he defeated Diego Nunes in 2014 on Spike TV, his career-high fifth consecutive win, the letters and emails began pouring in from fans who wanted to share their survival stories or simply ask for advice.
"People were messaging me about the type of cancer they had, or the cancer their child had," he said. "It was pretty incredible."
The college student he visited at UConn wound up cancer-free herself just a year later.
"She's a beautiful person inside and out, very positive," Bessette said. "I'm glad I got to meet her."
Bessette has managed the newfound fame and admiration swimmingly while still maintaining his edge inside the cage. At 14-6 with three knockouts, Bessette continues to chase his dream of one day making it to the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), a dream he realizes he shares with "every realistic full-time fighter."
"I don't see why I can't make it there," he said. "I'm prepared right now to fight any of those guys. It's just a matter of getting there and staying there."
Battling the politics often associated with combat sports could be his biggest hurdle.
"To be honest, I think it's really about who you know. Listen to the [UFC] fight announcements. It's literally the same 10 teams in the whole league, which really isn't the case with other promotions," said Bessette, who fights out of Underdog Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Hartford. "I've had 20 fights. I've fought every single person they've put in front of me. I've come out on top with a really good record. I'm hoping my luck changes."
Making his CES MMA and AXS TV debut on June 12th against Pittsburgh featherweight Khama Worthy (7-3, 5 KOs) could be a step in the right direction. Since its inception in 2010, CES MMA has successfully promoted and developed the careers of many UFC contenders, including John Howard, Rob Font and Tateki Matsuda, among others.
"I'm really excited," Bessette said. "Obviously, this is the top promotion in the northeast. Their popularity has increased quite a bit. Just to be a fighter with CES MMA is a big deal, let alone be a champion. If I can work my way up, smash a few people and get a title shot, that'd be huge."
It'd be another remarkable achievement for a fighter who's already accomplished so much both in and outside of the cage.
"As always, I'm feeling better and better than the last time," he said. "I'm getting better and smarter. My approach to training has changed significantly over the years.
"I'm actually more comfortable fighting on TV," he added. "Everyone gets nervous, but as soon as I see the crowd and hear the people chanting my name, I'm like, 'OK, it's here.' I'm calm.
"I don't consider this a job. I've been unemployed for three and a half years. I just get paid to have fun with my friends. It's awesome."
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