Local Grand Rapids fighter Brett Martin began his MMA career in 2015. Since then, he has been forced to balance his pursuit of the UFC with the need to support his family, while coping to the crazy world of regional MMA.
For many MMA fighters, becoming a UFC fighter is a dream; unfortunately, the way to the top is a rocky road that athletes like Martin must attempt to navigate.
When Martin started fighting, the UFC was always on his mind. Throughout his life, Martin excelled in every sport he dedicated himself to. This culminated in a tremendous wrestling career where he was a National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Wrestling All-American at Muskegon Community College in 2014 and a 2014 DIV State Champion at Hesperia High School. Martin switched to MMA shortly after his move to MCC and his goal was to be the best fighter he could be. For him, that means making it to the UFC.
“I would say right away that the goal was always to be in the UFC, just to make some money,” Martin said. “I don’t just beat my brain cells and beat my body for no reason.”
Despite being a top athlete with the goal of becoming a UFC fighter, Martin still wakes up in the morning and goes to work. He does this to ensure he can provide for his pregnant wife Kelli and their newborn baby.
Martin is employed by the city of Coopersville where he works in the public works department. He works seven to three shifts where he’s a handyman, doing whatever job the town needs. This includes park maintenance, winter snow removal, summer lawn mowing, landscaping, masonry, plumbing and much more.
This job has become crucial in Martin’s life as he receives a pension and benefits for his entire family. This allows him to ensure his family is taken care of, both now and in the future, which is more important to him than being a professional fighter.
“(I will continue to fight) as long as my life allows (to fight) and it will not affect my family or my day job which I have worked very hard for,” Martin said. “I’m sitting very well at my day job and that’s the benefits for my family.”
Luckily for Martin, he has mastered the ability to balance his day job with his training. With work being from seven to three, this gives him time to see his family in the afternoons before heading out to train in the evening. Martin also said his employers are understanding and he rarely has to work overtime.
Being a heavyweight works in his favor since the level of cardio needed to succeed is lower than in lighter weight classes. It’s a sentiment that Martin and other heavyweights have expressed in similar situations have proven this to be true. It allowed Martin to recognize that he will always be able to work and fight at the same time.
Pursuing a UFC contract is more common today than ever. The sport of MMA has recently peaked in popularity as Effort, the parent company of the UFC, announced the best first-half financial performance in UFC history. As the UFC grows, the rest of the MMA world grows with it, starting with the regional scene.
Most of this growth has occurred in Grand Rapids. In 2015, Michigan hosted 14 events. This number grew to 20 in 2016, 22 in 2017, 28 in 2018 and 31 in 2019, ensuring steady growth each year. Since the emergence of COVID-19, promoters have been limited in their ability to hold events, which has reduced the number of regional MMA events to two in 2020 and one in 2021.
As this growth in Michigan has taken place, Grand Rapids has seen an explosion in the MMA scene. In 2015, Grand Rapids did not host a single event. However, in 2016 Grand Rapids hosted four events and from 2017 to 2019 Grand Rapids hosted six events each year. Amid the pandemic, Grand Rapids hosted one of two events in 2020 and both events in 2021.
Grand Rapid doesn’t just host events, there have been a handful of fighters to find success out of town. One of the most successful is Jamahal Hill, a longtime friend of Martin.
Hill started his career in Grand Rapids, where he fought all six of his regional MMA bouts. After that streak, he got a UFC contract after a win on the UFC TV show, “Dana White’s Contender Series” in 2019. Since then, Hill has gone 3-1, 1 NC and fought his way up to at number 12 in the UFC rankings. . Hill is living proof that Grand Rapids fighters can make the UFC roster.
The growth of regional MMA in Grand Rapids has made the city home to many regional MMA fighters working to make the UFC. One of the best of the group is Martin himself. Martin amassed a professional record of 10-1-0, 1 NC and an amateur record of 7-1. His most notable win came when he defeated current UFC fighter, Josh Parisian, with a first-round submission victory.
Martin is widely regarded as one of the best fighters regionally, and Tapology currently has Martin ranked fifth in the Michigan pound-for-pound ranking and fourth in the United States Men’s Pro Heavyweight Rankings.
“I’m a little country kid,” Martin said. “I’m probably still going to work and fight, no matter how small I am.”
In the current state of regional MMA, working during the day has become essential. There are a limited number of fighters on the regional scene who are paid enough to do otherwise. In a study by Bloody Elbow, it was discovered that fighters outside of the UFC and Bellator received fight purses that rarely exceeded $10,000. In fact, 36.3% of fighters earned less than $1,000 per fight while 51.7% of fighters earned between $1,000 and $10,000. This means that 88% of regional MMA fighters earned less than $10,000 per fight.
“Regional fighters don’t make the wildest amounts of money,” Martin said. “You can’t support your family that you’re trying to build as a 28-year-old man, fighting at the regional level.”
To go along with the meager salaries fighters earn on the regional stage, nearly all contracts between athlete and promoter are one-fight contracts. This means promoters don’t have to pay athletes for canceled fights.
Fight cancellations are incredibly common in MMA. Prior to UFC 269 on December 11, 2021, there were a total of five fight cancellations. These cancellations stem from injuries and weight loss issues.
The problem the UFC has with fight cancellations is also reflected in regional MMA. Martin, for example, has had four canceled fights since the start of 2020. However, in regional MMA, when a fight is canceled, both fighters find themselves without pay. It also makes an already low salary unreliable, adding another reason for regional fighters to work day jobs.
“It’s kind of[the canceled fights]that I like having my real job,” Martin said. “Just for the fact that if the guys go out my bills are at least paid, but if you’re relying on the money it’s hard.”
The main reason why these financial problems arise is because regional MMA organizations are struggling to make a profit. The Xtreme Fighting Championship (XFC) is one of the few publicly traded MMA organizations. The XFC noted in their 2020 10-K that the company has accumulated a deficit of $35 million. When regional MMA organizations have such a high level of debt, it prevents them from improving salaries or securing contacts, regardless of how that debt has been accrued.
For a regional MMA fighter, the escape from the hectic world of regional MMA is the UFC. In the UFC, not only do they make a lot more money, but they have the opportunity to achieve the lifelong goal of reaching the top of MMA. However, to make it to the UFC, fighters need to do more than win fights. Winning is necessary, but so are relationships and a bit of luck.
“There’s a lot of politics in the game,” Martin said. “If you’re not with the management company they want you with, or if you’re not there at the right time, or for the right people, you’re just not going to get the call. is a very strange thing.
Many fighters are waiting for their management to get that special call from the UFC. Until then, they will continue to work during the day and train at night. However, it’s not always the time invested that hurts the most, it’s the time you waste.
“(The hardest part) is just wasting time with my family,” Martin said. “It’s the hardest thing in the world; get out of your house when your wife and your dog and everyone else is sitting there and they just want to hang out with you.