Interview with Reshat Mati

At just 16 with an incredible 29 title belts to his credit Reshat is a standout phenomenon in the martial arts world.

Nicknamed ‘Punch Baby’ from his earliest days of action in the crib, ‘The Albanian Bear’ as he’s more widely known today, is a multi-talented martial artist and boxer who seems to have been born to fight! In fact, he’s currently ranked No.1 in boxing in the US, is the undefeated world champion in kickboxing in his weight class as well as being accomplished in MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Based in New York, he trains with unrelenting intensity for around 5 hours per night as his father and manager ferries him from gym to gym after work.

His unbreakable will, drive and determination have served him well. For someone so young, he possesses blazing speed, devastating punching power, impressive agility, the all-important high pain threshold (this kid can take a beating!) and an energy strategically focussed to finish off his opponents. Yet, for all that, he remains the consummate professional in the ring and is a genuinely humble and friendly kid outside of it.

In this Kung-fu Kingdom exclusive, we speak to the young warrior Reshat, and get the lowdown on his combative career and life as he aspires to take on the best fighters from all over the world. At this rate, he’ll be a major force to reckon with when he turns pro in the next couple of years that’s for sure -now, let’s welcome Reshat!

(With special thanks to Reshat’s father and manager Adrian, who was also present during this interview and kindly elaborated on certain points.)

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Hi Reshat, fantastic to connect with you! Let’s head off with the basics.  When were you born and where do you come from?

Hi Raj, thank you, great to be here!

I was born on 14 September 1998, (I’m 16 now) in Staten Island, New York.

Last count -29 Championship titles

Last count -29 Championship titles

What is your height and weight?  

I am 5’5” (1.65m) tall and weigh 8st 9lb (56.5kg)

How did you first get into the martial arts? How old were you?  

When I was 3 years old, I use to always like to play fight with my dad and we always used to wrestle. When I was 4 my dad decided to enroll me into Tiger Schulmann’s Karate (which has since changed in name to Tiger Schulmann’s MMA). I did karate, kickboxing, grappling and wood breaking and I loved it all!

What was the first main style you trained in and how long have you been training?

Well, my dad saw that I had potential when I was young and decided to step it up a notch. That’s when I started participating in jiu jitsu and boxing tournaments.   So I’ve been training 11 years now.

What are all the styles you’ve trained in so far?  

I’ve trained in wrestling, judo, Muay Thai kickboxing, boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), MMA, some Taekwondo. I’m also beginning Wing-Chun -I try to learn every style I can.

So, what would you say draws you to full contact fighting, do you also train weapons?  

For me there’s a lot of excitement in using my hands and legs, challenging other people, pushing myself and trying to win! In terms of weapons, Bruce Lee inspired me to use nunchakus and the staff in the backyard. In New York there aren’t as many weapons’ classes.

Which figures in the martial arts have most inspired you until now? Who are your mentors and masters?

I would say Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa, (I love his movies, especially, “Ong-Bak” the best). Georges St- Pierre, Junior Santos, Jon Jones, Lyoto Machida, Chris Weidman

I trained BJJ with Renzo Gracie in Manhattan -he’s the second generation younger, the son of the inventor, Royce Gracie. The two together spread BJJ in the US and Japan. There’s also an Albanian wrestler, a gold medallist that I like called Šaban Trstena. He’s retired and and coaches right now. I used to watch WWE and play the video games when I was a kid. I like Jeff Hardy the most from the TNA federation, in his day he was probably the biggest risk taker of all!

Reshat sports KFK wear!

Reshat sports KFK wear!

Do you have any heroes or inspirational figures in martial arts and full contact fighting, who would you say are your top 5 martial artists of all time?

I would say, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Chavez Sr, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.

You combine 4 different martial arts, (boxing, MMA, kickboxing/Muay Thai and BJJ) how did that happen, what made you decide to train in several disciplines at a young age when most students usually stick to one style for several years?

I started doing that at about 8 years old. It was a combination of my father’s influence and my own. I saw lots of video footage and observed how others fight and decided I’d like to do that too. My dad suggested a couple of schools and that I could work on it, so, I started and I liked it!

How was your first full-contact fight, from training leading up to the fight itself?

My first fight was a kickboxing bout when I was 6 years old, it went pretty good and I won. Initially in the first 10 seconds I just kept throwing punches, I hit my opponent and he fell down so the referee ended up stopping it. I did prepare for it with a lot of kickboxing training: I was training 3 hours a day in the gym.

Who would you consider the most challenging opponent that you’ve faced in your career so far?

My toughest fight, was last year in Virginia against a near 18 year old adult who was too big and too strong and outweighed me by 20lbs. We didn’t have to take the fight, but just did it as a challenge to see how it would turn out. He lost a split decision two to one. He out-muscled me, but it was a very close fight.

Reshat The Albanian Bear with Don The Dragon!

Reshat The Albanian Bear with Don The Dragon!

What’s a day in the life of Reshat Mati like, from the time he wakes up until going to bed: how does his day shape up?

(Adrian) He’s a normal teenager, he wakes up in the morning, goes to school, comes home, does his homework, eats and then trains from 5pm to about 11pm Monday-Friday, that’s his schedule.   During the weekends though, he has a bit more of a break!

Is Reshat intending to fight in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil?

(Adrian) Yes, we’re aiming to qualify for it. There are tournaments you have to go through and win; state, regional and nationals in junior Olympics. If you miss the finals you have to repeat and we had to forfeit the finals, you have to comply with strict rules. If you qualify, you’ll train with Olympic coaches and if you make it, you’ll be an Olympian!

After that, what’s next? Do you have any intention to fight in the UFC or any of the major MMA organizations when you come of age?  

(Adrian) Our plan is to do both, but we’ll weigh up our options nearer the time, it’s too early to say right now. In New York, UFC is still not allowed. With UFC you have to be 18 and in boxing you can turn pro at 17. He’s being watched by both UFC and boxing promoters, so we’ll weigh up our options at the time.

OK! Something you must have been asked umpteen times: what’s your response to those who say you should not be a full-contact fighter at such a young age?  

(Adrian) People tell you a lot of things, accidents happen in every sport so at least you know you’re going to get hurt! The risks are there, but because you’re more aware of it, you’re more prepared. In other sports, you might not know you’re going to get hurt but you get hurt anyway! Of course the risks are there. American football for example is statistically the most dangerous sport in the US in terms of injuries and disabilities. You get blown out knees, broken spines, gymnastics can also be very dangerous. Accidents are going to happen no matter which sport you choose.

What’s do you think is the way to a long fighting career?

Albanian ambassador

Albanian ambassador

(Adrian) We know Thai fighters who are already retired at 23-24 years old because their bodies have taken so much abuse that they’re finished early on. We’re not going that route, we want to be as safe as possible, not crippled at 20!   Take a look at Tai Chi; you’ll see that done in the park, that keeps you flexible and in shape until old age. Our main motto in this regard is to “hit and don’t get hit”.

You’re a huge martial arts movie fan too, what are your top 10-12?

It has to be all the Bruce Lee movies, especially “Enter The Dragon” and “Way of The Dragon“, “Ong-Bak“, “Fearless“, “Unleashed“, “Rush Hour 2”, “Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear“, “Ip Man“, “District 13“, “The One” (it’s good, as it showcases the good and bad of Jet Li), “Drunken Master”, “Operation Condor” as well as several Chuck Norris movies.

Which fight scenes particularly impress you, do you have a favourite?  

The fight at the Colliseum, in “Way of The Dragon”. If you pay attention, that fight shows you exactly the techniques you need to win. “Game of Death”, shows Jeet Kune Do and how you have to be versatile in order to defeat your opponents.

Which martial artists/actors would you most like to work with, perhaps in the future?  

Scott Adkins, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, our favourite actor is Jackie Chan, he’s amazing!

What does your training regimen usually consist of -how do you prepare for upcoming tournaments or challenges?

Well, usually there are fights almost every month to prepare for so the focus is geared towards whatever type or style of fight or upcoming competition or contest is happening that month, whether it be boxing, jiu-jitsu, or wrestling. Training then is 6 days a week.

The Albanian Stallion goes Italian (style)!

The Albanian Stallion goes Italian (style)!

(Adrian) We just change the style of fighting. For example, for boxing we’ll do more sparring, work more on hands and head movements and defence. We don’t try to combine it with for example,kickboxing, because it can get confusing. He recently made the US national team for K1 and Muay Thai and he’ll be fighting in Italy at the end of October, last year he also competed and won by beating everyone by knockout.   (Actually it’s often the legendary Don “The Dragon” Wilson attending these competitions and putting the belts on the champions. He’s a really nice person too! 🙂

What is a typical workout for you?   Is it mostly martial arts and flexibility training, do you combine weights with that too?

(Adrian) It’s more based on Jiu-Jitsu, MMA and boxing etc , the training then is all combined. We’re training with good guys who help us a lot. It does not include weight training right now, because when you do that you lose elasticity in the muscle and lose speed, we have the need for speed! Reshat’s never done weight training actually.

What is the most demanding sport to train, between for example, boxing and MMA?

(Adrian) MMA training is more intense than boxing. Boxing is all about skill, technique, timing and footwork. MMA is more about strength, speed, technique and endurance; you need more cardiovascular capacity as you’re always doing something. In boxing you have a little time, you attack and then retreat, but with MMA you’re on the ground so you can’t do that, it’s continuous and more intense.

What’s your favourite exercise and what specific or special training techniques do you like that really work and bring out the best in you?

The best exercise is mitt work. It helps with your timing and helps you understand the visual effect of regular punches coming at you, so aside from sparring, mitt work is one of the best things to practice. We’ve also been practicing heel-hooks, more Thai kicks than Taekwondo kicks per se. We train the jumping heel hooks, spinning heel hooks, spinning back kicks, front heel hooks, kicks to the thigh and roundhouses; these are more powerful and explosive than Taekwondo kicks. A lot of Taekwondo guys come to our gym to train and spar with the guys, but they don’t do so well, because it’s different to Taekwondo sparring. Once you take away their distance, they’re not effective. Of course if they keep their distance, they’ll take you apart because they have extremely good legs but when it comes to close quarter, hand to hand combat they’re not so effective. In reality most fights go to the ground and when that happens, you’ll likely find that Taekwondo fighters are done.

What “trump card”, move do you enjoy pulling out and surprising your opponent with?

Hanging out with friends

Hanging out with friends

(Adrian) He studies his opponents. One of the main things that surprises challengers is that he appears small and skinny. Maybe he doesn’t look like much, so people underestimate him. He’s always smiling and laughing too and never appears serious, but everything changes when he gets into that ring. He ‘clicks’, and just like that, BOOM! he’s another person entirely!

What’s the most daring move or stunt you’ve ever done?  

(Adrian) He stopped a guy in Italy once with a Tornado Kick. He’s done lots of stunts, he was always fearless as a kid just diving straight into things not thinking of the consequences. Now though, he’s more a calculated fighter than just a brawler.

What was the most serious injury you’ve experienced so far whether from training or fights, how did you work around it?

(Adrian) He had a few injuries like a fractured collar bone, sprained ankle and stitches on his head. These came more from playing around than training, he got his nose broken by a pro boxer though.   The doctor said he couldn’t do any physical sparring for 3 months, so he joined a karate class to learn forms instead. He has a chiropractor who’s a big fighting fan and treats a lot of athletes, fortunately he offered to help out!

What do you like to do to recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity?

Like everyone else, I play video games like “Call of Duty”, “Tekken” and other fighting games and like to text friends on my iPhone!

What kind of diet do you follow?  

(Adrian) We feed him normal food, not supplements or protein shakes. He doesn’t like vegetables much! We prepare smoothies for him and have to force him to eat healthily! He likes rice and pasta but without tomato sauces etc. If we try to add something, he won’t have any of it! I make him a smoothie every morning, typical ones include mango, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, kiwis, and orange juice blended altogether. We try to make it tropical because he doesn’t like the green ones -can’t convince him it’s a ‘Hulk shake’ or ‘it’s what popeye eats!’ anymore like when he was 5, haha! He eats things like lamb, goat, fish and shrimp. That’s a second hobby, fishing, as the ocean is near home.   So, generally for now, he’s just eating regular food. We just want him to grow up properly then we can look at refining his diet when he’s in his later teens.

The Bear takes a dip!

The Bear takes a dip!

Which foods do you find work for you to remain at your most energetic and are the best fuel for your workouts?

A lot of meat, steak, BBQ, as long as it’s lean, chicken, fish. Lots of tropical fruits; mango, papaya, passion fruit and pineapple.

Do you take supplements, what do you recommend?

No supplements, or energy drinks at the moment. Looking for ANY sponsorship to help me in any way possible, as of right now I am eating all natural and healthy food.

What’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?

(Adrian) He’s getting too much into his looks, image self conscious as he gets in his teenage years. I think quite a few girls call him but he doesn’t have time for that. As long as everything is in balance though, it’s OK!

If you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to possess?

Flash from the Justice League, because he’s funny, fast and a nerd -I’d love to have the power of moving at the speed of light!

What do you like doing to relax, any hobbies?

Fishing, basketball, tennis, video games, biking and swimming.   (Adrian) Standing still in one place is not his thing!

What type of music do you like most?   Favourite training music? :

Techno, club and dance music.

What are some of your favourite books?

Some Harry Potter ones, “The Diary of The Wimpy Kid”, “Dog Daze”. “Jeet Kune Do” by Bruce Lee.   Wrestling books about real wrestling. I also get books from the library on wrestling, I learn about my mistakes on the rules and where I get points deducted.

Do you ever feel you’ve missed out on things growing up that most kids your age get to experience?

Not really. I mean I get to hang out with my friends and train, I think I do what every other normal kid does -I just spend more time in the gym than perhaps the average kid.

Reshat gets strategic

Reshat gets strategic

What in life do you really:

  1. a) like?   Enjoying life, vacations, eating and hanging out with family.
  2. b) dislike? Wars, killing and bullying, it’s so unnecessary.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment so far?

Definitely winning the World’s tournament in Italy, in October last year, it was a big step in my career. I fought three people in the tournament in two divisions, Muay Thai and K1 winning the gold medals. At this time I have 29 belts, and 2 gold medals.

What advice would you give to a beginner especially children and adolescents who are just starting to take up martial arts?  

Never give up! Keep training hard, when you feel it’s difficult, always keep pushing forward. This goes for anything in life, whether you want to be a fighter, a scientist, athlete or anything else.

What special message would you like to share right now with Kung-fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world?

I’d like to say how martial arts has changed my life, how it keeps me humble and on the right path. I don’t know how I would’ve turned out without martial arts.   I’ve seen people who didn’t have discipline before take up boxing and they become transformed.

Which warrior-wisdom quotes have shaped you up to this point, what phrase really gets you fired up and motivated?  

I like, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” by Muhammad Ali.

If readers would like to find out more about you where’s the best place to go?

They are welcome to check out my Facebook and Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Reshat-Mati-Albanian-Bear/591198794269348 Instagram: Reshat_mati, YouTube channel: Reshat Mati and I’m on Twitter: @ReshatMati. Googling my name will bring up a lot of information too!

Thanks Reshat and Adrian. I just wanted to say it was brilliant talking to you guys, what an inspirational story and example Reshat is having accomplished a great deal in a short time! We’re excited to hear more about your forthcoming fights, let us know. Faleminderit! (Thank you in Albanian!)

Thank you Raj, it’s been a real pleasure. Please keep in touch!

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Raj, a wing chun student, enjoys spending time studying various aspects of the martial arts, from theory to practically applied skills. He enjoys interviewing prominent and dedicated martial artists from all over the world, who have something inspiring and stimulating to share. He also manages projects in terms of filming, reviews of movies/books and other quality features.

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