Before he was called the Albanian Bear, he was nicknamed Mad Dog. Before that, he was Baby Punch and sometimes Punch Baby. His father, Adrian, who’d been in the Albanian army, saw his infant son throwing jabs in the crib and decided he was born for the ring.
Adrian turned out to be right. Reshat Mati, the Bear’s real name, is 16, lives in Staten Island, and is quite possibly the greatest young fighter in the world. He’s a two-time Junior Olympic boxing champ, seven-time grappling champ, five-time jiu-jitsu champ, and two-time Muy Thai champ. He is the top-ranked boxer and kickboxer in the world for his age. And he’s never lost a mixed martial arts match. MMA, one of the fastest growing sports in the world, is particularly suited to Mati’s talents, combining all his skills into one.
Last year, the Bear took up wrestling for New Dorp High and went 3 and 0, beating team captains and seniors. At tournaments, it’s nearly impossible to find a kid his age and weight class willing to challenge him. A YouTube video of Mati at 13 has more than 11 million views. He utterly destroys competitors twice his size in so many different fighting styles that, when asked, he loses track. The walls of his bedroom, which is square, like a fighting ring, are filled with championship belts. There is no room for more. A stack dangles from the corner of his dresser. He’s lost count of these, too. “We already have a shed full of trophies, out back?” he says, talking quietly in a way in which everything becomes a question. He takes me to see them.
It’s a little after 5 p.m. on a Tuesday in Staten Island, where Mati was born and raised. He just finished an hour of math homework (“Geometry. The angles of a kite”) and will soon leave for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and kickboxing training. Tomorrow will be boxing and grappling. He puts in three hours, at least, every weeknight for fighting; one hour for schoolwork, at which he does okay. School isn’t the priority.
Inside the shed in Mati’s backyard, the trophies are stacked high in one corner, spilling out of their boxes. The figures — little gold men mid-punch or kick — are banged up or ripped off. Reshat used to play with them like G.I. Joes. He started kickboxing when he was not yet 5, and also did karate, earning a junior black belt when he was 7. “I was really good, right off, I’m not gonna lie,” he says. His biggest advantage in every fight is his boxing, that punch, those fast-as-lightning hands. Most kids his age — most fighters, if given the chance — want to kick, since legs are stronger, longer. Punch Baby’s not-so-secret power is his punch. It’s why he’s never lost in MMA, or Muay Thai. “A lot of people, when they go, they’re just slow. What I try to do is six, seven punches, and out. Just do-do-do-do-do-doop. That’s it. Out. The object is hit, and don’t get hit.” He says he likes the beginning of the fight, when he’s waiting for an opening, measuring his opponent, searching for weakness. He wants to go to the Olympics to box in 2020, when he’ll be 21. After that, he’ll turn pro. Maybe in MMA, maybe in boxing, maybe in kickboxing — maybe in all three. The people around him — his sparring partners, his coaches, his family — all say they know he could go pro sooner, if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. He wants to remain an amateur, for the Olympics.
Adrian, part father, part trainer, part manager, says anything is possible if his son stays focused. “There are too many girls calling him, man,” he says. Then he yells to Reshat, who is in the backyard, dribbling a basketball, “You got a girlfriend?” The boy goes a little red and shakes his head, smiling, shrugging. “Noooooooooo,” he says. “You think those people get where they got by hanging out with girls?” Adrian says to his son, who goes redder. Then it’s six o’clock, time to go, and the three of us pile in the family SUV and head off into a cold evening cloaked in marine fog, a reminder that we’re very close to the sea.
The first stop on tonight’s circuit is NYC BJJ — Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It’s in a strip mall containing a Beach Bum Tanning and European Wax Center. The space is spartan — just mats on the floor and on the walls — and weirdly serene. Jiu Jitsu is a floor sport, mostly, and its primary moves are holds and, sometimes, throws. Reshat and a few classmates (all older by at least five years and bigger by at least 50 pounds) do a series of somersaults and crunches, 300 minimum. The only person smaller than Reshat’s five-foot-five-inch, 125-pound frame is the instructor, Joe Capizzi.
Capizzi walks the class through some holds, then a few of the biggest take a turn, trying Reshat at boxing. Larry goes first. Larry is huge: 260 pounds, a full head taller than the Bear, and 27 years old. Reshat ducks a blow, pins him against the padded wall immediately, throwing out a flurry of punches, grinning through his mouthguard. Larry leans back while the Bear continues to work his gut until Larry emits a soft, gurgling whimper. When it’s over, they shake hands and hug, and Larry removes his head guard and smiles wide.
The next two matches are over even faster, and, like the first, appear to be primarily about surviving the experience of becoming a human punching bag for the Albanian Bear. At the end of practice, Joe and Reshat grapple. The two approach, walk around each other slowly, holding eye contact while taking sharp stabs, searching for a grip with which to flip their opponent. They look like modern dancers. Joe takes Reshat to the mat again and again, putting him in holds that make the kid squirm before a puzzled look comes across Reshat’s face, scrunched up like he was back home, studying geometry. He’s figuring out what just happened. “This is geometry, physics, metaphysics, all wrapped into one,” Joe says afterwards, dripping with sweat. Sometimes, when Joe has him in a hold, Reshat lets out a little laugh, like he finally found a problem so hard, a hold so strange, it is beyond him, for now.
On the drive to the kickboxing gym, Adrian tells the story of how his son got his real name, which means 24-carat gold in Albanian. Reshat was named after Adrian’s father, who, when he was a young man, killed his best friend’s firstborn son at a wedding. He’d fired his gun in celebration, and the bullet ricocheted off a concrete wall. “Even though he eventually forgave him, my father fought the guilt all his life, until it killed him,” Adrian says. Adrian came to the U.S. from Macedonia 23 years ago, after serving in the Yugoslav military under a general later convicted of war crimes. He boxed in the military, too. But his son, he says, is a better fighter than his father and himself put together. The whole ride Reshat is silent.
The next gym, also in a strip mall, is run by an Uzbek named Akmaljan Zakirov, a two-time world kickboxing champ. “This guy, he’s old-school,” Adrian says as we walk into the heat of human sweat and noise of landed blows. “It was a comfort to find this place.” If there is a geography particular to the punching, kicking, and grappling training spaces that feed into mixed martial arts, it is the strip malls of the working class and, in New York, there are a lot of them in Staten Island. Reshat changes quickly and begins working on punch-kick combinations, then sparring again. After a quick break, Zakirov starts to strike his fighters’ thighs, kick at their shins, toughening them up. Reshat goes against a padded wall and Zakirov works his stomach, throwing quick jabs into his gut, the kid grimacing and holding his breath until he can’t any longer. A guy named Jimmy who’s been in the corner cracking jokes all night yells, “You’ve got a strawberry six-pack now!”
At 10 p.m., it’s time to go home. In the car, Adrian points to a corner. “That’s where the ocean came up,” he says. It destroyed their home. The car goes silent for a minute or two, and I notice Reshat nodding off quietly. I ask him if he ever dreams of fights, or if he dreams at all, after such long days. He says he isn’t sure. Adrian interrupts. “He must dream,” he says, “because he sleepwalks.”
“I do?” Reshat says, suddenly interested.
“Yes, in fighter’s stance. Must be. Because when we’re on the road, in hotel rooms, you bump into walls and trip, but you never go down.”