Written by @NickRiznerMMA
This piece was originally published on the “new” site in 2015 and written for the old site sometime before that. I spoke to Matt Bessette and his then-fiance (now-wife) Ashley on what it’s like to be in a relationship with a fighter. On the day of his premier w/Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender, I felt this would be an appropriate time to pull it out of the archives. Huge thanks to both Matt and Ashley for the brilliant quotes. This was one of my favorite all-time interviews.
Making a living as a mixed martial artist is one of the most challenging career paths a person can chose. Outside of the physical requirements, the mental fortitude needed to succeed in a field that demands so much and guarantees so little is impossibly high.
It takes a rare combination of drive and determination to choose this life, and the single saving grace is the control of one’s own fate. Outside of an errant early stoppage or a controversial decision, the outcome of a fight – and thus the trajectory of an entire career – is solely in the hands of the fighter.
But imagine having to deal with the uncertainty of fighting and having no control over the outcome. Imagine carrying the full burden of a training camp without the physical release of fight night. Imagine the stress, the nerves, the overwhelming emotions of competing inside the cage, while seated just outside of it.
For Ashley Williams, fiancé of rising featherweight Matt Bessette, this is her reality.
I distinctly remember saying, “he does what?!” Two guys locking themselves in a cage to fight each other with elbows, knees, fists… like who does that?! He was too nice to be a fighter. Because ultimate fighters were mean, violent, and angry.
I admit it now; I was ignorant.
Matt was goofy, happy, polite. Smart too! I remember him telling me he had a bachelor’s degree and I thought, “well what is he doing fighting?”
Ashley had not yet realized what fighting meant to Matt. Prior to their first date, a mutual friend had informed her of his profession, and she couldn’t help but wonder if she was missing something. How could this dichotomy of character exist within one person?
Matt Bessette has always been a blend of two personalities; the fighter and the lover. As a survivor of leukemia – a diagnosis he received at just three years of age – Matt was forced into his first battle. To beat cancer, Matt had to develop an affinity for combat; a feeling that has never left him.
Ever since I was young, I’ve had an inexplicable violence inside me. It was always present. I don’t know if it was there because of my harsh sickness that I had early on in my life. Going through physical pain and weakness. Having to overcome physical lows every single day. I don’t know really, but it has always been there.
Fighting was everything to Matt; a concept that is difficult to grasp if you have never experienced it for yourself. With this understanding comes the realization of what is really at stake when he competes. The first time Ashley sat in attendance at one of Matt’s fights, she did not yet understand the gravity of what it meant to him.
Matt and I had only been dating for a little over a month. Little did I know, this would be the one and only fight that I would not feel nervous for. I was not there for the intense and grueling fight camp. I did not witness the long and hard training sessions and the countless hours spent studying his opponent. I was blind to the exhaustion, the injuries, the challenges, the adversity, the self-doubt.
When I was at that fight, I thought, “this is cool, this is fun.” What I soon realized was that this was not just a fun hobby for Matt – this was life.
That was back in November of 2009, the sixth professional fight of Matt Bessette’s career. He won via unanimous decision and improved his overall record to 4-2. It was the start of a four fight win streak that would be capped off by two regional lightweight championships.
Matt was finding his stride as a fighter, as his relationship with Ashley was growing stronger. To look at the two as mutually exclusive events would be to dismiss the importance of their unity. The violence was always within him, but love is what provided his soul with balance. Yin and yang.
My heart is at peace. I am loved by another person so intensely that she vows to give the rest of her life to me. This dedication to another person – this ‘all-in’ kind of thinking for and with another human being – has left me so appreciative of what I have. She is my power, my speed, my strength and my charisma.
On fight night, Matt’s focus is singular. All he’s thinking about is the complete destruction of the person in front of him. As a result, Matt had to find a creative way to keep his fiancé close.
She paints my toe nails. Kind of weird, maybe. I’ve been called names for doing it. But this is my way to keep her with me, especially at a time where nobody but “The Mangler” is present.
In her own way, she’s a fighter. And two on one is never a fair fight.
For Matt, this is the most exciting part of the job. As fight night approaches, there is a steady build up of pressure. The moment he begins warming up, that stress dissipates and when he finally gets to the cage, it’s simply time to perform. This is the most freeing moment of the whole process.
For Ashley, it’s the most strenuous.
I never knew what it felt like to be anxious or on the brink of a panic attack until the day I watched Matt fight live. I try to mentally prepare myself before each fight by telling myself things like “whatever happens, happens” or “I am not in control of the outcome,” but nothing works. It is an emotional roller coaster ride as soon as the bell rings. When he’s winning, I’m cheering. When he’s losing, I’m crying.
Although I’m usually surrounded by hundreds of screaming people, when Matt is in the cage, it’s like I’m the only one there. I don’t hear anything other than my own heartbeat. I don’t see anyone other than Matt.
At this point, they are one. Every ounce of sorrow is carried on two sets of shoulders. Every feeling of elation is shared by them both.
As weird as this may sound, I’m not nervous that he is going to get hurt. The usual injuries are minor. A couple of bumps and bruises, maybe a black eye, swollen feet. I find that I am most nervous because I want him to win so much. I think it’s because I know how bad he wants it. I’ve been there after a few losses and it’s tough to see him defeated. No one wants to witness the one they love fail at something they’ve worked so hard for. I just want the best for him, always.
But when he wins? Aw man, that is one of the best feelings I have ever felt in my life. It is the ultimate catharsis. Pure joy.
What sets MMA apart from other sports is the culture that surrounds it. The very culture that simultaneously attracts and produces the quality of character that perpetuates it. In martial arts, you are taught to be respectful, compassionate, and humble.
The great ones embody all these traits and more.
He is such a passionate and driven human being, who has taught me so much about life. He taught me that life is about experiencing new things, building relationships, and doing good to others. Many children and parents of children with leukemia reach out to Matt. He is often writing letters and sending autographed gloves out to those in need without expectation of anything in return. He also loves his fans. He gets hundreds and hundreds of messages after a fight, in which he will stay up all night to be sure he has responded to each and every one of them.
Of all these characteristics, the one that I admire the most is that he is a humble man. Although there, his ego is quiet. He does not do this for the fame or attention. He does it to fulfill his own intrinsic calling. He respects his opponents and uses his accomplishments to inspire others. He is the epitome of a true martial artist.
I am absolutely, positively blessed to have him in my life.
It wasn’t long before Ashley began to realize the importance of this journey. As their relationship evolved, so too did their understanding for one another. They are a team now, and at the end of August, they will become a team forever.
There is, however, one detail that Ashley got wrong about Matt. Following that first fight back in 2009, Ashley came to the realization that “this is not just a fun hobby for Matt – this was life.” At the time, that may have been true.
But if you ask Matt now, there is something much more important than MMA. Something that drives Matt to be better and motivates him to be stronger. An extension of who he is and who he will one day become. The single most important thing in his life.
Her support is… it’s necessary. My life is not cage fighting. She is my life. My passion is cage fighting. The fact that she supports me unconditionally is what allows me to be fully present in training and in the fight. I know that when I’m spending those hours upon hours upon hours training and traveling to fight, that she is somewhere else wishing only the best for me.
It allows me to continuously set goals and attain them. My path has been chosen and when she is on that path with me – happy and healthy – no one will stop us from making the leaps and bounds necessary to be the best that we can be.
Unity. In every sense of the word.