There is something exceptionally powerful about a person knowing who they are, fully and completely, and unapologetically being their authentic self at all times.
Marvin Vettori is one of those people.
This weekend, the 27-year-old Italian squares off with Israel Adesanya, the last man to beat him, in the main event of UFC 263, with the middleweight title hanging in the balance. The rematch and the championship opportunity are two things he’s been chasing for quite some time, and a little more than three years after their first encounter, they’re returning to the scene of that initial meeting — Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona — to renew acquaintances and determine the direction of the 185-pound division.
“I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not the happiest person,” he says, a low, snort of a laugh chasing his words as he addresses his unofficial “Angry Marvin” nickname. “I’m just not that way, at all. It’s hard for me to enjoy any kind of moment.
“I feel like I’ll be happy when I have that belt around my waist, for a while, but I know I will want more because that’s me and that conqueror’s mindset that is never really satisfied. It’s a double-edged sword because you will get a lot of satisfaction from your life, but you’re never going to enjoy it in a sense. As long as I can carry that burden and it doesn’t work against me, I’ll do it because I know I can and I know my mental strength, too.
“It might be hard, and people might be telling me, ‘Chill out, enjoy the journey,” he adds, amused as he recalls the many times he’s been told some variant of those words. “Yeah… sure… enjoy the journey…”
He chuckles, the recommendations completely foreign to him.
“All I want is to reach that belt.”
In order to understand the Italian challenger’s mindset and drive, you have to know the lengths he went to in order to reach this stage.
While everyone that reaches the point of challenging for or carrying championship gold in the UFC has navigated a cavalcade of obstacles, making innumerable sacrifices while logging countless hours in the gym, honing their craft, each of their journeys is different, and Vettori’s is entirely unique
“I’ve been sacrificing since I was 16 years old,” he says, recalling how different his after school life was from the other teenage boys in Trento, Italy, where he grew up. “I remember at 4pm, my friends would hang around, do whatever normal kids would do. But for me, I would come back from school, eat, rest for a moment, and go and I wouldn’t be back until 11pm at night to go to sleep.
Train rides were a constant throughout the week, as Vettori shuttled throughout the area, landing at different gyms, learning individual disciplines, bent on turning his drive and natural inclination towards combat sports into something bigger.
“At the time, I was a little bit of a troublemaker and I thought that I could put my skills to some good. I slowly realized this was a sport that requires maximum discipline and determination, that there wasn’t much around me, and I had to seek that out.
“I always had to look for more and more and more because it was always hard to find high-level competition.”
Three years into his exploration of the sport, Vettori made the decision to leave home, trading train rides in Italy for the ability to train with more seasoned competitors and learning from more established coaches in London.
Though he’s far from the first fighter to leave the comforts of home in search of greater opportunities, being able to recognize the need to do so and pulling the trigger on such a life-altering decision at 19 years old underscores just how long and hot the competitive fires have been burning inside this weekend’s middleweight title challenger.
“I remember I had an emotional moment with my father on the day I left,” recalls Vettori, who carries a five-fight winning streak into his rematch with Adesanya this weekend. “Now when I think about London, I could go back and forth every week if I wanted, but at the time, I knew that was a moment where I was leaving for good. I didn’t go home for seven months or so when I left the first time, and I knew it was a changing point of my life.
“My father told me, ‘Put it all in, try to make it, and you know you always have your family here.’”
He pauses, affording the heft of his father’s sentiments the moment they deserve.
“I was just a kid,” he says, his tone a mix of aggressive and motivated that is his constant, but would be considered fired up for just about anyone else. “I f***ing left and I made it happen because my drive was so high.”
A few years later while in California for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Championships, a chance encounter with UFC veteran Renato “Babalu” Sobral planted the seed for an even bigger move, and ultimately led to Vettori trading training in dreary, rainy London for the blue skies and sunshine of Huntington Beach, California and Kings MMA, where he has trained for the last several years under the tutelage of Master Rafael Cordeiro.
His first two fights working with the team took place at home in Italy and resulted in first-round stoppage wins, the first against long-time Cage Warriors staple Jack “The Stone” Mason and the second five months later opposite TUF 16 alum Igor Araujo.
Those victories pushed his overall winning streak to five and earned Vettori a call to compete in the UFC, where he submitted Alberto Uda in his debut at UFC 202, introducing himself to the wider MMA audience and establishing himself as someone to watch in the middleweight division.
Since then, the talented Vettori has been crossing off milestones for Italian fighters competing inside the Octagon, including being the first to headline a UFC event and now the first to challenge for championship gold.
“It’s the same thing I was saying (about socializing and savoring the moment) and I’m telling you the truth: it’s that double-edged sword where I don’t think that way,” says Vettori, re-affirming his tunnel-vision approach to things.
Earlier in his career, Vettori wrote “I will be the first Italian UFC champion” on his Instagram profile, and while those individual achievements might be extremely meaningful to some in the moment — and will be something he values several years down the road, when he’s wrapped up his career — making good on that IG mission statement has been Vettori’s sole focus since he typed out those words.
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“The goal is always the same: to be UFC champion, to be world champion; the rest is just steppingstones,” he adds. “These steppingstones meant a lot, but they mean more in terms of knowledge and what I gained in experience then the actual milestones.
“It’s not the time to look back yet — it’s going to be a while until I look back — so I’m just smashing all those goals because that’s me.”
The one thing he does acknowledge about those individual “steppingstones” is that they have made it clear to him that he’s arrived at his first championship opportunity at the right time.
History is filled with numerous examples of athletes that reached the biggest stage in their respective sports a little early or a little late; all-time greats that were thrust into the moment when they weren’t quite prepared for everything that came with it or at a point when their abilities had eroded, either a little or a lot, resulting in them falling short of their championship aspirations.
That’s no different in the UFC, where one need look no further than the reigning heavyweight champion, Francis Ngannou, for an example of a competitor whose first championship opportunity came when he wasn’t equipped to handle everything that came with the moment, both inside and outside of the Octagon.
But unlike Ngannou when he first rocketed into title contention and challenged for gold at UFC 220, Vettori has covered all the bases, dealing with the highs and lows of winning and losing, a frustrating USADA violation that forced him to the sidelines through no fault of his own, being a star on the rise, and the pressures of headlining.
The only things he hasn’t done is main event a pay-per-view and challenge for championship gold, both of which he’ll do this weekend, at the point of his career when doing so feels right.
“This has all been preparation and this is where all the preparation counts,” he says, excitement replacing his standard agitated tone. “It’s not just me, either — it’s my coaches knowing me; it’s us as a team at Kings MMA coming together; me knowing who I am and what I did, what I can do.
“I’m by far the most complete fighter in the middleweight division,” continues Vettori, who followed up his dominant decision win over Jack Hermansson in December with a similar effort against Kevin Holland in April to put himself in a position to challenge Adesanya for the middleweight title on Saturday night. “I can adapt to things in a way that nobody else can in the division.
“To adapt and overcome before the fight, in the fight, being able to have multiple layers of attack in every area is the most important skill because this is MMA and I’m the best MMA fighter.
“When they ask me, ‘Why are you going to win?’ it’s because I’m much better than this guy; I know that and I will prove that,” he adds without a hint of hesitation or doubt. “I don’t listen to any media, any bookies, nothing — they’re all full of s***. I know who I am, I know my worth, and I prove it day-by-day to myself and whoever believes in me, so there isn’t much else to say.”
Nine years after leaving home to move to London in order to continue chasing his mixed martial arts dreams, Vettori stands on the precipice of reaching the top of the middleweight division, and he gets the opportunity to complete that journey by defeating a man that bested him in the past.
Landing on the wrong side of the split decision verdict in his first meeting with Adesanya has rankled Vettori for every one of the more than 1,100 days since it was announced, and getting the opportunity to avenge that loss, in the exact same location, with championship gold hanging in the balance and millions of people watching feels right to him.
“It’s destiny,” says Vettori. “I wrote ‘I will be the first Italian UFC champion’ on Instagram even way before our first fight because I knew it — I knew it.
“The fact that it’s in the same spot is amazing,” he adds. “I see our first fight as a smaller version (of this fight) where we clashed (and he got the decision). But now, when it counts the most and the world is watching us, I will make it clear who the best man is.
“This time, I will leave no doubt. I’m the better man and I’m going to show it.”