Skip to main content

4-foot-11 Gustavo Balart's shocking journey to America, ONE Championship

MMA drove the diminutive strawweight wrestler to leave his family behind in Cuba so he could secure their future up north.

Standing at 4-foot-11, Gustavo "El Gladiador" Balart is the shortest male MMA fighter on the ONE Championship roster. But what he may lack in stature, he makes up for in other ways.

The Cuban athlete has entertained fans with gutsy performances in the ONE circle over the past three years, and when he makes his return against former strawweight titleholder Yosuke "The Ninja" Saruta at "ONE: Eersel vs. Sadikovic" on April 22, he'll look to prove once again that size doesn't matter.

"It actually gives me the strength to keep going," Balart said. "I have many detractors, people who don't believe in me, but I have been able to show that I am strong and that I can do things."

The 35-year-old's size hasn't prevented him from achieving his dreams. In fact, the drive to succeed was instilled in him from a young age.

Balart was raised primarily by his father in Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city in Cuba, following his parents' divorce. Gustavo Sr. was a member of the Cuban wrestling team, so the sport was present throughout "El Gladiador's" upbringing.

The youngster had easy access to everything he needed to know about the discipline, and he accompanied his dad to training sessions, watched him compete, and saw him teaching at the local gym.

Before long, Balart found himself on the mats, and he almost instantly realized that he would dedicate his life to the grappling art.

"I have been wrestling practically since I was a little kid, thanks to my father," Balart said. "It's in my blood, and it has been a part of my life since I was born."

Gustavo Sr. soon recognized his son's raw talent and decided to take matters into his own hands. He taught the young Cuban everything he knew about wrestling – from the basics to the skills he'd need to find success on the international stage.

It wasn't easy, however. "El Gladiador" had to sacrifice a lot of time and miss other activities that his peers were involved in. But in his mind, there was a greater good. Balart stayed focused on wrestling, as he knew it would eventually pay dividends.

"I wanted (my dad) to be proud of me. And I did, thank God," he chuckled.

Balart did much more than making his father proud. His talent and dedication led him to win every possible trophy and medal he could get his hands on, including the 2009 Cuba national wrestling championship.

"El Gladiador" rose to such heights in the sport that he eventually got a chance to compete on the greatest stage of all – the Olympic Games.

The wrestling star competed in the 55-kilogram division at the London Games in 2012, where he reached the quarterfinal round. He was defeated via a technical score, but Balart looks back on the experience with fondness and describes it as an occasion that is still close to his heart.

"It is the dream of any athlete, something you dream of as a child. Many people dream of it, but only a few can achieve it," he said.

Following the Olympics, Balart wanted to find a better way to provide for his wife and children. That caused him to make the switch from wrestling to MMA.

However, to complete the transition, "El Gladiador" knew he had to leave Cuba and migrate to the U.S. At the time, MMA was "forbidden" in the country, so if the Cuban wrestler wanted to give this new sport a try, he had to travel up north.

It was possibly the toughest decision Balart ever had to make, but he knew it was the best way to secure a better future for his family.

"When I left Cuba, I left behind a 5-year-old daughter, my other 3-year-old little girl, and my wife, (who was) 3 months pregnant," he said. "It was very difficult for me to make that decision, but it was very necessary."

Balart's choice was made harder by his journey to America, which proved to be anything but straightforward.

He had to travel through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico and he faced a series of hiccups over the four months it took to get to his new home. But as soon as Balart got to Miami and started training, he knew his months of traveling had been worth it.

Now, Balart (9-4) trains out of American Top Team, has nine professional wins, and will be applying for U.S. citizenship in the months to come.

Also, he could score the biggest victory of his MMA career should he beat Saruta (21-10-3), the former ONE strawweight world champion, on April 22. And if he were to get the $50,000 performance bonus, then his wife and kids would join him in Florida sooner than anticipated.

"I know that I am going to earn money, I hope to earn more and take home that $50,000 bonus," he said. "That will make it easier for me to bring my family."