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UFC on ESPN 37: Calvin Kattar fights for life-changing opportunities

Massachusetts-bred Featherweight grinded his way to current spot and isn't resting on his laurels ahead of UFC's trip to Austin.
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At a time when a lot of his contemporaries are being careful about who they face and trying to stick to their guns about only "fighting forward" in their division, Calvin Kattar has a decidedly different philosophy: anyone can get it; forwards, backwards, doesn't matter.

"I think I'm gonna fight them all eventually, so I don't care what order," said Kattar (23-5 MMA, 7-3 UFC), who makes his second main event appearance of 2022 this weekend opposite Josh Emmett (17-2 MMA, 8-2 UFC), who enters stationed three spots behind the New England Cartel member in the featherweight rankings. "As far as trying to get cute on what order it is, I prefer to stay busy than pick and choose and cherry-pick my opponents.

"We're going to find out what's what eventually anyways, so let's find out now."

If you've followed Kattar's career to this point, you know the willingness to face tough competition at every turn is nothing new for the 34-year-old, who became a first-time uncle earlier this month and got to meet his nephew last week upon arriving in Austin, Texas.

He made his promotional debut on two weeks notice opposite Andre Fili at UFC 214 and has faced a who's who of outstanding featherweight talent since, compiling a 7-3 record inside the octagon with wins over divisional stalwarts like Ricardo Lamas, Jeremy Stephens and Dan Ige, and losses to standouts Renato Moicano, Zabit Magomedsharipov and Max Holloway.

The loss to the former champion from Hawaii came at the start of 2021 in a main event assignment on "Fight Island" that aired on ABC. With each round, Holloway pulled further and further away, battering Kattar to the point where fans and observers questioned whether the fight should be stopped.

The 34-year-old never fell and never stopped trying to fire back, but he was simply out-gunned. It would be 364 days before he stepped back into the octagon.

"The next day after the fight, I was in the gym, on the bike, doing some bullsh-t, clearing my mind, wanting to get back and right the wrong in my head, and get another rep," Kattar said with a laugh. "But listening to the team and everyone saying I should ease my way back in — that it was the right thing to do, the smart thing to do — that's why I put people on my team in a position to help me, and to not listen to their advice would be foolish.

"They were saying, 'It can't hurt to be patient.' They have my best interest in mind, I took their advice, and it was kind of like I teased myself. I was biting at the bit to get back, so the longer I waited the more the anticipation built."

When he was ready to return, Kattar was booked opposite surging competitor Giga Chikadze, a Dana White's Contender Series alum who followed his debut UFC win in the fall of 2019 with four victories in 2020 to crack the top 15. The following year, the native of Georgia scored consecutive stoppage wins over divisional fixtures Cub Swanson and Edson Barboza to establish himself as a contender and set himself up for the first main event assignment of his career.

In the preamble to the contest, Chikadze was almost dismissive of Kattar, speaking about championship opportunities that should await him following this victory as if a win was assured, and not something that still had to be earned inside the cage.

As someone that fought a Murderer's Row of competition to establish himself as a top-5 talent in the division, the way Chikadze spoke heading into the contest rankled Kattar, making the results of their clash a little more satisfying.

"I was already highly motivated enough off that Max fight – I was anticipating the comeback – and having Giga calling out the champ the week of our fight only added to that motivation," said Kattar, who dominated from start to finish, earning a clean sweep of the scorecards to get back into the win column and start his 2022 campaign off on a high note. "I kept my mouth shut, I kept the chips close like I usually do, and on Fight Night, I went all-in, and I'm happy with the way it worked out.

"These guys are tough – every guy you step in there with for the most part is pretty talented, a tough fighter – but when they open their mouth like that, overlooking you, trying to clown on you, it's nice when you get the results that we got that night."

"All-in" is a phrase that comes up regularly when speaking with Kattar, who doesn't just look at the effort that goes into preparing for a fight as work or his exploits inside the octagon as singular moments in a career forged in the fires of combat.

Everything is about changing his life and the lives of those around him for the better. It's about maximizing the opportunities that are in front of him now and earning even greater ones in the future.

"I'm trying to change my life with these wins, and it's to the point now where I'm getting more money for my fights, higher profile fights, main events, and every time I step in there is an opportunity to change my life," said Kattar, who pointed to the start of the pandemic as a moment that galvanized his focus and made him feel "like a dog on a bone" when it comes to chasing down his dreams.

"You either settle for the life you have or you fight for the life you want, and I'm just bustin' my ass to make my dream a reality, and provide things for my family that we never really had," he said. "I don't care who the f-ck you put me across from — I'll stand across from anybody if it means me getting these things that I see for myself and my family; I'm willing to fight anybody in the world for that."

That includes Emmett.

The Team Alpha Male representative arrives in Austin on a four-fight winning streak, having most recently earned a unanimous decision win over Dan Ige in December after an extended stay on the sidelines following knee surgery.

A heavy-hitter with a 17-2 record who has been close to title contention before, the 37-year-old veteran knows this is his opportunity to jump to the head of the line in the featherweight division, and Kattar knows that means he's in store for another tough night at the office on Saturday evening at UFC on ESPN 37.

"Emmett is a dangerous puncher, powerful puncher, and he carries that power throughout the fight," he said of his main event cohort. "He's done what he has to do with a lot of opponents, he's climbing the ranks for a reason, and he's a quality opponent.

"In order to get these main events, you can't fight bums," Kattar continued, the tenor and tone of his voice elevating. "You want a main event, you're going to need a strong B-Side, or A-Side – I don't give a f-ck who you call the A or the B, but you're gonna need a tough fight if you want a big moment opportunity.

"They don't give big moment opportunities for layups."

And Kattar is all-in on earning the biggest opportunities possible.

"Sign me up, man – whoever it's against, it's not about them; it's about me changing my life," he said. "That clock is ticking, so I'm trying to get after it while these opportunities are in front of me, and Josh is just another opponent coming in my direction."

This story first published at UFC.com.