From Oil Thigh to Muay Thai

Queen’s alumni Mike Martelle said he always knew he wanted to be a professional MMA fighter.

Mike Martelle will be in Tokyo Oct. 24 for the SAW Heavyweight World Championships.
Mike Martelle will be in Tokyo Oct. 24 for the SAW Heavyweight World Championships.

In the ’90s the sport of mixed martial arts was off everyone’s radar. In part, the casual mention of “MMA” meant nothing in North America because the term had yet to be coined. The sport existed under vague titles: ultimate fighting, cage fighting or “no holds barred” fighting to name a few, always remaining on the fringes of athletics.

For the Cardinal, Ontario native Mike Martelle, who started karate lessons at eight years old, the public opinion of mixed martial arts had no effect on his aspirations. Martelle said his transition to MMA was almost instant.

“In the early ’90s when MMA first came to be, I was aware of it right away, I was fascinated,” he said. “I [immediately] began training in the martial arts that are more applicable to MMA.”

At 19, Martelle began training in Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing. A year later, in 1994, he began learning Brazilin jiu-jitsu, a sport that focuses on grappling and ground fighting to round out his repertoire. Weight training also became a very important aspect of his improvement as a fighter. “When I hit my teens I started strength training quite a bit,” he said. “[At] thirteen I hit my current height, six foot three, but I weighed 120 pounds. Obviously to be a more effective martial artist or competitor, I felt I needed to put on a bit more muscle.”

In 1995 Martelle chose to attend Queen’s, but his athletic dreams were always close to heart. Martelle said that he knew by university that his dream was to pursue mixed martial arts.

“I wanted to go as far as I could as an amateur with the possibility of competing in the Olympics, to me that was my pinnacle,” he said. “After that it was my goal to turn pro, or if something were to come in my way of going to the Olympics I would turn pro. These were always my dreams.”

Always looking to refine his abilities, Martelle joined the Queen’s wrestling team. The sport aided his skills, but Martelle still felt underappreciated as a student-athlete.

“Back in my day we got zero media, zero publicity and frankly zero respect on campus. On top of that my ultimate goal was the sport MMA,” he said. “So here I was on campus and my life’s goal was something [no one knew about]. I would meet someone for the first time or I’d be trying to chat up a girl at the bars and she would have no idea what I was talking about, what I was interested in or what I was doing with my life.”

Living in obscurity never hindered Martelle. In 1995 he competed as an amateur in his first MMA event in Miami. In ‘98 he finished his BA in psychology and picked up his nickname.

During his time on campus he worked as the last acting librarian of the Queen’s Math and Statistics Library, when one of his friends heard of this he quickly began calling Martelle “The Math Librarian”. The name stuck and became Martelle’s fighting nickname.

With a chance of MMA being admitted into the 2004 Athens Olympics, Mike “The Math Librarian” Martelle held off becoming pro so that he could compete on the world stage. The problem was MMA still had to be intorduced as an event..

“[In] ancient Olympics the Greeks had a sport called Pankration which was essentially MMA. When the Olympics were announced for Athens for 2004 there was a grassroots movement in Greece to try to bring … Pankration back to the Olympics in 2004. Dozens of countries got involved and it really looked like it was going to happen,” Martelle said.

He held on to his amateur status until the movement failed. With his Olympic dream wiped out he chose to turn pro as quickly as possible, doing so in 2005. Martelle’s career took him to the far reaches of the world to take on opponents. He has fought in Russia, Mexico, Jamaica, Japan and Alaska.

Martelle’s transition to professional MMA coincided with Spike TV’s Ultimate Fighter, a reality-TV show following the UFC. The show’s finale gave Spike some of its all-time highest viewer ratings and suddenly MMA was a mainstream sport. The new limelight brought a blend of results for the sport. “I think it is a mixed bag,” he said. “Of course it’s cool that [MMA is] popular and that people know what I’m talking about now. Popularity increases my pay, which is nice. Something like this invariably comes with a downside … It is a sport that has come to attract a certain percentage of thugs. That’s an unfortunate connotation to have.” When he’s not traveling the globe, Martelle runs his own MMA training facility in Kingston known as Grizzly Gym. While some of these “thugs” do show up, they don’t last very long.

“Proper MMA training is not about a room full of guys taking turns punching each other in the face. I’ve had so many guys, walk up to me telling me how tough they are and how many street fights they’ve been in, then they can’t last through twenty minutes of warm-ups with us,” he said. “I try to be thick skinned, but it hurts when people think that I or anyone that trains at my gym is a brainless thug.”

The spotlight also brought more scrutiny to the sport, which is still banned in several U.S. states and Canadian provinces. Martelle scoffs at the criticism, feeling that the sport is just as legitimate as any other.

“MMA events have been happening in North America since 1993 and South America for approximately 60 years. This is an enormous body of data we can draw upon statistically and we have proven that MMA is safer than many other sports including boxing, football and gymnastics. Last year there were more gymnastics related injuries in the U.S. than MMA related injuries” he said. “Simply put, getting in a fist fight is not the end of the world.”

But Martelle doesn’t have time for the debate. Running his gym and training are always the focus. In a normal week Martelle will train two to three times a day for five days a week. The work has paid off. He has a 15-2 professional record, including four MMA championship belts. “I was talking about these goals 15 to 17 years ago,” he said. “Obviously it is very gratifying to see them come to fruition … I think I’ve [actually] been on the slow end of the learning curve, but I made it and that’s all that matters.”

Martelle will be defending his SAW World Heavyweight Championship belt in Tokyo on Oct. 24. This will be the third time he defends this belt.

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