MMA to UFC: Grand Rapids fighter Brett Martin


Courtesy / Cageside Press

James Herrick, Staff Writer

Local Grand Rapids fighter Brett Martin started his MMA career back in 2015. Ever since, he’s been forced to balance his pursuit of the UFC with the need to provide for his family, all while dealing with the crazy world of regional MMA. 

For many MMA fighters, becoming a UFC fighter is a dream; unfortunately, the path to the top is a rocky road that athletes like Martin have to attempt to navigate. 

When Martin started fighting, the UFC was always in the back of his mind. Throughout his life, Martin excelled in any sport he put his mind to. This culminated in a tremendous wrestling career where he was a National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Wrestling All-American at Muskegon Community College in 2014 and a DIV state champion in 2014 at Hesperia High School. Martin transitioned to MMA shortly after his time at MCC and his goal was to be the best fighter he could be. For him, this means making it to the UFC. 

“I’d say right away the goal was always to be in the UFC, just so that I’m making money,” Martin said. “I’m not just beating my brain cells up and beating my body up for no reason.” 

Despite being an elite-level athlete with the goal of becoming a UFC fighter, Martin still wakes up in the morning and heads to work. He does this to ensure he can provide for his pregnant wife Kelli and their newborn-child. 

Martin is employed by the City of Coopersville where he works in the department of public works. He works a seven to three shift where he’s a handyman, doing any job the city needs done. This includes maintaining parks, plowing in the winter, mowing lawns in the summer, landscaping, masonry, plumbing and much more.

This job has become crucial to Martin’s life as he receives a pension and benefits for his entire family. This allows him to ensure his family is taken care of, both now and in the future, which to him, is more important than being a professional fighter. 

“(I’ll keep fighting) as long as my life allows (fighting) and it does not affect my family or my day job that I worked very hard to get,” Martin said. “I am sitting really good at my day job and it’s the benefits for my family.” 

Thankfully for Martin, he has mastered the ability of balancing his day job with his training. With the job running from seven to three it gives him time to see his family in the afternoon before heading to train in the evening. Martin also said that his employers are understanding and he rarely has to work overtime. 

Being a heavyweight plays into his favor since the level of cardio needed to be successful is less than it is in lighter weight classes. This is a sentiment that Martin expressed and other heavyweights in similar situations have proven this to be true. This has allowed Martin to acknowledge the fact that he will always be able to work and fight at the same time. 

The chase of a UFC contract is more common today than ever. The sport of MMA has recently peaked in popularity as Endeavor, the UFC’s parent company, announced the best first-half financial performance in UFC history. As the UFC grows, the rest of the MMA world grows with it, starting with the regional scene. 

This growth has been occurring in Grand Rapids especially. In 2015, Michigan had 14 events. This climbed to 20 in 2016, 22 in 2017, 28 in 2018 and 31 in 2019, providing steady growth every year. Since the emergence of COVID-19, promoters have been limited in their ability to host events—this dropped the number of regional MMA events to two in 2020 and one in 2021.

As this growth in Michigan took place, Grand Rapids saw a burst in the MMA scene. In 2015, Grand Rapids didn’t hold a single event. However, in 2016 Grand Rapids was the host of four events and from 2017 to 2019 Grand Rapids had six events each year. In the midst of the pandemic, Grand Rapids hosted one of the two events in 2020 and both of the 2021 events.

Grand Rapid isn’t just hosting events though, there have been a handful of fighters to see success outside the city. One of the most successful is Jamahal Hill, a longtime friend of Martin.

Hill started his career in Grand Rapids, where he fought all six of his regional MMA fights. After this stretch, he earned a UFC contract after a win on the UFC TV show, “Dana White’s Contender Series” in 2019. Since then, Hill has gone 3-1, 1 N.C. and worked his way to number 12 in the UFC rankings. Hill is living proof that fighters from Grand Rapids can make the UFC roster.

The growth of regional MMA in Grand Rapids has resulted in the city being home to many regional MMA fighters that are working to make the UFC. One of the best of the bunch is Martin himself. Martin has amassed a professional record of 10-1-0, 1 NC and an amateur record of 7-1. His most notable victory came when he defeated current UFC fighter, Josh Parisian, with a first-round submission victory.

Martin is widely considered one of the best fighters at the regional level, and Tapology currently has Martin ranked fifth in the Michigan pound for pound rankings and fourth in the United States pro men’s heavyweight rankings

“I’m a little country kid,” Martin said. “I’ll probably always work and fight, regardless of how big I get.” 

In the current state of regional MMA, working a day job has become unavoidable. There are a limited number of fighters on the regional scene that get paid enough to do otherwise. In a study done by Bloody Elbow, it was discovered that fighters outside of the UFC and Bellator were receiving fight purses that rarely elevated above $10,000. In fact, 36.3% of fighters made less than $1,000 per fight while 51.7%of fighters made between $1,000 and $10,000. This means 88% of regional MMA fighters made less than $10,000 per fight.

“Regional fighters don’t make the craziest amounts of money,” Martin said. “You can’t support your family that you are trying to build as a 28-year-old man, fighting regionally.” 

To pair with the poor wages that fighters earn on the regional scene, almost all of the contracts between the athlete and the promoter are one-fight contracts. This means that promoters do not have to pay the athletes for fights that get canceled. 

Fight cancellations are incredibly common in MMA. Prior to UFC 269 on Dec. 11, 2021, there were a total of five fight cancellations. These cancellations stem from injuries and weight-cut issues.

The issue the UFC has with fight cancellations is mirrored in regional MMA as well. Martin, for example, has had four fights canceled since the start of 2020. However, in regional MMA when a fight gets canceled both fighters are left without pay. This makes an already small payday unreliable as well, adding another reason for regional fighters to work a day job. 

“That (fights getting canceled) is kind of why I like having my actual job,” Martin said. “Just for the fact of, if guys pull out my bills are at least paid for, but if you bank on having money, it’s a tough one.” 

The main reason why these financial issues occur is because regional MMA organizations struggle to make a profit. The Xtreme Fighting Championship (XFC) is one of the few MMA organizations that is publicly traded. The XFC noted in their 2020 10-K  that the company has accumulated a deficit of $35 million. When regional MMA organizations have this level of debt it prevents them from improving wages or making contacts guaranteed, regardless of how this debt was accumulated. 

For a regional MMA fighter, the escape from the hectic world of regional MMA is the UFC. In the UFC not only do they make significantly more money but they have the opportunity to achieve a lifelong goal of reaching the pinnacle of MMA. However, to make it to the UFC, fighters must do more than win fights. Winning is required, but so are connections and a little luck. 

“There’s a lot of politics in the game,” Martin said. “If you’re not with the management company that they want you with, or if you are not there at the right time, or for the right people, you’re just not going to get the call. It’s a very weird thing.” 

Many fighters are left waiting for their management to get that special call from the UFC. Until then, they will continue to work during the day and train at night. However, it’s not always the time that is put in that hurts the worst, it’s the time you miss out on. 

“(The hardest part) is just losing the time with my family,” Martin said. “It’s the hardest thing in the world; to walk out of your house when your wife and your dog and all them are sitting there and they just want to hang out with you.”