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A victim of leukemia, Matt Bessette says 'every day was a struggle'

Bellator MMA veteran Matt Bessette was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three, and battled through the disease for nearly eight years until he was cleared as cancer-free. Bessette discusses his childhood and how his battle with leukemia led to mixed martial arts.

Matt Bessette - Bellator MMA
Dave Mandel /

If anyone's a natural born fighter, it's Matt Bessette.

Bessette, a Bellator MMA veteran, chooses to fight now, but was forced to fight during his childhood. At only the age of three, Bessette developed a life-threatening case of leukemia, a white blood cell cancer most common in adults.

It was far from a typical childhood for him.

"Every day was a struggle," Bessette told's The MMA Circus. "I remember quite a bit of it, actually. Stuff that has a big effect on you, whether positively or negatively, throughout your life, you will remember those things like they were just yesterday. And that's the case when I had leukemia. I remember a lot of the situations where I had spinal taps. I remember coming out of the medicine that they gave me when I was put under. I remember the feeling, I remember seeing my mother every time. I was only three, four years old when that happened and it's very clear in my mind. It was obviously a tough time in my life but it molded me into the juggernaut that I am today. It's how I live my life; if something sucks right now, just go through it and come out stronger on the other side.

"100 percent I knew what was going on. A lot of it had to do with my mom just telling me. She didn't keep anything from me. She told me how it was. 'Matthew, you're sick today but tomorrow you're going to be better than today, and then the following day you're going to be better than the next day,' and this and that. She always talked to me, she's always super positive. And it made me the positive person that I am today."

Doctors gave Bessette a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. It's hard to imagine that if Bessette didn't have positivity and good luck on his side, his entire mixed martial arts career -- and life -- could be nonexistent.

"It is, it's very crazy," he said. "All the props go to the doctors that knew what they were doing. I'm alive because of them and because of the positive vibe around me. It kept me positive. The older people get, they get cancer sometimes, and they have negative thoughts that run through their minds. When you're younger, everything's positive. That's kind of how I was living every single day. I was sick, I felt like crap, but at the back of my mind, I knew I was going to get better, and I did."

Bessette was finally leukemia-free approximately eight years later. That said, it wasn't quite the end of the prolonged situation. Although healthy, he regularly had his internal organs checked and was constantly on medicine.

"They finally cleared me and said I was cancer-free at 11-years-old," he said. "I don't know exactly how long I was living inside the hospital, but I had a port in my chest even when I exited the hospital. I was walking around with things that roll around, that are attached to your chest and constantly feeding you medicine and checking your vitals and what not. It was a process for sure, but I lived a very normal life outside that. I played sports, even when I was sick, I still played sports. I played video games all the time, I hung out with my friends. It was just, I was sick, that's all."

Bessette has one piece of advice for anyone currently battling a disease, whether leukemia, another form of cancer, or something completely different.

"Smile," he said. "Smile every day. Go out of your way to smile. Go out of your way to enjoy what's around you, to enjoy the people around you. The doctors that are working hard to make sure you are getting healthy, appreciate that. Smile because of it. Smile because your parents are in the room with you. Smile because you know one day you're going to get better, and you will."

Bessette was always an active person, which perhaps contributed to his successful recovery. As he stated above, the 31-year-old played sports during and after his illness. And although he thoroughly enjoyed playing each and every sport he partook in, he was never passionate for them the same way he is to mixed martial arts today.

"I played baseball, basketball, soccer growing up. I even played football, hockey recreationally (sic)," he said. "Those are fun, they're fun sports. [But] I didn't have a passion to be better than I was the day before, I just enjoyed what I was doing. No other sport defines me the way that fighting does. I'm a fighter, through and through. Ever since I was three-years old, getting leukemia, I've been a fighter. Fist-fights are my thing, I really enjoy them."

It was a simple transition from team-sports to mixed martial arts for the featherweight.

"Long story short, I was picked on all throughout my childhood and I had a big brother too, who liked to punch me in the arm, punch me in the leg, pick on me, this and that, wrestle with me," he said. "He was always much bigger than me; he was three years older than me. And he had friends that would pick on me. I got into fights all the time growing up. As soon as I found out you could fight in front of people and get paid for it, I was like, 'Okay, that sounds awesome.' Because, I've been fist-fighting forever. Even now, when I step into the cage, it's just a fist-fight. I've had hundreds of those."

According to the Hartford, Connecticut-native, fighting leukemia at such a young age gave him a mentality he still uses in professional fighting today.

"100 percent, yes, absolutely," he said. "I don't think about, when I'm getting ready for a fight or when I'm walking out to the cage or when I'm in the cage or anything like that, I don't think about anything that happened in my past. I don't think about, 'Oh Matt, you made it through leukemia, you can do this.' It molded me into the person that I am today. I'm grateful for going through it. It sucked at the time, but anytime you go some sort of adversity, you always, always come out stronger on the other side."

Bessette is a Bellator MMA veteran and for the past three years has been flipping back-and-forth between the Viacom-owned organization and New England-based CES MMA. Bessette mostly cares about the actual task at hand — the fight — so which promotion he fights for isn't a big worry for him. That said, he feels more appreciated by the bosses behind CES, who he fights for next at CES 36 later this month.

"I like both of them," he said. "I feel more appreciated by CES. Every time I show up to even just the weigh-ins, everybody's so nice to me. They're like, 'Oh man, what's going on, what's going on, let's take a picture.' It's a smaller show, so it's more 'home-y,' I guess. Whereas sometimes I feel expendable to Bellator.

"Scott [Coker]'s doing a great job. With Viacom backing him, he's making some money and he's making some moves. I certainly can't say getting rid of Bjorn [Rebney] was a bad move, because Scott's doing so well. That being said, Bjorn was always very nice to me. A guy who reached out to me to wish me happy birthday on Twitter. A guy who messaged me directly a few times. A guy who appreciated me and appreciated the show that I put on, and knew that, not only was I one of the best in the northeast at the time, I was one of the best in the world. I haven't got that love from Scott, and I'm still waiting for it. I think he'll realize it soon, I sure hope he does. If not, Dana White will."

Bessette, who currently holds a 7-2 record under the Bellator MMA banner and has been with the promotion since 2012, has been buried in the online preliminary card more often than not. With some big wins under his record, he believes he more than deserves continuous main card slots.

"It's just really, really frustrating," he said. "I put my time in, I beat dudes up and I go out there and put on a f-cking show. And they know I put on a f-cking show. It's frustrating when you're put in that position. It's like you're the guy that shows up early to work, does his job better than everybody else, leaves after everybody else, and still doesn't get the raise or the recognition he deserves. It's the boss', uncle's, sister's, mother's, brother's, aunt's, cousin that gets the job. Everybody else except for you."

Bellator MMA has been known for their "freak-show" fights as of late, with fights like Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock III and Kimbo Slice vs. Dada 5000 happening this year. Bessette understands promoting these types of fights is a good move business-wise, but he believes, at the end of the day, they probably shouldn't be happening.

"I think it's good for the show, I think it's good for ratings," he said. "I think it's embarrassing, to be completely honest. I think Dada 5000, or whatever the f-ck his name is, I think that's a joke. The guy can scrap, maybe, but he's not an MMA fighter. Not everybody who can scrap is an MMA fighter, not everybody is a professional. Same thing with Kimbo. Kimbo can definitely scrap, he's trained, but it was pretty clear he was not in shape for that fight.

"Anybody who has to take performance-enhancing drugs, I don't know. If you want to get into a fist-fight, awesome. If you want to prove how good you are at fighting, awesome. If you're going to take stuff to cheat to try to be better than me, take as much as you want. At the end of the day, I'm going to get my hand raised. That's how I feel. I lose a lot of respect for people when they pop, but that's for another day."

Bessette doesn't believe in opportunities simply knocking on the door. He believes he needs to seek out opportunities. A UFC call is always the number one goal for him, but he can't predict whether or not he will receive one in the near future.

"I don't see anything happening," he said. "I gotta make it happen, and I've been trying to make it happen. I'm being more vocal about my style and who I am, coming out, trying to be fun before and after the fights with the cool walk-out costumes and this and that. I'm trying to do it, I'm trying the best I can. If they call, they call, if they don't, they don't. But I'm done sitting back. I'm gonna keep f-cking people up until they give me a call."

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