Alex Martinez is an up-and-comer in the MMA (mixed martial arts) scene who fights out of Grande Prairie, Alberta, and a name you will want to keep an eye on.
Recently turned professional and sporting an undefeated record of 3 wins and 0 losses and ranked 15th out of all professional lightweights in Canada on tapology.com, Martinez just wrapped up a tryout for The Ultimate Fighter 27: Battle Of The Undefeated; something that could be a major stepping stone to reaching the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).
What has seemed like a meteoric rise over the last 6 months, has instead been an accumulation of countless hours of hard work, an overwhelming sense of humility, trust in his closest allies, a newfound passion for religion, and first and foremost, a risky and rewarding move by his parents.
Born in Paraguay and raised by two loving and dedicated parents, Luis and Yasna (who is also a local inspiration in Grande Prairie), Alex moved to Canada 9 years ago when his parents decided they wanted a better life for him and his siblings.
Leaving behind what he calls “a beautiful country” was not easy for Alex and the struggle of trying to fit was a big factor in finding his love for fighting.
“That was actually a big thing in my life, especially at that age. It was a huge thing that I had to overcome,” said Alex, “But that’s when I really found fighting.”
Struggling to pick up the language and fit into a new culture, he says he found a way to define his identity that anyone could understand, no matter the language barrier.
“I was always trying to fight that identity (as a Paraguayan) because I couldn’t fit in. I didn’t speak any English. I couldn’t communicate with people. I just didn’t feel like everyone. I didn’t feel like I fit in.”
And despite leaving a country he loved, he is grateful every day for the sacrifice his parents made in uprooting their lives to try for a better life for themselves, and more importantly, their children.
“I know it was not easy for my mom and dad either, especially at their age that they moved here. It was not easy. But like I always tell people we do not look at the bad side of life. Right now I look at the good side of life and the good things we have in life and at the end of the day, we are glad we made a transition. It was worth it.”
As difficult a transition it was for Alex, it was just as difficult for his parents, maybe even more so for two adults who had lived their entire lives and established themselves in Paraguay; which was a sentiment that Luis echoed.
“It was a huge challenge for us. It was not an easy decision in that moment because we were doing well with my wife in our country but we did not see a lot of opportunity for our children there,” said Luis. “I was scared, nervous, anxious and excited.”
His father ran his own martial arts studio in Paraguay and passed on his love for it to his children. But even with the family ties and his own personal love for martial arts, Alex is very doubtful that he would have taken the same career path had he remained in South America.
“If I was in Paraguay now I probably wouldn’t be fighting. I would probably be pursuing a career just because I want to make a good living out of it. I wouldn’t be trying to follow my dreams because I didn’t want a risk. Here in Canada, it opens up all those opportunities.”
When asked for an example of the differences, he cites what is currently a major issue in the U.S. and Canada alike: healthcare.
“I break my bone today and I can go to the hospital. I probably have to wait a long time, but you will be helped in time. Someone is going to fix it. Where in Paraguay it’s not like that. You break a bone and you pretty much are done. You have to find a way to make lots of money.”
Beyond the opportunity for success afforded to Alex in Canada, his father says that they could not have hoped for a better turnout in every aspect of their lives; despite the struggles it took to get to this point.
“It was long, stressful, painful sometimes, and even unhappy. But overall, at the end, every single thing was worth it,” says Luis. “Now we are a really happy family that is working for a better future here. Thanks to Canada!”
Now firmly entrenched as a Canadian and as a pro-MMA fighter, it is easy to forget the extremely successful amateur career he just wrapped up (with a record of 17 wins and 4 losses).
Among numerous fights, two tournaments stand out as landmarks in his journey to this point: the IMMAF World Championships in 2015 and 2016.
Beyond going up against the best the world had to offer, at first Alex was already fighting his own internal battle: justifying to himself that he deserved to wear the maple leaf and represent Canada as a nation.
“At first it was quite tough. Not so much because I didn’t want it but because I didn’t feel like I deserved it or like I earned it because I was not born here. But I came to realize Canada does not want to kick me out, Canada wants to embrace me. It came down to really talking to myself into ‘Canada does not hate me. Canada loves me.’.”
After overcoming his initial doubts and fears of representing his adopted homeland, he came to embrace it.
“I started thinking about Canada with more pride. I want to represent Canada. I want to wear the maple leaf. For example, when I went down to TUF (The Ultimate Fighter), I went with my Canadian flag and my Paraguayan flag, which is something I do quite often now. I represent both. I won’t just leave Paraguay on the side because that’s where I was born. And at the same time, I won’t leave Canada on the side because Canada is feeding me. Canada is giving me all these amazing opportunities. And now I grab that flag and I feel like I am Canadian.”
Both of the World Championships ended in the same result, a hard-fought loss to Will Starks (USA) in the gold medal round, but both presented unique learning opportunities for Alex.
“When I went to the first World Championship my mindset was like ‘I don’t even know how good I am going to do.’ I had no confidence at all. I was going against the whole world,” said Alex. “I always saw my opponents bigger than me; I always had that terrifying feeling. And all of the sudden I became second in the world.”
And with a silver medal came a whole new sense of confidence.
“My mindset has changed a lot. And I think that first World Championship is what made that mindset change and why I’m doing so good now as a pro. It was more like a building step. I made it all the way through and made it to the finals and I was like ‘I actually do have the skills and have something that people don’t have’”.
After coming up just short of a gold medal and proving to himself he can roll with the best in the world, he says he thought he was ready to go pro right there and then. But through the guidance of his coaches, his father, Luis, and former UFC fighter Bill “The Butcher” Mahood, he saw that the right move was to keep working hard to improve the weaknesses in his game before taking that next step.
And that is what he did.
After going back to the grind and trying again to go for that gold medal (once again, coming up just short) he found the glaring weakness he had been searching for and he did everything in his power to improve that.
“Right after the World Championship, it was kind of a tough pill to swallow to lose again. But it was a big learning experience that I really enjoyed. Right after that, I went back home and the first thing I did was sign up in a high school wrestling program. I was wrestling with kids right from the basics,” said Alex.
And now as a professional, he is starting to see the benefits of toiling away as an amateur for all that time. But as he continues to chase his dreams, the humility inside of him can not help but point out the three biggest influences in his life and three of the biggest reasons he has made it this far: his father, his community, and God.
His father has been a mainstay in career throughout; continuing to this day as his coach. And while training day in and day out with your father can present its own unique difficulties, he says he would not change it for the world.
“It’s such a big blessing. That is not something that many people can relate to because there are not many people that go through that. But it’s a huge blessing. At the same time, there are some things that doesn’t benefit. He tells me what to do and sometimes I question him, where the other coaches you just say ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’ But I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s the best thing that I have ever had. Just having a coach that values me and loves me so much. It’s amazing. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
And this working relationship they share can be an odd balance for his father, as well.
“I think it’s a little bit more complicated because being his coach and his father has more responsibility in it. As a father, we don’t know everything and the last thing that we want is to give our children the wrong advice in life,” said Luis. “As a coach, we want the best for our competitors. I try to keep the balance of both aspects.”
That love for his father extends not only to the rest of his family, who have been with him through it all but also to his adopted hometown: Grande Prairie, Alberta.
As an amateur he could always rely on local businesses for financial aid through sponsorship, something he says has been huge for him. That coupled with the moral support he has received from the people of Grande Prairie, is something that means a lot to him.
“You know how it feels when you see a hometown person that is doing great; everyone gets behind them. That is the thing about being here in a small town, the support is amazing. Last week when my opponent pulled out for the fight, a lot of things go downhill very quick because you were expecting that pay cheque from that fight. When I said there is no fight and I am going to go try for The Ultimate Fighter, the support from the town was huge. People started contacting me and people started giving me money to help me out with the trip (to Las Vegas for The Ultimate Fighter tryouts). The support I got from a town like this, it was amazing.”
So, with family and community behind him, Alex feels like he has what it takes to make the journey to the top. But for anyone who has watched any of his fights and seen his pre-fight ritual of praying on the steps before entering the Octagon, knows that God is a huge part of his life and something he would attribute a huge part of his success to.
But it was not always that way.
“When I started fighting MMA my first fight was a loss. I could not find my identity. Fighting was such a big identity for me. So that when you realize you’re not as good as you thought, your whole identity is just gone down the garbage,” says Alex.
“I always believed in God and I was kind of walking away from him at the time. After my first fight, for me, that was a huge change of life. I was so sure that I am just going to go right through and become a world champion right away. And it didn’t turn out that way. And I was lost. I couldn’t find relief. You know that part of your heart where it feels like something is missing? Whether that is love or whatever. That’s what I felt.”
But he says a rediscovery of his faith helped him find his identity again and led him on the road to success.
“This one time my buddy just asked me to go to church. I just felt something that I had never felt before. It became kind of addicting and I started following it more and more. Going to church more often, reading the bible. And all of the sudden I just kind of became this Christian nut. I started seeing things that I couldn’t see before. My life literally changed from one way to the other. My inspiration became bigger. My confidence changed. I just found a whole new identity.”
And when asked why he has made that such a big part of his fighting routines and his fighting career as a whole, to Alex there was no decision to be made.
“Now my identity was not in fighting anymore, my identity was in Christ. So now my big thing is I represent. I love representing things. I love representing Canada. I love representing Paraguay. I love representing my gym. I guess that’s part of it. I love representing that too when I go and fight. So I pray every time before entering my match,” he says.
But even with his God behind him, even he knows you cannot always win.
“I never pray for a win but I pray for victory. So whatever victory means. Whether that’s losing and then becoming the best in the world, that’s a victory.”
With 3 professional wins in the rearview mirror, and more support than a young man could ever hope for, he is looking forward to the future and the chance to achieve the dreams he has been working so hard for.
And he knows exactly how big it would be for him and his career if he were to be selected for The Ultimate Fighter, something that should be announced at some time in the later days of January.
“It’s big. I mean the meaning of that is everything we have been working for. The UFC is not everything. But at the same time, we train every day to get into that show. I want to be in the best promotion that exists. I want to fight the best fighters in the world. That’s my thing. I want to make good money. I want to enjoy my life and I want to help people and all those things,” he says.
“Being in the UFC answers all those questions. So it’s a big thing.”
While The Ultimate Fighter is no ticket right to the UFC, Alex knows it presents a huge chance for him. And that is all he wants, a chance.
“It doesn’t put you in the UFC right way but what it does is it’s a big stepping stone for you to get in the UFC. Let’s say you go in the show and have a good fight they can easily put you in the UFC right away if they want,” says Alex.
“Or you win the whole show. Then you are exposed. They see you now.”