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'Albanian Bear' Reshat Mati is always up for a fight

The friendly 14-year-old from Staten Island is a fierce boxing and martial arts competitor. After numerous bouts and amateur titles, he's gained international notice and an Internet following.

April 26, 2013|By David Wharton

NEW YORK — The first hint of a bruise, blackish and glossy, appears under Reshat Mati's eye as he finishes a jujitsu workout. It seems that he took a knee to the face.

Someone offers to get an ice pack, but there isn't time. Reshat hurries off to another gym, a storefront several miles away where the windows steam up from all the boxers generating heat inside.

By 9:30 p.m., he has pulled on gloves and headgear to spar with a larger, more experienced opponent who likes to fight from close range with lots of banging elbows.

Though Reshat stands only 5 feet 4 and is a slender 110 pounds, he refuses to back down. The other guy hits him and he answers bang-bang with two hard punches of his own.

"There is nowhere I'd rather be," he says later. "This is my life."

It is an odd existence for a 14-year-old from Staten Island, a youngster with a smile full of braces and a friendly, chatty manner.

Most nights, as other boys settle down to watch television or text friends, Reshat travels with his father from gym to gym. His love of boxing, martial arts and wrestling — any kind of hand-to-hand combat — began when he was a toddler.

People in the fight game, seeing that he has accumulated almost 200 bouts and dozens of amateur titles in various disciplines, wonder if they are looking at a future champ. Videos of him in action attract millions of views on the Internet.

Something about the kid changes when he steps into the ring. His smile tightens into a grimace. Even Reshat struggles to describe the innate ferocity that takes over, the thing that makes people call him the "Albanian Bear."

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Maybe fighting runs in his blood.

His grandfather learned to box in the Albanian military, then taught Reshat's father, who recalls there wasn't much else to do while growing up in mountainous terrain near the country's eastern border.

"There were no video games," Adrian Mati says. "The only thing we had was wrestling and boxing."

Immigrating to the U.S. in the 1980s, Adrian started a family with his wife, Ajshe, and decided to pass along the sport to his children.

His eldest, Diana, boxed until she was 12. After that, he says, "she got into makeup and nail polish." A middle daughter, Lenora, showed no interest.

Reshat, the youngest, was a different story. Adrian and Ajshe called him "the punching baby" because he would lie in his crib throwing crude facsimiles of hooks and uppercuts.

"I started teaching him when he was 2," Adrian says. "As he's getting older, we do a little bit more and a little bit more, and he liked it."

Reshat started taking self-defense classes at age 4 and was enthralled. He recalls sparring with a classmate.

"I hit him with a body shot and he dropped," he says. "I felt bad for the kid, but everyone started paying attention to me."

Within a year, he had won his first tournament and acquired a reputation for fierceness. Video from a 2008 submission grappling tournament — the sport features elements of martial arts and wrestling — shows him ducking low to grab his opponent by the legs, lifting the boy onto one shoulder and slamming him down to the mat.

In other footage, a 10-year-old Reshat drives relentlessly across the boxing ring, heedless of the punches that come his way.

"He's not afraid to get hit," says Aureliano Sosa, one of his coaches. "He's willing to take a shot to give three or four. Other kids won't do that."

The International Kickboxing Federation lists Reshat at No. 1 in the world for his age division, and he has reached the finals in two of the last three Silver Gloves national boxing championships. A high school freshman, he could not afford to miss class for this year's tournament in Missouri.

Proof of his success covers the walls of his bedroom in a tidy home just up the hill from where Hurricane Sandy's floodwaters crested last fall. Dozens of title belts — the kind made from colorful leather with oversized, shiny center plates — leave no space for other decorations.

"He's starting to see the rewards," his father says. "That's what drives him."

Reshat dismisses any suggestion that he craves celebrity. As he puts it, "When I win, I'm happy."

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Two years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement that discouraged boxing for children and adolescents. The academy cited potential risks: concussion, chronic neurologic injury, death.

The decree made no mention of other sports that Reshat favors, including his beloved mixed martial arts.

With competitors wearing minimal padding as they punch and kick each other in a caged ring, MMA has been called "human cockfighting" by U.S. Sen. John McCain. It is banned in New York, forcing Reshat to travel to nearby states in search of matches.

Youth MMA differs from the professional version on television. There is no cage, just a mat with spectators gathered around.

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