Max Martyniouk (left) and Bas Rutten: Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
Max “Payne” Martyniouk has the blankest of all possible slates.
The Estonian lightweight, who was paired with Gegard Mousasi as part of Sherdog’s Fighter Exchange Program, will make his professional mixed martial arts debut against Justin Lawrence at Strikeforce “Henderson vs. Babalu” on Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The bout, along with the rest of the undercard, will be streamed free on Sherdog.com.
What makes Martyniouk unique is his complete lack of an amateur background in the sport. No bouts here and there, fighting in bars and nightclubs.
“I grew up as a boxer my whole life. I was supposed to compete a lot of times with my old management. Now, I have new management that is really taking good care of me,” he said. “I was always a fighter who helped other fighters prepare for their fights.”
The lack of even one live in-cage experience would seem to put the M-1 Global product at a disadvantage, especially when thrust into the spotlight of a major event. However, Martyniouk, who began boxing in the fifth grade, believes he has been in constant preparation for this moment to arrive.
“I’m a very positive thinker,” he said. “The way I look at things is a little bit different. Yes, it’s a huge experience, [but] I plan on fighting for 10 years. I already pictured myself fighting for Strikeforce.”
He points to the seasoning he has undergone inside the gym.
“I’ve been training with the most elite fighters before I had a chance to train with Gegard and Fedor [Emelianenko],” Martyniouk said. “I was training with Urijah Faber; I was training with Mark Munoz. I almost felt like I was in the organization without being in the organization. When I got the call and I had the opportunity to be one of the fighters for [the] Fighters Exchange and later found out that I was gonna be fighting for Strikeforce, it’s almost like I was preparing myself for that in years past.”
While Martyniouk might have felt his appearance in Strikeforce was predestined, the two-week Fighter Exchange program gave him a chance to hone his skills with some of the sport’s luminaries, including Mousasi, Emelianenko, Dan Henderson and Bas Rutten.
Having the opportunity to absorb knowledge from Emelianenko was of particular interest for Martyniouk, who gained his first exposure to MMA as a 19-year-old watching “The Last Emperor” wage legendary battles against the likes of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic in the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships. Now 26, Martyniouk was learned valuable striking technique from Emelianenko during their encounter.
“When we worked on ground technique and being in the guard, he sharpened up my punches,” Martyniouk said. “He showed me how to use my body and use my shoulders to punch the guy to knock [him] out on the ground. He told me to keep my elbows in and use more of my body, my hips and my shoulders to punch the guy on the bottom.
“He did say something that I won’t forget: ‘If you want to get better and you want to punch better, you have to put yourself in the most uncomfortable position,’” he added. “When he gets close to the bag, he puts himself in a position where he doesn’t feel good punching the bag. Then he just works on it and works on it.”
The newcomer took the advice to heart and practiced striking the heavy bag from close range to simulate a situation in which his height advantage -- Martyniouk is 6-foot tall; Lawrence is 5-foot-8 -- would be negated. Lawrence, a Missouri native, is a national kickboxing champion and a two-time St. Louis Golden Gloves boxing champion. Martyniouk already sounds as though he is well-versed in the art of respecting his opponent.
“I’ve been training for [Lawrence] as though I’ve been training to fight Jose Aldo or B.J. Penn,” he said.
Martyniouk comes from a family of fighters. His father, Ziatcheslav, was a professional kickboxer. His brother, Stan, is a lightweight boxer who will have had his 11th professional bout a week before Max steps into the cage. The father is the sons’ most ardent supporter and harshest critic.
“He critiques us to a point where losing is not an option,” Martyniouk said. “Other fathers or family members would say, ‘You know what? You lost; it’s OK,’ but he doesn’t feel or think that way.”
According to Martyniouk, his father also has some sound advice for an MMA rookie “to picture yourself as if you’re fighting in a smaller promotion. If you’re going into a fight, you can’t say, ‘I’m going to perform better because I’m fighting in Strikeforce.’ You have to come into every fight and not even think about the organization.”