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Imagine fighting someone in a locked cage in a stadium full of screaming fans and you’re allowed to punch, kick, elbow or choke your opponent. Although it might sound a little surreal, it’s something Mississauga’s Claude “The Prince” Patrick has experienced first hand in the Ultimate Fighting Championship - the biggest professional mixed martial arts promotion in the world.
Patrick fights in the 170-pound welterweight class and is ranked in the top-20 of the world. He fought in the inaugural UFC event in Toronto in 2011 that packed the Rogers Centre to the ceiling with a crowd of more than 55,000, all of them amped for the historic card in “The Octagon.”
He also fought for the UFC in B.C. and England, receiving a stipend that has allowed him to make a living, while also co-owning and operating a gym where he teaches MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) to people of all ages, some of whom enjoy it merely as a means to keep fit.
“It’s respected as a sport,” he says, sitting in his office of the Elite Training Centre in Mississauga (just northwest of Hurontario and Dundas Street). He is one of the owners and instructors.
The 32-year-old Toronto native didn’t plan on becoming a full-time MMA professional, let alone working for the premier promotion in the world. It just happened. He took karate lessons at age 13 and then Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu. As he developed his MMA skills, he also became a diehard fan of the UFC, buying and trading tapes of the cards and replaying them over and over. At the time the UFC was a struggling organization, hardly the multi-billion dollar worldwide business it is today.
At the age of 20, Patrick pursued fighting professionally, albeit while maintaining his day job working in computer logistics, which he’d studied at George Brown College. The first fight took place in Quebec where the sport had been legalized. It would be 11 years before Ontario would sanction professional MMA for prize money.
“I fought in this really backwater event, which was about as far as I’d been from home at that time,” he recalls with a smile. “They just threw me on a bus and said, ‘Get here.’ I jump on a Greyhound and now I’m going to Quebec to fight some guy I don’t know, getting paid $300 or something. It cost me more to go there than the money I made in the fight. But I was just happy to get some competition under my belt.”
Patrick won his first fight then lost his second, but rebounded to win his next four fights, finishing off his opponents in the first of the three-round limit, principally with a submission choke hold. It was during this time that he began to think about a full-time career in MMA, piqued by the series The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show created by the UFC in 2005 to give everyday people a chance to prove themselves in the cage and earn a contract.
His parents thought he was crazy to give up a comfortable, secure job for one with an uncertain future at best in a business that some critics consider barbaric because of the violence.
“There is something to be said for the security of following the beaten path versus giving it a shot, but I’ve always been so much into Mixed Martial Arts,” he says. “I had a very strong push in that direction.”
Early in 2006, he moved to Montreal to train with top fighters, reasoning that if he was going to fight against competitors who came from humble beginnings and took the sport seriously, he had to adopt a similar mentality.
“You’ve got to be with those guys who are ready to eat nails to get ready to fight because their livelihood depends on that,” he says. “The biggest mistake is to go in there unprepared, not just physically. You have to be really willing to do what the other guys want to do otherwise you’ll fold up when it gets tough.”
During this time he heard about the International Fight League, which planned to give fighters benefits and build teams of fighters based in different cities. A few months later he received a contract to join the promotion, but had to move back to Mississauga to become part of the IFL’s Toronto team. He won his first IFL fight, but suffered a torn knee ligament training for the second fight and was subsequently cut.
Two years later he returned to the cage and resumed his winning ways. But once again he experienced adversity, this time following a fight in Quebec for which he had done TV colour commentary. He happened to be in the hotel room of the promoter when they were accosted by a group of men. Patrick ended up in hospital for two days with an induced coma and has no recollection of what happened.
Later that year, he received a chance to fight for the welterweight championship of The Fight League, a Canadian MMA promotion in Edmonton. He won the fight and defended the title four months later. By this time, the UFC had taken notice of his talents, and following his 10th consecutive victory he joined the company, signing a four-fight contract. He felt like a hockey player who had made it to the NHL.
“It’s the pinnacle of the sport - definitely the best show,” he says. “It was great to be there at that time. It was a big deal and still means a lot to me.”
He debuted in the UFC on June 12, 2010 in Vancouver in front of a crowd of 17,669.
“I was ecstatic,” he recalls. “Coming from these other events, where you’re in a cold hockey arena and it’s in a ring that might break, I was so happy.”
He fought in England in his second bout with the UFC, then experienced the Toronto card which happened in April, 2011, eight months after the Ontario provincial government finally changed the legislation to allow professional MMA fighting for prize money. The UFC helped to change the rules and regulations with specific weight classes and limiting what the fighters could do, whereas previously it had been no-holds barred. Moreover, the product moved into the mainstream with sponsors keen to lend their company name to the product. By the time the UFC finally came to Ontario, it had a hungry audience waiting to experience the event live. Tickets sold quickly for what was expected to be the MMA version of the Super Bowl.
“It was surreal,” Patrick says of the first-ever card in his hometown. “The City of Toronto was just taken by storm with MMA fever. Toronto is not much of a fight city, but whenever anything new comes to town they are very excited. It was packed to the rafters. It was just unreal being at an event like that. I saw a couple of later fights. I went out into the crowd, which was really neat, too, and decided to talk with some of the fans. It was a pretty interesting mish-mash of people there, to say the least.”
He won the fight, but his streak came to an end via a controversial split decision in the second card in Toronto in December, 2011. He is currently rehabbing from his second ligament tear, this time in the other knee, and doesn’t expect to be competing in an event until June.
Patrick began his career competing in amateurish conditions and paid by promoters who weren’t exactly trustworthy. He has truly come a long way.
“I wouldn’t speak badly about them. Most of them were good promoters,” he says. “As in anything, you have both sides. There were guys who were just trying to make a quick buck, putting you in cheap motels and shuttling you to the event in whatever vehicle they could get, cold change rooms. At the time I was just really excited to be there, but it's far from what I wanted to do today and I think the sport has really grown above and beyond that." GL
Claude Patrick at the Elite Training Centre in Mississauga.
He is one of the owners and instructors there.