Vladimir (The Janitor) Matyushenko had $100 in his pocket when he decided to look for a better life in the U.S.
It was 1994 and Matyushenko, an accomplished amateur wrestler from Belarus, was competing at a dual meet in New York. When it was time to go home, Matyushenko opted to stay.
Matyushenko, who turns 39 Friday, can count his blessings today. The former wrestler is now both a mixed martial arts fighter and an entrepreneur, co-owning his VMAT gym in El Segundo, Calif.
And Matyushenko (23-4) is in his second stint in the UFC, looking to do some damage in what is probably the last stop on his MMA journey.
Having pounded out a unanimous decision over Croatian Igor Pokrajac at UFC 103 in September in his return to the Octagon, Matyushenko steps back into the cage Saturday to face former WEC champion Steve (Robot) Cantwell at UFC 108 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
A poised Matyushenko showed surprising standup skills against Pokrajac.
"People who see me closely, train with me, they know that I can do some damage off my feet," he said. "But times have changed. Now you have to do pretty much everything. . . . The game has changed so fast, plus I haven't been wrestling in the last 15 years, I've been doing MMA."
That night in New York, Matyushenko turned to some U.S. wrestlers he knew for advice on how best to stay in the U.S. They suggested a student visa.
So he spent $70 of his $100 on a bus ticket to California, where his first stop was Lassen Community College in Susanville. While he attended Lassen, improving his English every day, he washed dishes, worked construction and served as assistant wrestling coach to support himself and save enough to bring his wife and four-year-old son over to join him. It took him a year but he did it.
He soon found fighting also helped pay the bills.
"MMA helped me a lot," he said. "My first tournament, I won like $5,000 and I'm like 'Yeah, I can live off that."'
That was September 1997 and the eight-man Battle in the Bayou tournament in Baton Rouge
He won three fights in a total of 11 minutes 10 seconds. "There were no rules. Head-butts allowed," he recalled. "No weight limits."
"That was my first time. I didn't know better. I just took my wrestling skills and my athletic ability and thought it was just a street fight."
His first win was over Vernon (Tiger) White, an MMA veteran who had 30 pro fights under his belt at the time.
Matyushenko credits his wrestling background for helping him in those early days, noting that as an amateur wrestler he often competed six or seven matches in a day.
"I was like 'Oh three times, no big deal,"' he said with a laugh.
Matyushenko and White met again in Montreal in 1999 with White winning a decision that Matyushenko still disputes.
Matyushenko's wife eventually returned to Russia but his son stayed, going to school in the U.S. and spending his summers with his mother. Matyushenko went on to graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno, with a degree in physical education and health.
He made his UFC debut at UFC 32 in June 2001 and went on to post a 3-2 record in the organization with wins over Yuki Kondo, Travis Wiuff and Pedro Rizzo and losses to Tito Ortiz and Andrei Arlovski.
The Ortiz loss, at UFC 33 in September 2001, was a tough five-round fight.
"My ground skills weren't that great so I couldn't get out from the bottom," he said. "From the top I was OK, but on the bottom I didn't know as much as I do right now. I was trying to stand on my feet and just knock him out, which opened me up for his takedowns. But I lost fair and square."
He moved on after the Arlovski loss as a heavyweight at UFC 44 in September 2003. Matyushenko, who was not the fighter he is today, considers it an early stoppage but doesn't have too many complaints given he was fighting out of his weight class.
"I was knocked down. Any time you get hit by a big guy like that, you're going to go down."
Matyushenko has gone 10-1 since leaving the UFC but says it has been a roller-coaster ride, with both the International Fight League (where he went 6-0) and Affliction (1-0) folding while he was under contract with them. It could have been worse in that he almost signed with EliteXC, which also went belly up.
"I was glad to be back. It's like a long time you were wandering around and now finally came home," he said. "I don't think I'm going to fight elsewhere. I'm just going to stick around with the UFC. It's a pretty stable organization, that's what I'm looking for right now. .. . When you train for a fight and they cancel it on you, it's the worst thing that can be."
Plus he said the UFC welcomed him back. "I feel really home."
Longtime MMA fans know all about Matyushenko but he has operated under the radar for some. He admits that is partially his own fault.
"I'm not the kind of person who will go and promote myself on the website and everywhere, " he said, adding that is beginning to change now that other UFC fighters like Antoni Hardonk and Jared Hamman are training at his gym.
"Hardcore fans know me from back in the day but . . . it's become so popular now, there's new heroes there and I'm glad to be one of them."
Matyushenko opened the gym, which he co-owns with girlfriend Vanessa Mariscal, a little more than two years ago, catering to both kids and pros. It's near to both the beach and the airport.
"It's a small little place but we're doing good," he said. "From Day 1, as far as business, it's paid for itself and we're making a little money."
He probably still cleans the mats there, something which earned him the nickname years ago.
Matyushenko, in Russia for an invitational tournament, was spotted by the American team while he was cleaning the mats. Matyushenko was just swabbing them in advance of his own workout but he was dressed somewhat shabbily and the Americans reckoned he was the janitor. The next day, however, Matyushenko came out and took on all the big-name Americans.
"I beat them all," he recalled.
American wrestling star Mark Coleman, now a fellow UFC fighter, ribbed his teammates they had been beaten by the janitor.
Unlike those Americans, the 23-year-old Cantwell will have done his homework on Matyushenko. And Cantwell needs a win after back-to-back losses to Brian Stann and Luiz Cane.
"It'll be a tough one," Matyushenko said. "He's in good shape. He's young and eager. He's hungry."
Down the line, a fight with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira may beckon in the Octagon. They have fought twice before, with the honours evenly split.