“I heard an interview with John Kavanagh, and he said he was very happy with Conor (McGregor) winning, but he wanted to prove that his methodology works and he wants to produce more world champions to prove that,” recalled Katona.
“I saw that and I thought, ‘Why not myself? You’re looking for someone to make a world champion, I’ll come to you.’”
And that was that. Katona packed his bags, and he and his girlfriend visited Dublin and the SBG gym for a month. That’s all it took.
“We fell in love with the gym and knew that this was a great place and a place that could get me on the level that I think I can achieve,” he said. “From there, it was just putting all the work in place to make that move.”
Now training full-time with SBG, Katona had to get used to the road warrior life once again recently, as he spent six weeks in Las Vegas as part of The Ultimate Fighter: Undefeated cast. And while the soft-spoken former engineer appears to be the opposite of someone who would embrace life on reality television, the 26-year-old embraced the experience.
“I went into the house knowing it was going to be a grind, but I had the belief in myself that this was exactly the type of competition I’m going to thrive at,” said the 6-0 Canadian. “This is where I’m going to outshine my competition and I thought that the more difficult everything in the house will be, the better it is for myself.”
To most, that’s cutting weight, potentially several times over the course of the tournament. Not for this bantamweight jumping up to 145 pounds for the show. Take away that mental and physical drain, and he was able to settle in and take in a six-week experience only a select few can say they’ve gone through.
“For one, I could actually stay mentally sane by eating some carbs while everyone else is starving down,” he laughs. “Two, I just tried to go in there with a positive outlook and enjoy everything about the experience. I was going in there with the thought that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Hopefully I’ll never need to go into a house for six weeks with 15 others, but being on reality TV is very cool in itself, and if I hadn’t been in that house, I would have never remembered that six weeks of my life. It would be like every other day. But in the house, I have so many vivid memories, I kept a journal, and it’s just amazing to have done it.”
If it already sounds like Katona isn’t a typical prizefighter, that’s an accurate assessment for someone who has been in martial arts of one way, shape or form for 21 of his 26 years. He even had success as an amateur boxer, winning gold in the Canadian Golden Gloves tournament in 2013, but as someone with a background in jiu-jitsu already, his sights were set for the Octagon and not the ring.
“It was coming up into my last year as an amateur boxer and I thoroughly enjoyed boxing, but always on the backburner was that once I was done with amateur boxing I’m going to transition to pro MMA,” he said. “That was one major point. And also, in my final year when I didn’t make it on the national team, it was going to be another four years until the next Olympics. Within Canada, my province isn’t the strongest in boxing, so to really make it to the level that I thought I could, it would probably have required me to move to Montreal, where the highest level boxing generally is, or somewhere in Ontario. And at that time, I was in the middle of university, so making that move part way through my degree was going to be quite difficult and a big risk.”
It was a mature and logical assessment in a fight game not known for rational decision making, but Katona wasn’t done making complete sense of his situation.
“Also, with struggling on the Canadian level, I felt the Canadians that really excelled on an international level walked through their competition at nationals. So the fact that I was struggling there to get consistent results, it was one of those things that was going to require a lot of time and I was not as confident with the return as I am with MMA. I knew in MMA I could make it at a high level; I really believed that.”
Common sense? In the fight business? Unheard of. But Katona was a realist. He was also a purist, and while there could have been money on the table if he had success in pro boxing, he was willing to forego that to follow his heart in MMA.
“Anyone who’s truly successful pursued whatever they were successful in because they loved it or had a strong drive to be great at it,” he said. “And, to me, it comes from my passion for the sport. The money will come, but if I obsess about the money too early, that’s when it’s going to add to the pressure. I think about pursuing my dream and how fortunate I am right now to be in a position where I can be. And if I continue being successful, the money will come. I never thought when I started karate as a five-year-old kid that I’d be doing it for a living. (Laughs) I’ve just tried to enjoy the moment, enjoy everything that comes with it.”
So when he came to another crossroads between his work as an engineer and his fighting career, he let his gut make that decision once more.
“I was working as an engineer and my contract with my employer just finished,” Katona said. “It was getting to that point where I knew I couldn’t do both very well. I couldn’t be great at both. I’d either be good at the two of them or I could be great at one. I was also at that point in my life where I didn’t have anything really tying me down. I didn’t have any family I needed to support and I could pursue this selfish passion with minimal consequences and minimal risks. I was looking for a high-level gym to go to and I wanted to stay ahead of the curve and not start making changes when I lose. I wanted to keep on pushing and hopefully remain undefeated.”
He is undefeated. Now he hopes to keep that “0” intact over the course of the toughest tournament in sports. If he does and joins Chad Laprise and Elias Theodorou as the only Canadians to win TUF, he will give a jolt to a Canadian MMA scene ready to make some noise on the big stage once again.
“I’d be very proud to be able to really carry that on my back, just pushing Canadian MMA forward,” Katona said. “But I haven’t really ever thought about that. I’m hoping Canada is going to have another wave of great fighters coming up and I hope to be at the forefront of that. That would be a real honor.”