Lisa Katona hugs her son, Brad, before he fights and tells him to come back pretty — something she’s done since he was a kid.
But Brad Katona left the cage with a split chin, chest covered in blood, face battered and tender hands after his most recent bout Aug. 19 at TD Garden in Boston.
The Winnipegger had just earned a new six-figure contract in the world’s top mixed martial arts, or MMA, organization by winning Season 31 of the UFC’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter — the only person to achieve that feat twice.
“Just hope that he comes out of the cage upright and feeling good and support him in whichever way I can,” she said. “Whether it’s buying him a cannoli after or taking him for a commemorative beer or whatever it is … you want what they want.”
Katona, 31, became the first Canadian to win the competition in 2018 and now he’s the first fighter ever to win the tournament-based reality show twice.
His move to Ireland in 2017 to train at Straight Blast Gym sometimes can be heard in his voice as he talks on the couch in his parents’ basement about the road back to the sport’s top promotion, the term MMA uses for its leagues.
He was released by UFC in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic changed so much, with a 2-2 record there. He then joined Brave Combat Federation, an MMA promotion based out of the Middle East, where he went 4-0 and became the company’s bantamweight champion in 2022.
The title belt now sits on a shelf in the family basement that also holds a library of Stephen King books. His father, John, says he wants to eventually add a shelf to display Katona’s new trophy and the 2018 one, too.
Katona was initially turned down by the show for this season.
He recalls his coach, John Kavanagh, asking if they should make a push to get him on Season 31 of the show since Conor McGregor — a famed Irish fighter who helped make Straight Blast Gym famous — was coaching.
Katona told Kavanagh he’d already been turned down, but his coach said he’d see what they could do.
Soon after their conversation, Katona received a text from one of the show’s producers, asking him if he could be in Las Vegas the next day. In a span of about nine days, he’d gone from dealing with being rejected from the competition to getting on a plane to the U.S. for The Ultimate Fighter.
“Really the darkest period was in January of this year, where I was getting told no,” he said.
“All I wanted was the opportunity. Let me fail. If you give me the opportunity to do The Ultimate Fighter or fight in the UFC and I fail, that’s on me, but at least I got to try.”
Katona came home to Winnipeg to recharge, clearing his mind with walks around the Seine River and enjoying barbecues and date nights with his girlfriend at his favourite local restaurants.
He said while he’s a bit of a thrill-seeker who fights in a cage, a perfect evening for him is still having a bonfire or playing a board game with his parents.
“Maybe that’s not the most refined thing to do, but it’s also important to refuel a bit, recharge your soul,” he said. “That way, when it’s time to return to your craft, you’re hitting it with 100 per cent enthusiasm.”
The family time has also been important for his parents.
“It’s not just the recharge for them,” Lisa said. “As a parent, it’s [a recharge] for us to know that our kid is here and OK and happy.”
Lisa doesn’t normally get nervous before Katona fights, but it’s not the same for his dad.
John finds the fights very difficult the first time around, but usually he ends up watching them two or three times. He’s comfortable when he knows the result and will analyze it, but in the moment, he’s hoping for it to be over and that Katona is still healthy.
“The stress is on you knowing that he’s going to go into a cage with another person and basically fight for his life,” he said.
“It’s difficult, and we’re definitely glad it worked out the way it did and it was a big relief lifted from us as well knowing that he had won and now he still has a future in the sport that he loves.”
As Katona’s downtime comes to an end and he gets ready to again become Superman, as he’s dubbed in the UFC, Lisa says the biggest thing they tell him is to take care of himself.
Katona knows that if he’s going to be in the spotlight, he has to be authentic, she said.
“That is something we’ve always kind of tried to portray as people, just personal integrity,” she said.
“We can’t all walk around like we’re king of the mountain.… We all get knocked down a peg here and there, so we’re just people.”
And the next time her son steps in the cage, he’ll also have to remember to come back pretty.
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