There were times when Marat Grigorian’s childhood dream of becoming a Kickboxing World Champion seemed unfeasible.
But through sheer hard work and determination, the Armenian-Belgian superstar defied the odds and earned some of his sport’s biggest accolades.
That’s because Grigorian is now part of the most stacked division in martial arts — ONE’s featherweight kickboxing ranks — and winning here would make him a true legend of the sport.
Ahead of his inaugural showcase at the Singapore Indoor Stadium next Friday, 4 December, find out how the small-town boy from Armenia rose through the ranks to become a combat sports sensation.
Finding A Place To Call Home
Grigorian was born in Talin, an agricultural town situated 68 kilometers away from the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
His father, Samvel, was a chef in his motherland, while his mother, Amalya, was a hairdresser. The young Grigorian grew up with three older sisters and relished the family environment.
“Talin was a quiet place with lots of animals. You could play outside a lot of the time. I had many friends and along with my three sisters, it was lots of fun,” he recalls.
“I was the baby boy, so they always took good care of me, and I am very close to all of my family. I love to spend time with them.”
However, Grigorian’s parents and sisters were the only constants in a fast-changing childhood. Samvel and Amalya wanted to give their offspring more opportunities, so they moved to Germany when the youngest was just 3 years old. That worked out well for three years before the family was forced back to their previous home.
“We had a good life in Germany. We were all happy, but they sent us back to Armenia,” the three-time Kickboxing World Champion says.
“It was a really bad situation because we had to start again from nothing. It was very weird going back. We got used to living a different life in Germany — in Armenia, the lifestyle and the mentality is different, and there are fewer opportunities.”
Despite the setback, the Grigorians never gave up hope. Both parents continued to work hard so they could save up the money to give it another try. Eventually, when Marat was 9, they moved again – this time to Antwerp in Belgium.
It was not easy for the family to adjust once more, especially with young children, but Samvel and Amalya knew it was for the greater good.
“My parents did all kinds of jobs so we could come to Europe because they knew we could get a good education there, and good jobs,” he says.
“When we got there, they worked five or six jobs a day. Sometimes, we had only tea and bread, but right now I look back and I smile because they are good memories of my family, having them so close. That was the most important thing.”
Breaking Down Barriers With Martial Arts
The youngest Grigorian initially struggled with his new surroundings in Belgium.
“At that time, it was really hard because I didn’t speak the language, so it was hard to make friends when nobody understood me. All I had was my sisters, and I was always fighting with them,” he explains.
That was when Grigorian’s father decided to introduce him to martial arts. The 10-year-old Marat was enamored with movies featuring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, and he originally opted for a kung fu school. However, it was too far away and too expensive for him to train there regularly.
Fortunately, Samvel’s buddies suggested an alternative.
“Some of my father’s friends told him there was a kickboxing gym and that it would be good for me,” Marat says. “It was not far – it was like 200 meters from our home — so my father did that. He was really happy with that because I could put all of my energy in there.”
While it wasn’t quite what he’d seen in the movies, Grigorian was hooked instantly. He enjoyed the challenges of the new sport, and he also found a way to make new friends with the camaraderie inside the gym.
“It was really fun, but my trainers hated me at first because I was never listening, always playing,” he jokes.
“But then, they started loving me because I got more focused. A teammate told me he had a fight coming up. I didn’t know we could even do that. I was surprised. They said if I trained hard and seriously, I could get fights too.”
Armed with that knowledge, Grigorian knuckled down and earned his first shot in the ring when he was 12. The feeling of being alongside his teammates and then earning victory set the ball rolling – and he never looked back.
“I remember I was really nervous, but I was also happy because some of my good friends from the gym were fighting on the same day,” he remembers.
“I was the lucky one because I got the win by decision, so it was a nice experience, and I was just like, ‘I want more fights!’ I was excited. I wanted to train even better to fight again.
“At that time, I started dreaming of being a K-1 World Champion. It was one of the biggest organizations in the world. I never believed that I could come so far, but I was always dreaming.”
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One Last Shot
Despite his big dreams, success built up slower than the future World Champion would have liked. After racing through the local competition, he struggled to get matched up and almost called it a day before fulfilling his potential.
The last throw of the dice came when Grigorian took the short trip across the border to train at the famous Hemmers Gym in Breda, Netherlands.
“It was really disappointing for me because I had no fights. I had just one or two fights in a year, and it was like I was training for nothing,” he says.
“I wanted to fight to earn some money, but my trainer at that time told me, ‘Nobody wants to fight against you.’ I was really disappointed, and even the fights were just for €100 (US$120) or €150 (US$180).
“One day, a trainer told me that I had to change my gym for it to work, so I went to train at Hemmers Gym. I thought it was the last thing I could try. If this way was not enough, then I was going to give up everything and change my life. I would go to work or find myself something different.
“I was getting older and I had nothing in my life, so at 24 years old, I came to train at Hemmers Gym.”
That leap of faith paid off almost instantly, as connections from the world-renowned gym led to big offers coming in thick and fast.
“After two weeks, my trainer told me I had a fight in China, and I was really happy,” Grigorian says.
“I accepted everything — every fight they gave me. I got two or three fights in a month, and I was always training and keeping myself sharp. I had a little break after a few injuries, then my coach called me and said, ‘Do you want to fight in the K-1 Tournament?’
“I could not believe what he was saying to me. That was the dream. I said, ‘Yes, of course!’”
Collecting The Straps
In 2015, Grigorian achieved his dream of winning the K-1 World Grand Prix Tournament in spectacular fashion when he knocked out three opponents in one night to claim the gold. But this did not satiate him – instead, it left him wanting more.
“I had five weeks to train and get ready. I was training like crazy, then I went to Japan and won the tournament. I was the happiest guy in the world,” he beams.
“It was a really great feeling, and it pushed me more and more to get all of the kickboxing belts.”
With his new silverware in hand, the Antwerp resident found himself in demand. He went on to win the Kunlun Fight World MAX Tournament in 2018, knocking out Superbon in the final, and then beat longtime rival Sitthichai “Killer Kid” Sitsongpeenong to claim the Glory Lightweight World Title in 2019.
Now, Grigorian has the sport’s richest prize in his sights, and he’s more motivated than ever to perform well against elite opponents in the world’s largest martial arts organization.
“There are great fighters in ONE, that is my big motivation to prove myself to all the world,” the Armenian-Belgian star says ahead of his debut.
“Of course I want to get the belt, but I want to face the best of the best, which is here. I want to fight against everyone here, and I will fight hard so that people are going to remember me.”