How Rene Catalan Made One Of Martial Arts’ Most Incredible Comebacks

Rene “The Challenger” Catalan had a nightmare start to his mixed martial arts career, but following one of the biggest turnarounds in the sport’s history, he is just one bout away from earning its biggest prize.

After failing to win his first three bouts, the 40-year-old began a phenomenal streak that has taken him to a match against Joshua “The Passion” Pacio for the ONE Strawweight World Title at ONE: MASTERS OF FATE this Friday, 8 November. 

That encounter will see the Filipino star finally fulfill his goal of competing in a main event match-up, and he will do it in his hometown of Manila in front of his compatriots at the Mall Of Asia Arena.

Catalan entered the world of mixed martial arts after a distinguished wushu career. A pair of World Titles, two Wushu World Cups, and gold medals from the Asian Games and SEA Games made him a hero in his homeland.

Despite his previous success, he struggled to adapt his skills to the Circle at first, and by December 2014 – a year and a half after his debut – his record stood at 0-2 (1 NC).

At 34-years-old, the driving force behind Catalan Fighting System (CFS) was far older than most novices in The Home Of Martial Arts, and it would have been easy to hang up his gloves and focus on coaching. However, that was not an option for someone with his competitive fire. 

“I told myself that the losses were normal because I am really new to the sport of mixed martial arts,” he explains.

“I needed to use those losses as stepping stones to improve further, discover what I needed to work on, what I needed to add. It fueled my motivation to go on fighting.”

“I never had doubt because of my age. While it’s an advantage to start young, it’s not always about age – it’s about discipline, determination, dedication, and passion to reach your goals. 

“I told myself that my mixed martial arts career was in its infancy, and I should just shrug off losses, learn from them, and improve. After my losses, I decided to focus on the team instead of training elsewhere. I hired coaches to help me, and kept working to the best of my ability to improve.”

The tragic death of his wife also weighed heavily on his shoulders at that time, as well as his struggles to build his gym’s reputation, but he was driven to dust himself off for the sake of his children and his students. 

Fortunately, his growing collective at CFS was there for him through the hard times, and with their help, he elevated his skill set over the next two years to renew his quest for success.

“My teammates, my coaches and all my athletes here helped me deal with all those losses,” he adds.

“They are the ones who shouted at me to push myself further whenever I looked like I’d had enough. They also helped me in other aspects of maintaining the gym – it was difficult for us to find sponsors because we were not yet well known, and were not well-connected to big companies.

“My athletes and students here at the gym are the ones who help me keep my mind focused on training instead of worrying about other concerns, which helped me overcome those challenges.”

Catalan’s comeback bout was scheduled for September 2016 against Zhang You Liang. This time, he had few distractions, and he left no stone unturned in his preparation.

“My BJJ coach then, Marcus Waters, told me that I should be selfish from time to time, especially when it comes to preparing for my fights,” he adds.

“I was told that I needed to not think about my athletes first and just focus on my own preparations. I had a full training camp, I had a wrestling coach, and I wasn’t stressed with financial concerns as the gym became stable.”


In the first match-up of the event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Catalan finally had his hand raised in victory after three rounds of battle, and although he was delighted, he was still not satisfied.

Now that he had his first win under his belt, he wanted to move on to bigger and better things.

“When I was competing back then on the prelims as the first bout, I always looked at the main event,” Catalan reveals.

“I told myself that I would get to the main event one day. The feeling of competing in the very first bout when people are barely inside the arena drove me to climb up the ranks and someday make the main event.

“I understood why I was in that position – because I was new to this sport – but I knew that if I worked hard, I would eventually make it to the top of the card.”

“The Challenger” had to stay patient as he opened the show in his next two bouts – a second-round submission of Adrian “Papua Badboy” Mattheis and a unanimous decision over Bu Huo You Ga – but then he started to rise up the card.

At the beginning of last year, he made the most of his opportunity on the main card with a stirring second-round TKO of Peng Xue Wen. That pushed him into a high-profile match-up with then-undefeated Indonesian star Stefer “The Lion” Rahardian. The Iloilo native’s dominant performance in front of his home crowd proved he was now one of his division’s elite.

“I just told myself to keep winning and show that I am worthy of a World Title challenge,” he says. 

“I didn’t care how long my streak went or who I had to beat, the most important thing is to finish on top until they realize that I am ready and worthy.”

He still had one more hurdle to clear to achieve his dream. That came in the form of former ONE Strawweight World Champion, Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito on the main card of ONE: REIGN OF VALOR in March.

On paper, it was the toughest test of Catalan’s career, but he passed with flying colors by finishing the Japanese star in the first round. That success left no doubt that he deserved to compete for the gold after a process of rebuilding from the ground up.

It took three long years, but the man from Manila said he never lost sight of what he wanted to achieve, and that was the key to his success.

“First and foremost, I believe God helped me reach this point of my career,” he says.

“Next, I think my desire to reach my goals drove me to be better every single day. Infusing that desire with discipline, determination, dedication, and passion, I never got tired or fell down despite all the challenges that I faced.”

He also believes his achievements can show other martial artists who are at a low ebb that all is not lost.

Whatever struggles they are going through, they can look at what the 40-year-old achieved and see a simple blueprint for success.

“To athletes who are struggling in their careers, just keep on training and set goals for yourself,” he adds

“No athlete or person succeeded in life without self-discipline. It starts with that, but you also have to be dedicated and determined in reaching for your goals. If it is your passion, then you will constantly have the motivation to push through. If you combine all these, you will eventually see yourself reaching your goals.”

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