For many years of his life, Rene “The Challenger” Catalan had to earn everything in order to survive.
However, he used those experiences to fuel his decorated martial arts career, and he later achieved success in the business world with the inception of Catalan Fighting System MMA and Fitness Gym (CFS) in 2012.
Here is the story of what shaped the 41-year-old Filipino martial arts star – and the gym he established along the way.
While growing up as one of 12 siblings in the agricultural town of Santa Barbara in Iloilo, Philippines, Catalan experienced firsthand the hardships of life and the seemingly unending challenges it can throw your way.
Instead of spending his childhood at playgrounds and basketball courts like most other kids, “The Challenger” could be found helping his parents in the rice fields.
“Ever since I was 8 years old until college, I was harvesting rice,” he says. “I grew up in the fields and I learned about the need to sacrifice early on in order to survive.”
Knowing he would need to take initiative, Catalan began to test his luck in martial arts during 1999. He then moved to Manila with the goal of making the national boxing team, just like his idol, Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco.
While boxing was not meant to be for the Iloilo native, he soon found his true home in wushu.
“The Challenger” went on to become one of his country’s most successful national athletes in the sport, with World Titles in the Wushu World Championships and gold medals in the Asian Games and Southeast Asian Games added to his trophy case.
One Obstacle After Another
Despite being in his prime, Catalan retired from the Philippines’ national wushu team after competing in 2006 – a decision that was not his choice.
“I was forced to retire by our head coach, as he said it was time to give chances to others,” the Iloilo native recalls. “So I applied as a coach in several international wushu federations.”
Catalan thought he had found his next home, moving to Canada to work with the national wushu program. But after settling in the country, he was suddenly needed back home in the Philippines to attend to his wife, Edlyn, who had been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism.
Though taking care of his family was his biggest priority, Catalan was still planning to work with Canada’s program. However, before flying back overseas, he faced yet another obstacle.
“In 2010, I was preparing to return to Canada,” he reveals.
“I had a two-year contract there, but the wushu federation [in the Philippines] came up with an article [saying] that I wasn’t going to return because I wanted to help out the Philippines’ wushu team.
“So I was questioned by the [Canadian] federation and my students about why I wasn’t returning. I said that it did not come from me – it was only the Wushu Federation of the Philippines who said that. But because of their politics, I wasn’t able to return.”
Once more, Catalan was looking for work. And once more, life threw him a curveball.
At that time, “The Challenger” was gaining an interest in mixed martial arts, and he was hired as the striking coach of Beijing Empire MMA. Meanwhile, a local manager in the Philippines was offering a huge monthly salary that would take care of Catalan and a team composed of his brothers Robin, Ruel, and Rabin.
So he agreed to stay home… and waited, and waited.
“While I was coaching in Beijing, I also had a team formed here in the Philippines, but we ended up being fooled,” Catalan says.
“A manager told me that he was willing to give me a 120,000 salary a month (approximately US$2,400) so I wouldn’t have to go back to Beijing. That did not happen.”
- Why Robin Catalan’s Brother, Rene, Is His Hero
- Rene Catalan Hoping For Another Run At The Strawweight World Title
- Robin Catalan Seeks Family Redemption Against Dejdamrong
Taking Matters Into His Own Hands
By then, Catalan was tired of relying on others to change his fortunes. He had realized that in order to thrive, he would need to do things himself.
So, with that in mind, he and his brothers officially launched their own gym in 2012.
“When we weren’t getting any salary, [my brothers and I] pulled out and formed the Catalan Fighting System. We decided to do it on our own because we were tired of getting used,” he says.
“I just wanted my athletes to be given a chance to reach their dreams and rise from poverty.”
The timing could not have been any more perfect. ONE Championship was starting to take over as an international martial arts entity, and soon after, the brothers found themselves on the global stage.
Still, nothing has ever come easy for Rene. Just two weeks before his ONE Championship debut against Alex “Little Rock” Silva, his wife succumbed to her illness and passed away.
Despite that huge loss, “The Challenger” was determined to push forward, but both winning and building CFS took some time for him and his brothers.
“It was really tough. It’s tough being an athlete and having no resources,” Rene says, adding that he was accounting for the food, shelters, and salaries of his coaches. “All we had was our guts – just plain courage and principles in life.”
Of course, if there’s one thing these brothers are known for, it’s surviving in difficult times.
“What makes this team really special is that it’s built from the struggles of real martial artists with a passion for what they do,” Robin Catalan says. “All of us brothers owe our lives to martial arts, so in this gym, we make sure to honor it.”
With that mindset, the Catalans aimed to give themselves and other up-and-coming athletes an opportunity to thrive – both in competition and in their daily lives.
“This team is not just about winning,” Robin continues. “This is [a place] to help those people who also came from nothing and want to be a martial artist. We want to give them that chance.”
Ultimately, it all paid off for CFS and “The Challenger,” who racked up six straight wins in ONE Championship.
He beat some of the strawweight division’s biggest names, including Stefer “The Lion” Rahardian, Adrian “Papua Badboy” Mattheis, and former titleholder Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito. He even had the opportunity to challenge reigning ONE Strawweight World Champion Joshua “The Passion” Pacio for the belt in November 2019.
Also, throughout the years, some of Rene’s students at CFS have begun to turn heads in The Home Of Martial Arts.
For his part, Robin is steadily becoming one of the most exciting athletes in the strawweight division, which was proven when he knocked out Gustavo “El Gladiador” Balart on the same night his brother battled Pacio for the World Title.
Jomary “The Zamboanginian Fighter” Torres is also one of Rene’s top discoveries, and she remains one of the most promising rising stars in the women’s atomweight division.
“The Challenger” and CFS have come a long way. And it should be no surprise that the success of this gym was forged by the trials, hardships, and conflicts from years past.
“The atmosphere here is always exciting. You always feel energized to work because everyone wants to prove something,” Robin says of CFS.
“What makes it easier is we’re comfortable with each other, knowing that blood is thicker than water and we won’t leave each other, even when things get hard.”
These days, the Catalan family’s empire is continuing to grow. Alongside CFS, “The Challenger” is developing Filipino athletes to be martial arts stars through his very own promotion, the Philippine Encuentro Championship.
“The goal right now is to help more athletes, particularly the ones struggling in life, reach their dreams,” Rene says.
He certainly speaks from experience. After being in survival mode for most of his life, it’s clear the legacies of “The Challenger” and Catalan Fighting System will stand the test of time.