Last month, after some 53 trips into the cage that were documented and many more that weren’t, 30-year-old Bart Palaszewski called it a career. The announcement was almost a year removed from his last fight, capping 11 years that saw him climb from Extreme Challenge to the IFL, the WEC (where he became the first of only two men to beat UFC lightweight champ Anthony Pettis) to the UFC. Fightland spoke with Palaszewski about what brought his family from Poland to the sticks of Illinois, his first fight (it was one of the undocumented ones), the fight that left him feeling like he had been in a car accident the next day, how fighting for a living changed his affinity for the sport, and the unexpected emotions that visited him after announcing his retirement.
Bart Palaszewski: Judo and kickboxing were really big in Poland. My cousin would put the gloves on and beat the snot out of me on a regular basis, so that’s how I got introduced to kickboxing in some way—on the receiving end of it. My mom said, “Alright, you’re not doing kickboxing, so you can do judo.”
My dad and my grandfather were going to start an import-export business in the United States, then my dad started doing construction like every other Polish guy out here. He was working, getting things set up, and we were trying to get out here legally, so it took a bit longer. I didn’t see my father for almost seven years.
We came to a little town in Illinois called Wonder Lake, in the middle of nowhere. It was like 4000 or 5000 people. Everybody asks, "How the hell did you end up there?" My dad had lived in Chicago, and a job took him out there to build a house, and he just fell in love with this little town. When we came over from Poland, it was straight to this little hick town. But I loved it.
Jeff Curran was actually running a gym out here. I checked it out and I just fell in love with the kickboxing—I was old enough to tell my mom what I wanted to do, and she actually allowed it. I started doing jiu-jitsu. About six months into it, I saw my first MMA fight and I just fell in love. Fast forward about a year and a half, two years, and I had my first fight.
It was down in Peoria, Illinois. It was about two hours away and it took us almost four hours to get there—we got lost on the way. It was an outdoor show, a kickboxing show, and they snuck in a couple of MMA fights. I got paid $50, I remember that—holy shit, I got paid $50 to fight! I don’t remember if it was at the end of my junior year or the beginning of my senior year, but I remember it was hot out. The canopy covered 99 percent of the ring. The only part it didn’t cover was about two feet big, and those two feet were right in my corner. My corner was frickin’ ridiculously hot—like, we had to put ice down for me to stand there while they were announcing my name. I swear they did it on purpose.
He threw a jab and a cross, I parried both of the punches, I checked his low kick, and I kicked him in his fucking head. Imagine a baseball bat hitting a watermelon, that hollow woonnggg noise, and he just went down like a sack of potatoes. I jumped on his neck and went for a choke, and the ref pulled me off. The whole fight lasted 10 seconds. And I remember getting up like, “What the fuck! That’s it, Jeff?! We drove four hours for this shit?!” And he goes, “Are you kidding me? Go shake his hand.” I was this ignorant, arrogant, little young punk kid asshole, but it’s so funny looking back. “Go shake his fucking hand. Help him up.”
We didn’t make any money fighting. We’d get gas money, and half the time we’d forget to grab the money from the promoter. Fighting was just something that we loved to do. With time, it became a job and we were able to actually make money on it. The more money I made, the less I was interested in it—it’s weird and I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true. The more money I was making, the less heart was going into it.
[My favorite fight] was years back, against Andrew Chappelle. It was in Superbrawl—it was the first time Superbrawl came to the main land. I think I got better with time—like, as years went by, I hope I improved—but that was just one of those fights. After the first round, I came back [to my corner] and say, “I’m fucked up, I’m hurt, I’m this and that.” And they said, “Suck it up, you got two rounds left.” After the second round, I was like, “Fuck. I was fucked up, now this is fucked up, too.” And they said, “Come on, just five more minutes.” We both went to the hospital after that fight. It sucked, man. But it was a fight and we just went back and forth—we were on the feet, we were on the ground, we did some wrestling. That was a fight where everything happened and I showed a little bit of everything I could do.
After the fight my hand was jacked. In the first round, I was escaping an arm bar, he grabbed my glove and he wrapped it up so I couldn’t spin out of it, and my elbow got popped. My shin got blown out. My foot was hurt. My face looked like it got in a car accident—it was rough. It was just one of those fights and you woke up the next morning like, “Fuck. I was in a fight. For sure. There’s nothing else that could have done this to me.” It was awesome. I don’t know if it was pure, but it was at the point where I was still doing this for the love of it, you know?
I’d never get really nervous about fights. In the beginning, it was just more like, “Alright, what do I have to do to beat this guy?” Not nervous, but concerned about what can I do or what can he do. Then later on it was like, “Alright, just crap and make weight.” Then once I made weight and my brain starting functioning again after I got hydrated, it wasn’t nerves. It was performance anxiety more than anything. Losing just sucks man.
After I had a daughter in 2007 it wasn’t about me anymore. It was 100 percent about her at that point. When it came to fighting, I had to squeeze every penny out every time I get in the cage, you know? Just like with any other job. I fought the way some guys pound steel and other guys pump septics—it was just how you squeeze every possible dime out of a job. The way I looked at fighting definitely changed at that point.
The last few fights, that’s how it was: I wanna get paid, I wanna make some money, non-stop bugging my manager, like, “Hey, what have we got for sponsors?” It just revolved around money. That wasn’t the issue or the problem with why I left, but I’m sure it contributed to the whole exit of me from the sport.
Since I last fought in April I was going to school still and I was still considering taking a fight. A couple of deals came up. I just wanted to make sure that when a decision was made [on my retirement], it was a decision that I wasn’t going to go back on. I wanted to take my time and think everything over, talk to my wife, figure everything out and sit on the decision for a little bit—just keep going over and over it. It’s been official for a few weeks, but only my wife and myself really knew about it.
I’m happy with what I did in the sport. I wish I maybe got a belt somewhere along the way, but I got a cool ring from the IFL. I’m a retired MMA fighter, and I’m totally happy with it, you know? I’m not training right now—I’m still working out twice a day—but I’m sure I’ll get the itch sooner or later where I want to throw my gi on and enjoy it. I haven’t enjoyed training in a long time—that’s why I’m taking time off. I just stopped enjoying it because it became a job instead of a hobby.
I was never a superstar, so I’m sure the interest is going to die out sooner rather than later. I’m going to move on and do my next thing. I’m still young enough where I can start a new career and do well. The MMA thing is in the past now. It’s sad—don’t get me wrong, I’m still like, “Fuck, did I make the right decision?” And I get all emotional when people say, “We’re gonna miss you.” Like, goddammit. I love it, and I love that there’s people out there that really do care. While they’re saying it, it’s killing me on the inside. But I made a decision and I’m jumping into it with two feet.
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