The ultimate experience

EARL MCRAE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:06 AM ET

The waitresss, Donna, comes over to the table in Reynold's Restaurant where Mark Holst is sitting in shorts and T-shirt, freshly showered from his workout down the road and across the street at the Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts. She asks him what he'll have.

"Five scrambled eggs and a glass of water, please."

She stares at him for a second or two. Five scrambled eggs?"

He smiles. "Yes."

A shadow of uncertainty crosses her face.

"He's an athlete," I explain. "He's in training. That's what he eats."

The owner's son, Alex, overhearing, walks over, curious. "UFC," I tell Alex upon introducing him to Holst. "Mark is the only Ottawa guy ever to be accepted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. His debut fight is June 19th in Las Vegas. Do you get Spike TV? It'll be on there free."

Alex's eyes widen. "That's great,"he says.

It is. Great if your sport of passion is the UFC and you're an Ottawan. If you're Jeff Harrison, Matthew Hache, Stephane Bernadel, and Nick Castiglia, Mark Holst's team of martial arts trainers at the OAMA. If you're Pat Cooligan, owner of the popular, bright, clean, large facility two flights up behind a no-name street door where his membership of 650 includes men, women, girls, and boys of all ages. And if you're Mark Holst who, because he was tired of being bullied in high school, enrolled in an Aylmer martial arts club, earned a black belt in karate, and when the word got around the school, was never bullied again, he who had serendipitously discovered his love of a sport he wanted to make a career.

"He's 24 now, but the first day he came in he was 17," says the jovial Cooligan. "He said his goal was to fight in the UFC. It's a big honour. Not only for Mark, but for our academy. The UFC is the NHL, the NFL. The top. It's not easy to get there." As Cooligan speaks, an aircraft is on its way to Ottawa from France with a former world Muay Thai champion to work with Holst: Jean-Charles Skarbowsky.

At the other end of the room from Cooligan the sound of loud thuds are coming from a ring where Mark Holst, in the peak week of training for his UFC bout, is slamming boxing-gloved hands and shin-padded legs into the body of a game sparring partner over three five-minute rounds, both of them having held the Canadian Muay Thai title.

Muay Thai, where the feet, legs, knees, and elbows are primary, is Holst's art, his execution swift, sneaky, accurate, destructive, unconscious rendering, and ranks with the best in the sport anywhere as evidenced by his 19-1 amateur/pro record against international competition, including his several fights in Thailand where it is the country's national sport.

He's won numerous MMA titles, he's grateful to the academy for its top-line training, and from the best in the business in Asia, the U.S. -- and in Montreal with Georges St-Pierre, UFC welterweight champion -- sharpening his striking and ground skills, giving him a diverse, balanced, repertoire.

It was this past February in Detroit, the non-UFC Xtreme Combat League Evolution 1, that the dream of a 17-year-old boy came true when he defeated, by Kimura in the second round, 6-foot-5 Corey Hill, an experienced, impressive, healthy, former UFC fighter on the comeback trail from injury, and won the XKL lightweight title.

Mark Holst pokes a fork into his five scrambled eggs. "Winning that fight's what got me noticed by the UFC. I remember getting a phone call from Pat, who's also my manager. He was screaming and yelling. He was so excited. 'We got it! We got it!' "

What they got was a contract from the UFC. Four fights. His first the upcoming against John Gunderson, 31, an American, with an MMA record of 22-7, but 0-1 in the UFC. Holst will be paid $6,000, another $6,000 if he wins.

"In the UFC, if you're new, you're out if you lose two in

a row. There's more pressure on him than me. I'm always scared before fights, but if you're not scared, you're going to get hurt. Same if you get angry. I got angry just one time when an opponent closed my eye, and I lost my discipline and went at him all out. He nailed me on the jaw. It's the only time I've been knocked out."

Getting hurt was the concern of his mother Diane, a former teacher and administrator at Algonquin College, when Mark, an only child, rejected higher education after Grand-Riviere High School in Aylmer to dedicate himself full-time to a career as a teacher and fighter in martial arts. He's a paid instructor at the OAMA, but living at home -- where, he says, "my mom makes my meals, making sure I eat right, and cares for me" -- helps with expenses.

Seeing his dedication and abilities in MMA, his mother at length came around, even to the point now where she helps him research opponents.

"You mean to say, Mark, your mom doesn't worry about happening to you what you see happening in the UFC -- blood, busted-up faces, cauliflower ears?"

He flashes his big, frequent smile which is so much a part of his clean-cut, soft-spoken, engaging personality. His features, surprisingly, are damage free.

"Sometimes my mom will touch my ear and go 'What is this?' She doesn't want my ears to go like some you see, but I tell her it's the job. I'll just have to try not to let it happen too much. Facial damage is part of the fight game, it's part of what we do." A laugh: "Besides, I hear there are chicks who dig guys who look like that." He's quick to add he's intransigently committed to his girlfriend Dominik, a personal fitness trainer.

Three years ago. Mark Holst is in a doctor's office, not an octagon, and he is scared. He is waiting to find out if he is going to die. There is a 50/50 chance he will. From what took the life of his father, Michael, a history teacher at Algonquin College, five years earlier. Huntington's Disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that is hereditary and fatal. Mark Holst is told he does not have the disease. He will not get the disease. He beat the odds.

Now, today, the odds await again, this time in the city of odds where if they favour the dealer, the dealer could be the dealer of triumphant intentions with the nickname Boots from the north country fair.


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