For MMA fans, the story is a familiar one: an accomplished collegiate wrestler with an Olympic pedigree taking his abilities into the cage to earn a paycheck from his hard-earned skills. Vladamir Matyushenko fits in with the army of talented American wrestlers who followed that path with one exception; he’s from Belarus.
Matyushenko fought in the Ultimate Fighting Championship between UFC 32 in 2001 and UFC 44 in 2003. After almost two years of inactivity and fights in several different promotions, primarily the International Fight League, “The Janitor” is looking to mop up his opponent, UFC newcomer Igor Pokrajac, at UFC 103 Franklin vs. Belfort.
Born in Retchisa, a town in southeast Belarus, Matyushenko, now 38 years old, began wrestling at a young age. “I was a little boy in a small town,” Matyushenko said. “There was nothing else to do except the sport. So I started doing wrestling because back in the day the government was pretty supportive.”
Belarus has struggled a great deal in the last century. In addition to a perpetual battle to distill a common social and national identity from its ethnically diverse population, Belarus suffered enormous physical damage in WWII, with German forces destroying 209 of the 290 Belarussian towns and cities. Then a Soviet republic, Belarus took nearly 30 years to recover, and in that time, Joseph Stalin’s vision of communism began to threaten the country’s language and culture. By the time Matyushenko was born in 1971, Stalin had been dead for almost 20 years, but his policies lingered.
At the same time, communism funded wrestling programs.
“Since the age of 13 or 15, I’ve been traveling, almost getting paid for it, getting money for food. So I was like why not? It was a fun thing to do,” Matyushenko said. “By the age of 15 or 16, I went to prep school. It was kind of government organized… You get to pick your own sport. I pick wrestling. You go and train for a couple of hours, then go to school for two hours, then train again. It was a way to train two, three times a day. Then again, there was more traveling involved and opportunities to train with the best, the Olympic team and stuff like that.”
Training with the Russian Olympic team brought him to the United States in 1989.
“I liked [the United States] right away,” Matyushenko said. “The only thing that was scaring me was the language. I hate English at school. That was my least likeable subject.”
Matyushenko saw opportunity in America and a permanent escape from the conflicts in Belarus.
“By the early 90s, things started to sour in Russia. Belarus–the country was falling apart,” Matyushenko said. “I decided to travel to the states in ‘94. And I’m like, ‘I’m not going back.’”
In the United States, Matyushenko forged a new life from wrestling, coaching, and a myriad of odd jobs—cafeteria worker, construction worker, lumberjack, cowboy. That part of the story is more or less the same as many American fighters. MMA was an opportunity to achieve success, but Matyushenko gave credit to more than the sport for what he has achieved.
“The reason I came here is freedom. I can be anybody I want to be. In Belarus, you don’t have that,” he said. “I think that America is the melting pot. People bring here the cultures from their own country, in order not to just come and become American. What American is: I think it’s the best people, the strongest ones. They come.
“Right now, I see myself as an American.”
And he’s proven himself to be one of the strongest.