From his upbringing in a small Italian community in Pittsburgh – complete with the smallish houses, mountains of food and family-run businesses – Mark Cherico was very familiar with support with no questions asked.
Granted, he had experienced a difficult period in his life with some poor decisions, but that only came after losing his father to colon cancer when he was in the sixth grade. By the time he was in his early 20s, he got another dose of that unconditional support, and it came at the right time.
“Right after high school, I was working at a Giant Eagle as a prep cook, and I thought I would end up doing culinary arts,” Cherico told MMAjunke.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I got off work one day, and my neighbor was coming out of his truck with a big bag of gear.
“I asked him what it was for, for boxing or something? He said he trained mixed martial arts. I knew about it, and I thought it sounded like it would be good to try. He said, ‘OK, I’ll meet you in your garage in an hour.’”
After that introduction to the sport, thrown into it without more than an hour’s warning, Cherico has maintained perfection. After a 9-0 amateur career, the 27-year-old featherweight has compiled a 4-0 professional record with four first-round stoppages.
In April, he beat Strikeforce veteran Billy Vaughn with a first-round armbar at a Pinnacle Fighting Championships show. He’ll try to keep his record perfect next month when he takes on UFC veteran Donny Walker in another Pinnacle FC show.
Cherico has mixed a relentless self-examination of both his training and fighting techniques with a newfound full-time commitment to the sport through working at his gym. He has benefitted with success, which he can continue next month while, he hopes, gaining the attention of larger shows.
“I’m feeling really good, and I feel like I’m rolling right off my fight in April,” he said. “I’m in great shape, and it’s about maintaining that against a UFC veteran. It’s a big step up in competition for me, and I feel like I’m ready.”
After loss, benefit of a community
Cherico was raised in Bloomfield, Pa., a very strong Italian community in the Pittsburgh area.
His father moved there with his grandparents when his father was very young. They came from Sicily and opened up a bakery, settling into the town that felt like home.
“It was a very strong Italian culture, and everything had a rich heritage,” he said. “It was a lot of businesses run by the people in the community, and everybody knew everybody.”
Cherico and his father developed a shared love for baseball strong enough that they traveled throughout the region and other parts of the country visiting professional stadiums. They tried to see games played by the Pirates as much as possible.
At home, he was constantly surrounded by family and friends, who nurtured his interests. Those included sports until he was in the sixth grade, when he lost his father to cancer. After that, his passion subsided.
“I was little enough that it really affected me,” he said. “My grandfather became like a father figure to me, and I had to grow up as fast as I could to help take care of my family.
“I got into a little trouble here and there. Nothing serious, but not good either.”
He made his way through high school and then started working right after graduating. He didn’t know what his future held, but he thought cooking would be part of it.
Until he ran into his neighbor carrying a bag of gear.
When Cherico started his interest in MMA, the sport was still unsanctioned in Pennsylvania, which muted its community in the state.
Seeing his passion and his early skill, Cherico’s neighbor recommended a trainer in the area. After a few months, on a break from drills, the trainer mentioned to Cherico that he couldn’t wait to see him in a fight for real.
“I had never really thought about it before that,” he said. “I was just training because I loved the training.”
He started with a grappling tournament (which he won in a division more advanced than his level) and even a boxing match after beginning his training with a boxing coach. He was committed to the sport, knowing it was likely his future.
But then when he wanted to start fighting, he had to go out of state. It wasn’t pleasant.
“The last thing you want to do when you’re cutting weight is drive two-and-a-half hours to Ohio while you’re dehydrated and get ready for a fight,” he said.
Whatever Cherico did, it was working. He compiled a 9-0 amateur record and wanted to turn professional. At the time, he was waking daily at 3 a.m. and working jobs at UPS and a pizza shop before training at night and heading to bed about 11 p.m.
The work paid off in his pro career, which began 13 months ago. And remember that tight-knit Italian community? He’s back living there with his wife and young daughter, and it can provide a crowd for him at his fights upward of 300 strong.
He has impressed them and others attending his fights by displaying the results of preparation bordering on obsession, with constant review of his fight video and drilling of even the most basic MMA elements to stay sharp.
His next opportunity comes June 29 at a Pinnacle FC show as he hopes to continue his climb in the sport.
“I feel like a win would get my name out there more, and that’s what I want,” he said. “I do what I do because I want to be perfect, and that’s what I work for.”
On May 9, we told you how lightweight Joe Heiland balances his fighting career with his teaching career at a school that serves kids with behavioral problems and other issues. The next day, Heiland earned his third straight win by beating Augusta Tindall (2-3) by split decision at Ultimate Victory Challenge 23 in Columbus, Ohio.
The win continued momentum for Heiland following an 18-month break away from fighting to start a young family and heal from a foot injury. He improved to 9-2-1 with the win.
Back in May 2011, welterweight Cathal Pendred talked to us a week after signing a five-fight contract with Cage Warriors. He discussed his policeman-turned-lawyer father, his birth in Boston, his upbringing in Ireland and his introduction to MMA in San Diego.
Since that column, Pendred has gone 5-0-1 in six fights, won Cage Warriors’ welterweight title and is 12-2-1 heading into a June 1 title fight with Che Mills (15-5) at Cage Warriors 55 in Dublin.
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel pens “Fight Path” each week. The column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at] mmajunkie.com.