Undefeated professional featherweight Mark "The Pride of Bloomfield" Cherico did his best to make his rise to MMA stardom as unlikely as possible.
When you look at Cherico's combined amateur and professional record—15-0, 14 finishes, nine in the first round—you're convinced he comes from a storied background in combat sports.
Maybe he wrestled at a Division I college. Maybe he's been kickboxing since he could walk. Maybe he took private Brazilian jiu-jitsu lessons as a pre-teen, logging hours every day on the mat and honing his submission skills.
Or maybe he was a prep cook for a Pittsburgh-based grocery store chain who took up fighting on a whim after seeing a neighbor carrying a bag of fight gear.
There was no secret formula for Cherico, no "ace in the hole." His curiosity led him to start training, and he immersed himself in the sport, diving headfirst into an uncertain world of punches, kicks, takedowns and submissions.
"I feel like I just work really hard. I'm never the best guy on the mat or in the weight room or anything like that. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard," Cherico said. "I'm not a fan of half-assing anything. I don't do anything half-assed. If I do something, I'm going all in, balls to the wall. I started training and I loved it, and if I like something, I'm going to pursue it 100 percent."
After suffering through the death of his father when he was in sixth grade, Cherico hit a rough patch in life. His schoolwork suffered, his attitude worsened and he quickly found himself on probation and banned from any extracurricular activities.
"Ahh, man, it was dumb stuff, cutting classes," Cherico said. "A bunch of us were cheating on tests and we all got caught, all that kind of stuff; dumb stuff, stupid kid s--t."
Following his graduation, Cherico wanted to head off to culinary arts school, but the advice of some co-workers quickly changed his mind on that front. While working in local kitchens and community centers, Cherico was told of head chefs in the area who struggled to pay back their student debt. In an effort to accomplish his dream while minimizing the cost of doing so, Cherico started working at a local grocery store, and they intended to send him to school for free.
This plan changed after Cherico's neighbor with the gym bag intervened and upended everything.
The Pride of Bloomfield loved fighting. He found his direction, his motivation.
And for somebody without even a high school wrestling background, he sure was good at this fighting stuff. He rattled off nine straight stoppages as an amateur, and by the time he turned pro in 2012, he was one of the most hyped prospects in the greater Pittsburgh region.
His pro debut lasted 56 seconds before his opponent, Donte Adams, was locked in a deep rear-naked choke and forced to tap out.
In his follow-up fight against Mark Wilson, Cherico took 30 seconds longer to seal the deal in the same fashion. Another fight, another quick rear-naked choke.
Then, something funny happened in Cherico's third professional fight. As a first-time father, Cherico entered the cage against Chris Dunn feeling the compounding effects of new stresses. He had just defeated Wilson a month earlier in November and the grind was catching up to him, mentally and physically.
"I just had my daughter in August, and I remember that whole year I was dealing with the NAAFS and fights were falling through, they were canceling fights they were supposed to have in Pittsburgh, so I was just frustrated," Cherico said. "I just fought in November, my head wasn't really in it and even before the fight I was thinking about saying, 'After this fight I'm done.'"
Dunn would find success on the feet and land a takedown early in the fight, by far the most trouble Cherico had experienced as a pro to that point. And yet, despite a troubled psyche and some early adversity, Cherico ended the fight with another rear-naked choke midway through the first round.
"I didn't know how badly I wanted it, but about three days after that, I was back in the gym training," Cherico said. "I was hungry."
Cherico silenced his demons after the fight with Dunn and turned a corner by defeating UFC veteran Donny Walker via TKO in his next outing. After this thrashing, Cherico knew his future in the sport was secure. He wasn’t giving up on his dream that easily.
"When I turned pro and I got the win over Donny Walker, I think, is when I really realized that maybe I could do something here," Cherico said. "Maybe I could make a run."
It took that doubt to show Cherico he was supposed to be here. Even now, he talks about days spent with his wife and daughter strolling through Pittsburgh and enjoying the "normal" life with a tinge of envy.
"Maybe you have a day where you're not working and you take a walk with your wife and daughter and you're running into friends and family and they're just walking around being happy, going out to dinner, having a nice night out, and I'm like, 'Oh, man. I never get to do this. Everyone's just out being regular. I could do that. I could live a regular life,'" Cherico said.
Cherico and his daughter, Aubree Rose
Only it's not that simple, not for somebody who is entrenched in combat as both a teacher and a student every day, and Cherico is reminded after each training session why he makes the sacrifices he does.
"But then you go back to the gym, you have a great day, and you're like, 'Holy f--k. I could never go back, I could never have a regular 9-to-5 work day," Cherico said. "Fighting is my life.'"
Now, Cherico is 6-0 as a professional and will face 4-1 Luis Guerra at Pinnacle Fighting Championships 8 on Saturday, July 12, in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.
Backed by ex-UFC fighter Charles McCarthy and Guardian Sports Group, home of current UFC fighters such as Rob Font and Alex White, Cherico looks primed to break out of the local circuit and throw his name into the mix in the UFC's stacked featherweight division.
But he has to defeat Guerra first, a point not lost in the swirling sea of hype and heightened expectations.
"I know it's (my call from the UFC) coming. I just gotta stay on the right track and keep winning," Cherico said. "I know the call's going to come as long as I keep doing my part, and my part's winning."