Fourteen years ago, Catalan was forced to walk away from Wushu, a sport he was dominating.

Once forced to retire, Rene Catalan turns bitterness to a drive for SEAG glory

Fourteen years ago, the former Wushu champion had no choice but walk away from a sport he loved and flourished in. But the current MMA fighter wants to make the Manila-hosted regional meet in November one for the books. 
Nissi Icasiano | Aug 21 2019

Rene Catalan is one of the most decorated Wushu practitioners ever to make the transition to mixed martial arts (MMA). He has won both the Wushu World Championship and Wushu World Cup twice, and has copped gold medals at the Asian Championships, Asian Games, and Southeast Asian games (SEAG).

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Although he started on the wrong foot in MMA, the 40-year-old managed to turn odds into his favor a few years later. He aced six consecutive matches in ONE Championship to establish himself as a top contender in the strawweight division.

The Iloilo native has no greater desire other than donning an MMA world championship title around his waist, but he has to set that dream aside for now. He has once again made himself available to represent the country at the SEAG—this time for the sport of Sambo.

It’s been 14 years since he won gold for Men's Sanshou at the 2005 Manila SEAG. "I am just so happy to be given the opportunity to represent the Philippines once again,” he says. “Since I was a kid, my main goal has always been to give honor to my country.”

Catalan transitioned to MMA after being forced to retire from Wushu.

Catalan revealed that ONE Championship matchmakers approached him in June with an offer to face Team Lakay’s Joshua Pacio for the promotion’s strawweight title. He turned down the fight proposal as he is keen on bringing home a gold medal for the Philippines, which will host the biennial multi-sport event from November 30 to December 11. “I have a good chance of bringing home a medal, so I decided to compete one more time,” he shares.

He may be competing in a different sport, but he is nonetheless motivated to settle some unfinished business at the SEA Games.

“My time with the Wushu national team was cut short when I was 26 years old. I was asked to retire to give way to other athletes," he discloses. "I was just starting in Wushu back then." He said he had dreams of becoming a 10-time Wushu champion, and of bringing home numerous gold medals to the nation.

“But I had no other choice because (the Wushu Federation of the Philippines) is the authority. I felt bad. I was at the peak of my prime, but they forced me to retire from the team," Catalan says. They saw how much he sacrificed for the sport, he said, but it was all for naught.


Sights on Sambo

There is no question about Catalan’s credentials in the Russian martial art as he made his presence felt in the region last year. He captured the gold medal at the Southeast Asian Sambo Championships in Jakarta, Indonesia. “They saw my dedication in the sport, and maybe that’s why they chose me to represent the country,” he opines.

Catalan is treating his SEA Games comeback as his swan song. He plans to focus on coaching the national team full-time moving forward. “Not everyone is given a chance to represent the country," the five-foot-three fighter shares. "That’s why I’m going to work double-time in training sessions, so I can repay the trust that the country has given me.” 

Catalan may be busy training in Sambo for the upcoming SEA Games, but he clarified that ONE Championship remains as a priority. “I am thankful because they allowed me to be part of the national team. I was willing to accept fights, aside from the title shot, until October before I turned my focus to the SEA Games,” he bares.

In his most previous cage outing in March, Catalan scored a shocking first-round victory over former champion Yoshitaka Naito. Now riding high on a six-fight winning streak, he is undoubtedly next in line for Pacio’s gold-plated strap. But the idea of fighting a fellow Filipino does not sit well with him.

Catalan is competing in the Russian martial art of Sambo. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons

“We’re off the same blood. I have always supported Filipino fighters. I want to keep on supporting Filipino athletes, and as much as possible, I’d like to avoid fighting them,” he says.

Despite Catalan’s reluctance to share the stage with Pacio, Team Lakay sings a different tune as the group has always been open to be booked against anyone that the organization would throw their way.

The best example of Team Lakay’s willingness to dance with their countrymen was when Honorio Banario fought and defeated Eric Kelly via fourth-round technical knockout for the inaugural ONE Championship featherweight title in February 2013.

Geje Eustaquio also figured in a Filipino-versus-Filipino showdown in December 2013, scoring a lopsided unanimous decision win over Eugene Toquero, whom teammate Danny Kingad likewise toppled three years later by way of first-round submission.

The La Trinidad, Benguet-based MMA stable has repeatedly expressed that they respect Catalan as a mixed martial artist, but all of those pleasantries would be put aside if they were to cross paths. “Even back then, they’ve always wanted to face me. I have repeatedly said that I will support my fellow Filipinos, but they may have a different take on it. Don’t get me wrong, I am up for the challenge,” Catalan clarifies.

At the moment, Catalan is channeling all of his attention to his SEA Games return later this year.

"We cannot say or calculate. Anything can happen in a match. Like in MMA, Sambo is a game of chance, wherein everyone has a chance and deserves a chance. The chances to bring home medals are high. I believe we can do it,” he declares.