Many fighters will tell you a tale of their windy road to combat sport success. For Mark Abelardo it has been an unlikely journey that took him from Auckland to Pattaya.

Growing up in New Zealand, the teenage Kiwi-Filipino had aspirations of following his passion for gaming into a career in Computer Science, which he’d recently begun studying at university.

Concerned that he wasn’t in the ideal physical condition, an 18-year-old Abelardo opted to try his hand at some MMA classes at his local gym.

Soon discovering he had a natural aptitude for striking, he was quickly thrust into the cage to put those skills to the test, an experience which left him in no doubt where he wanted to go with his life.

“After I had my first amateur fight I was just hooked,” Abelardo says.

Career crossroads

Abelardo realized he would have to choose to priorities either his academic ambitions or his combat sport career. He opted for the latter,

“Then I had to make the choice whether I wanted to train and fight full time or study. So I managed to scrape through that year of uni, and that’s when I made the decision that next year that I wanted to take it on full time.”

The next significant step in Abelardo’s journey was inspired by a couple of his teammates at Auckland’s Strikeforce Gym, who have since gone on to become some of the country’s finest MMA exports – the UFC’s Dan Hooker and Kai Kara-France.

“They got sponsorships to go to Tiger Muay Thai and that’s when I got inspired by what they did,” he recalls.

“The next year I saw an ad on Facebook for sponsorships at Team Quest Thailand over in Chiang Mai. So I thought, ‘why not?’ The deadline for the signups had already passed but I gave it a try anyway and they gave me a call a week later and that was it.”

Last minute

Things started to move much faster than Abelardo could have possibly anticipated. But he was determined not to let the opportunity pass him by,

“They asked a lot of questions about whether I was prepared to make the move in two months and to be honest, at the time, I wasn’t.

“I still had a full time job, I didn’t have much savings, but I just said ‘yeah I do’ and then later in the next two weeks I resigned, sold all of my stuff, and then made the move.”

That semi-bluff has since led him to Pattaya’s world-renowned Fairtex Gym, where Abelardo has gone from strength to strength.

He secured a berth on ONE Championship’s talent-identification league – ONE Warrior Series, then quickly graduated to the premier level, where he’ll make his fifth outing against Fabricio Andrade at ONE: ‘No Surrender’ in Bangkok on July 31st.

“I’m very grateful to be here at Fairtex. They’ve done so much for me here. I wouldn’t have been able to get to ONE without them… putting me out there to get all the experience with my fights, then me putting in the work and getting the wins.

“My dream was always trying to make it to ONE. Now I’m there and I’m trying to work my way up now.”

Hard time

It will be the promotion’s first fully-fledged event since Covid-19 brought the sporting world grinding to a halt. It means this training camp has brought a unique set of challenges to Abelardo,

“During the initial lockdown in the first two months it was pretty hard. But I’m grateful that we still had our tight group there. Even though it was just a small group we still were able to get trainings in here and there. We did our best until everything opened up again and now we’re back in full swing.”

Since signing for ONE Championship Abelardo has been in with some of the toughest competition the division has to offer. But the 28-year-old believes his best yet to come and Bangkok offers the perfect stage from which to impress,

“Going into ONE, I knew that I was going to be facing the top competition and it wasn’t going to be easy, but they’re all just small bumps in the journey. I’ve just got to keep on pushing. I want to make my way up the rankings and then just go from there.”

Improving game

This time out, Abelardo wants to showcase his improving overall game as a mixed martial artist and take a more measured approach into battle.

“Usually I like to bang and put on a show, but this time I want to just mix it up. Obviously still strike but I want to take him down, smother him on the ground and break him there.”

Abelardo’s Brazilian opponent will be making his promotional debut, and he’s eager to roll out the welcome mat, in the most violent of ways of course.

“I know he’s a high level striker. He’s very quick. But I feel like I’ve got a lot more experience and I’m going to be taking him into deep waters.

“I always like to get the finish, so I want to get either a second or third round stoppage, ground and pound, submission. Wherever the fight goes.”