Boston’s Charles Rosa comes home at UFC Fight Night, after coming so far

Fighting in the Boston Garden Sunday on the UFC Fight Night card will be a wish come true for featherweight Charles Rosa.

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Charles Rosa isn’t world famous or a millionaire, yet, but the 28 year old featherweight is exactly where he wants to be right now. This evening, he’s sipping water from a plastic gallon milk jug while sitting down on a couch in a Boston hotel lounge next to his coach and manager, UFC veteran Charles McCarthy, while everyone around him drinks and eats more flavorful options.

The hotel, the couch and the water aren’t the important parts, of course. What is, for Rosa, is that he’s just days away from fighting in the UFC at home, in the Boston Garden where he grew up as a young hockey player watching his beloved Bruins play. In fact, the Bruins play Saturday night in the Garden, and the American Top Team product and his fellow UFC Fight Night card mates will do battle there the very next night.

Any young athlete would be ecstatic to compete on the largest stage available, in their hometown. The experience is particularly gratifying and surreal for Rosa because of how far he’s come over the past few years.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Boston son first discovered MMA while in Florida for drug rehabilitation. He grew up watching boxing, and saw a guy with a fight team gym bag on the bus one day, asked him for the information and showed up ready to learn, with an attitude.

"My very first day in the gym, I saw [UFC featherweight] Cole Miller-€“ but I had no idea who he was – €“and I asked him if he wanted to spar," Rosa remembers with a smile.

"He looked over at me, said nothing and kept on hitting the bag. So I leaned in and said, ‘so, is that a no?’"

Rosa laughs at his unintended disrespect back then. After being challenged, Miller obliged Rosa and taught him a thing or two.

Rosa next sparred Brian Bowles, a week before he would go on to knock out Miguel Torres and win the 135 pound world title. The former hockey player had no idea who the guys he was throwing down with were, at the time, until the gym owner McCarthy sat him down and told him.

Rosa had been discouraged that he couldn’t get the better of Miller and Bowles, but McCarthy was shocked at how well a first day walk-in student fared. Rosa stuck around, and became McCarthy’s most dedicated student.

"I’ve never had a better student, ever. He made me want to stop coaching, because I thought it couldn’t better than him," McCarthy says.

The coach said he saw world class internal fortitude in the young man, and almost immediately set him up on a blue-chip path. Rosa went to Holland to train with Stefan Berkenpas with the famed Mejiro Gym between fights.

Rosa trained boxing with John David Jackson, and sparred with current middleweight king Sergey Kovalev. The boxing trainer told Rosa that he could turn him into "a million-dollar boxer" if he focused on the sweet science, but McCarthy steered him towards MMA.

"Boxing chews fighters up and leaves them torn up at the end," he explains.

I’ve never had a better student, ever. He made me want to stop coaching, because I thought it couldn’t better than him

"Charles is a smart kid, has a college degree, and can do things after fighting if he has the brains left after this career."

Amid all this globe-trotting, Rosa fought. A lot.

He stayed an amateur longer than most wanted him to, so that he could develop and be ready for top competition as soon as he turned pro. After every fight, Rosa and his coaches would tweak things.

For example, two years ago McCarthy told the fighter that, although his striking and ground game were coming along nicely, he’d never be a champion unless he got good at wrestling. "Since then, he’s worked with [former featherweight world champion] Mike Brown every day," he says.

His coaches groomed and pushed him with the intention of turning him into a world champion, from the start, but all Rosa himself knew at the time was that he’d found something to replace hockey for competition, after he didn’t make the NHL.

MMA training also began to help Rosa deal with the wounds of his own drug problems and the death of his older brother. Back then, Rosa was an unknown kid, alone in a state foreign to him, battling to just get right with himself.

Sunday, he’ll be back home in front of thousands of neighbors cheering from him as he fights over the Boston Garden ice he’s revered since childhood. Last year, when I first met Rosa, he told me that MMA saved his life.

So, you’re inclined to believe him when he says that there is literally nothing else in the world he wants or would enjoy more than being a UFC fighter this Sunday night.

"From sitting there on that bus in Florida, to walking into the gym blind, to sitting here with you, days away from fighting in the Garden, it’s surreal, man," Rosa admits.

"I grew up watching the Bruins, and always wanted to play there. All these years working hard down in Florida, I was and am so proud to be from Boston. I’d tell people, ‘I’m from Boston!’ and they’d just be like, ‘ok,’" he laughs.

Rosa, of course, has already made his UFC debut -€“ a short notice fight of the night battle against Dennis Siver last October, that he had to cut thirty pounds in just five days for -€“ but now he comes in with more preparation, and gets to do it at home. For someone who has gone as much as Rosa has, this isn’t a simple a professional homecoming -€“ it’s a victory lap in life.

"If you would have asked me back then what I would wish for, one wish, not even a career goal but one wish for my life, I wouldn’t have asked for a  billion dollars. I would have asked for this moment, Sunday, to be fighting at the Garden."