Lucas Matthysse Fights with Family and Country in His Heart and on His Skin

Photo: Ed Mulholland

Photo: Ed Mulholland

By Diego Morilla

(Click for Spanish)

The all-lower-case, heavily misspelled Facebook post stands out in Lucas Matthysse’s profile as rare isolated text among dozens of selfies with his family, his friends, his team, his beloved daughter and his dogs, most of them with barely an explanatory footnote. It stands as a testimony of a rare and urgent moment of inspiration, an unstoppable feeling that needed to be put into words and relayed to the world immediately.

“I love you man, you don’t know how proud I am and our family as well. This thing you’re doing, very few would do it, leaving your family and everything for what you love, which is boxing. I am very proud of you, know it. You will reach the top, you’ll see. I left my home when I was 14 to be where I am and every sacrifice will bear fruits and you will never regret the decision you made. I love you, keep representing your country and your family name.”

The open message from Lucas Matthysse to his 17-year old nephew Ezequiel – who has recently moved to the United States to pursue a professional career as a boxer – evokes much more than the loving encouragement of a relative to a young man in pursuit of his dream. It bears traces of Lucas’s own journey from teenage runaway to boxing champion, but it also carries in it the flame of a craft and a passion that has defined the Matthysse family across generations, and in both genders.  

Ezequiel’s father, Walter, was himself a promising KO artist on his way to the top before he ran into Paul Williams back in 2009 in a career-wrecking loss. Walter and Lucas’s father Mario was a fringe contender in the talent-rich Argentine scene of the 1970s, and their sister Soledad (married to a fighter, a brother of former two-division champion Omar Narvaez) is a female world champion in her own right. And even their mom Doris climbed into the ring for one fight many years ago to finally get a taste of the rush, the passion, and the pain that her offspring, her husband, and her brother Miguel Angel Steimbach had experienced in the squared circle, retiring as an amateur provincial champion with a grand record of 1-0.

Clearly it'd be an understatement to say that boxing runs in the Matthysse family. And yet, Lucas takes it to another level, carrying the torch and bearing the pride of his family and his country on his fists and his very skin, which he has transformed into an illustrated testimony of his trials and his commitment to the family trade.

It all started with his own journey of self-discovery back in adolescence.

Leaving the parental home is not an easy decision for a teenager, but Matthysse’s desire to grow into a world-class fighter was too strong to be contained by the walls of his childhood home, and in that interest he left his mother’s home in Esperanza to live in the neighboring town of Vera in the northern portion of the Santa Fe province in Argentina, an area populated long ago by the Dutch and German immigrants from whom Matthysse draws his name and his nomadic spirit.

As in many other childhood adventures, Lucas took comfort in the presence of a sidekick willing to take turns playing Tom and Huck in the Argentine lowlands.

The kids at the gym knew him as Chino. You may know him as former junior welterweight champion Marcos Maidana.

“We shared the same room. We trained together, we went to the fights together, and sometimes we fought each other. We would get up in the ring, beat the crap out of each other, and then leave on the same bus,” said Lucas about his relationship with Maidana, with whom he is still friends.

Maidana, born and raised in neighboring Margarita, had found his way to Vera and met Juan Keller, Matthysse’s trainer and temporary father figure, at the local sports club. Soon enough they were two more kids in the Keller family eating, drinking, and breathing boxing; working in Juan’s grocery store; and going around the countryside in the old family truck to pick up fruit boxes and look for fights.

“He had a truck and we would go sell groceries from town to town,” said Lucas, “and we’d carry our punching bags in the truck to hang them from trees by the road, or we would go to wherever there was a fight card to try to get a fight.”

Shortly after, Matthysse began adding permanent lines and colors to the scars and marks left on his body by his boxing activity. And he hasn’t stopped ever since.

“I started with a little heart here in my hand, and when [my parents] found out, they gave me a lot of shit,” said Lucas about the many tattoos that populate his skin, most of which are self-inflicted. “Then I wrote some initials here [on my biceps] and they didn’t care. So I went on,” he laughed.

Soon, he became an ardent advocate of putting his feelings into ink, and just like an inspired Tom Sawyer recruiting his reluctant buddies to paint the picket fence for him, he began selling his modest talents to his fellow fighters for a quick buck – as well as the pleasure of becoming a more permanent part of their professional and emotional investment in boxing.

“When I was in the national team I tattooed everyone, like (current junior flyweight titlist Juan Carlos) Reveco, Maidana, all of them. I put together an improvised little machine and started learning, first on myself and then with others,” said Matthysse, who has since then added a few patriotic-themed tattoos like the large Argentine map emblazoned with the sun on his back, and a line that runs in a collar-like shape between his clavicles on his chest, which reads “Juremos con Gloria Morir” (“Let us swear to die with glory”).

That sentence—which is the last phrase of the Argentine national anthem—and the map were only a few of the latest additions to a long list of inspirational tattoos that have grown in size and emotional meaning as Matthysse’s career has progressed from traveling teenage brawler to world-class boxer. And all along, that vast Argentine country he carries on his back, from the bleak landscape of his Northern childhood stomping grounds to the even bleaker, windy environs of his current home in the Patagonian town of Trelew, have provided the perfect background for Matthysse to build his fighting spirit, just as they did with his next foe.

Because one stark similarity shared by Ruslan “The Siberian Rocky” Provodnikov and Matthysse, is the fact that they both come from a land where there is no place to hide for miles on end. And that’s what people expect to see in their fight, Saturday night on Boxing After Dark: a toe-to-toe action bout between two fighters bred in similarly bleak and desolate environments who have embraced the call of their surrounding wilderness and transformed it into their biggest asset in the ring.

Like Provodnikov, Lucas will be riding on his hunger, his flag, his soul and his family pride for a fight that will be disputed on a stage distant enough from both of their homelands to avoid large contingents of fans from either fighter giving them the “local advantage” with their support – a fact that many other fighters would perceive as a hindrance.

But these two loners born and bred in two of the most barren patches of land on Earth have learned the hard way to use that hardship to help them summon their strengths. And their personal records indicate that's exactly what they will be doing in the ring to produce the explosive performance that everyone is expecting from them.

For Matthysse, as always, his national pride and his family’s mission will scream just as loud from the ink on his skin as it does in the howling winds of his native land to remind him that he has more than a map and the lyrics to a song tattooed on him. Something that is buried deeper within his body, and which has remained there since he left his home as little more than a kid with a dream and a mission.

“His hunger, for sure,” said Juan Keller, when asked about the reasons why he sees Lucas dominating his division and becoming an Argentine all-time great in the near future. “But he also loves boxing. He left lots of things behind because of boxing. His flag, his soul and his spirit is boxing."

On April 18th, Matthysse promises to strengthen the ties that bind him to his country, as well as inspiring the next generation of Matthysses to do the same, in a fight in which he is the favorite to put his name once again at the top of a talent-rich division, and in which his love for the sport that has defined his family will be in full display.

Whether he can dominate Provodnikov and thus plot a roadmap to victory to his nephew and the next generation of Matthysses remains to be seen.  But win or lose, he will surely continue leaving his mark on Argentine boxing history, where he holds the rare distinction of being a fighter who almost never fails to send his opponents to the canvas at least once (Danny Garcia is the lone exception).

And if the occasion presents itself, Matthysse doesn’t rule out the possibility of a more permanent impression on his foes. 

“I believe that everyone who faced me is going to remember me, regardless of whether I tattoo them or not,” said Lucas, “but I hope I can tattoo one of my opponents one day.”

The distant memories of Lucas hitting the heavy bag under the trees, with Marcos Maidana waiting for his turn by the old produce truck near the cattle fields, both of them dreaming of hauling first-class opponents into the slaughterhouse, are long gone. But his desire to tattoo his name in boxing’s collective memory is still there, and he doesn’t just carry his family and his country’s support within him.

He keeps his promise to defend both of them or die with glory in the process near his heart.