Features

How Martial Arts Helped Zebaztian Kadestam Turn Away From Crime

August 29, 2017

Zebaztian “The Bandit” Kadestam (9-3) finally has purpose in his life. For the past eight years, the 26-year-old Swede has dedicated his life to martial arts, and the relentless pursuit of winning a world championship.

It all culminates on Saturday, 2 September, when he challenges undefeated titleholder Ben “Funky” Askren (16-0, 1 NC) for the ONE Welterweight World Championship at ONE CHAMPIONSHIP: SHANGHAI.

This is undoubtedly the biggest match of Kadestam’s career, and a marquee moment in his life. To get to this point, he had to overcome a tremendous amount of self-inflicted adversity as a troubled youth. He was directionless, and living without purpose. Without martial arts, “The Bandit” might very well have ended up in jail, instead of competing for a world title.

Bad Beginnings

Born and raised in Uppsala, the fourth-largest city in Sweden, Kadestam’s childhood started out as normal as possible. His father worked long hours as a bag handler, and later a manager, at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, and his mother was a homemaker to him and his two younger siblings.

“We did not have so much,” he says. “But my parents were always there for me.”

“The Bandit” was a very energetic child, having been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. To help curb that, his mom enrolled him in judo classes at the age of eight. He learned the basics, but the discipline could not hold his attention, and he soon gave up. He tried gymnastics, soccer, and even floorball, a Swedish-developed version of floor hockey, but the interest soon fell away as well.

Sadly, the same could be said for school. By the time he reached the fifth Grade, he had given up. “I lost all ambition to get anything good out of school,” he admits.

Out of the blue, one thing got his attention: Muay Thai. Kadestam, who always liked to roughhouse, attended a class with a good friend who had been competing. The young Swede still remembers that day fondly.

“I was hooked from the first session,” recalls Kadestam. “I enjoyed the battle between two martial artists testing themselves. I believed I was going to do this until the day I died, and nothing was going to take me away from this.”

The allure of the streets and a life of trouble, however, would prove to be his downfall. Kadestam and a friend started out by committing petty theft. Soon, that turned into cutting school, engaging in street fights, and even selling and using drugs. He was arrested regularly, just for fighting.

In the ninth Grade, “The Bandit” was suspended from school, and sent to a youth detention center for the first time. When he was released from the juvenile facility, he went back to his old ways, and wound up back in the same place.

“I was doing a lot of stupid and unnecessary stuff,” he explains, as he recalls the darkest times of his life. “I was never some big-time criminal. Me and my friends, we saw ourselves as on top of the world, and thought we could do anything. It took a while for me to grow up, and realize that I was only digging my grave deeper and deeper.”

Finding Purpose

Kadestam’s problems were at their worst when he reached the age of 16, when he was sent to a youth detention center on the southeastern Swedish island of Gotland for two years. At first, he resisted the program, and tried to escape the facility twice. After a few weeks, however, he shed his delinquent mentality, and gravitated towards a special program which helped many of the center’s residents get their lives back on track.

“They used training. Like, you could do Brazilian jiu-jitsu or something like lift weights, but you had to train once a day,” he explains, noting that the program was run by a BJJ brown belt and a former boxer. “I never had any ambition to become an athlete, but the martial arts always found its way back to me. And whenever I got back to it, my life straightened out.”

Initially, the Swede did not have much success on the mats. He was a large kid who felt embarrassed whenever smaller opponents submitted him with armbars, leg locks, and various chokes. Kadestam’s pride was damaged. But beneath the surface, those episodes systematically broke down his walls, and unlocked his inner greatness.

“It changed my way of thinking,” he acknowledges. “I started getting a little more confident just being myself, and I did not have to try to be this scary guy trying to prove myself to everyone. I can just do this, be happy with myself, and try to grow as a person, instead of breaking myself down.”

Also, while living in this facility, he befriended some fellow residents, and was introduced to martial arts competitions that were sweeping across Asia and North America. He watched matches from some of the world’s biggest promotions, where the athletes blended Muay Thai with jiu-jitsu, wrestling, karate, and an assortment of other styles.

That is when a dream was born. “When I was 18, I said to myself, ‘I am going to make it to the big show before I am 25,’ and when I said that to myself, I just set my sights on the rest of the world. That was my main focus and goal.”

A New Life 

Upon his release in 2009, Kadestam steered clear of his troubled past in Uppsala, and moved to Stockholm to train at Pancrase Gym Sweden. He spent a year practicing his kickboxing and grappling there, and then in 2010, he relocated to Thailand at the urging of his coach Mikael Nilsson.

“I already knew this was my last shot,” he says. “Because next time, if I mess up, it is going to be prison.”

“The Bandit” sharpened his skills at the world-famous Legacy Gym in the Thai city of Ubon Ratchathani. He lived there, trained alongside ONE veteran Ole Laursen, and had a successful Muay Thai career. He even made his professional cage debut in July 2011, defeating his opponent via knockout in just 14 seconds.

As the Swede’s life continued to blossom, he was afforded the opportunity to relocate to the Philippines in 2012, when the gym’s second branch, Legacy Gym Boracay, opened.

“In Boracay, there are the most beautiful beaches, and the people are great. I just loved it,” he says. “When we went there in the beginning, we only had a cage and a little house above it. That is all we had. We did a lot of our training on the beach, and just enjoyed the island life. Then, I started competing a lot in the Philippines.”

Kadestam proved to be unstoppable, and even won the PXC Welterweight Championship and defended it three times. But in 2015, three years after arriving in the Philippines, he decided to move back to Stockholm.

“I believe that too much comfort will someday bite you,” he says, also citing that his main sparring partners were leaving, and he experienced a dire need for a change in scenery. “Life is not comfortable at all here in Sweden, but I believe it is part of the process. Nothing comes for free or easy in this life. Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices to get what you really want.”

While it may be uncomfortable at times, being in Stockholm is exactly where Kadestam needs to be. He has several training partners of similar size at Pancrase Gym Sweden, all of whom are preparing him for his title clash against Askren on 2 September, and now he has the chance to spend more time with his family, especially his younger brother and sister.

As for the demons that once haunted him throughout his teenage life, he left those at the youth detention center in Gotland, and traded them for the only things he ever wanted: direction and meaning.

“I do not know if I can say I got my life back or started a new life, but martial arts gave me purpose,” he begins. “I would not be anywhere close to where I am today, both as a person or as a family member, or anywhere in life without it. So I am grateful for the martial arts, and I try to repay as much as I can by teaching and learning every day. Now, I wake up every day with a purpose in life, I have a vision, and it feels great.”

On 2 September, Kadestam has an opportunity to cap off an amazing comeback from a life on the streets. All he has to do is succeed where 17 others have failed – defeat wrestling legend and ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben Askren, and capture his world title.

Shanghai | 2 September | TV: Check local listings for global broadcast | PPV: Official Livestream at oneppv.com