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MMA: London fighter Linton Vassell embarks on PFL heavyweight title quest aged 40

Linton Vassell's face glows with anticipation as the moment dawns on him when he realises just how far he has come.

The 40-year-old takes himself back to his early 20s and his very first fight in Doncaster. He can't remember if he ever got paid.

The contrast is stark to what Vassell will experience on Thursday in Texas where the Londoner fights 33-year-old Russian Denis Goltsov in the first match of the Professional Fighters League's (PFL) 2024 season.

The eventual winner of the heavyweight tournament will pick up a $1m (£800,000) cheque along with a world title.

Speaking near his home in Florida, the ups and downs Vassell details over his distinguished 19-year career can be encapsulated by one word - perseverance.

"It really is surreal," Vassell tells BBC Sport. "Fighting for pretty much peanuts. It really is crazy to actually put it all together.

"But I've been doing it a long time. I never went from nothing to a big pay cheque, I was never getting the top money.

"And finally, finally after keeping on winning, I'm at a good part of my life where I can look back and say this is all worth it."

'I didn't like fighting growing up'

Working full-time as a builder, Vassell was a latecomer to mixed martial arts and first introduced to the sport around the age of 21.

He was a fan of WWE and playfighting with his friend in his back garden when he performed a slam known as a 'Rock Bottom'.

"I didn't like fighting at all growing up, it wasn't a thing I wanted to do," adds Vassell. "I'd wrestle with friends and stuff, but never actual fighting.

"I loved watching Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, Legion of Doom, all these guys, so I was drawn to wrestling.

"I picked my friend up, who was a martial artist, and gave him a 'Rock Bottom' and ended up knocking him out by accident.

"And from then he was saying, 'Linton, you have to come to the gym. If you did that to me, imagine with some training what you could do'."

After joining an MMA gym, Vassell never looked back.

'My career was on the line'

A long-time servant in Bellator, the MMA promotion has been sold to the PFL since Vassell last fought in March 2023 against Valentin Moldavsky.

After two defeats in light-heavyweight title fights over his 10 years in Bellator, Vassell's journey ended on a sour note when he was forced to withdraw from a heavyweight world title fight against Ryan Bader last October.

But having rebuilt himself from two heartbreaks and forging a new career at heavyweight after being virtually "written off", Vassell enters the PFL's season format on a five-fight winning streak.

The finals will take place at the end of the year.

As he begins yet another shot at the title, Vassell hopes his career can inspire others.

He says "100% don't give up", adding: "I know everyone wants it now and then, but you have to work for it.

"I've been doing this a long time. I could have quit many times, and I did think of quitting sometimes, but don't quit."