They say that you can’t choose your family. Clarence and Brandon Thatch didn’t.

Destiny not biology, decided to bring them together more than 24 years ago. Their relationship started differently than most fathers and sons, but it’s undeniable that they were meant to be together. The sport of mixed martial arts guided them to their first meeting and has since formed a monumental part of their relationship. But behind all the wins and losses is a bond that no one could have predicted, a bond that no one can break.

At five years old, Brandon entered Clarence Thatch’s gym with eagerness and excitement. The idea of fighting for fun was far more appealing than getting scolded and even kicked out of school for the same. His rambunctiousness was paired with a more serious issue. His anger had begun to boil to the surface due to the absence of his biological father, and as a result, his mother wanted him to find something to channel his frustrations.

That first day of MMA training would prove to be life changing for everyone involved. Brandon’s mother, Tawnyetta Thatch, recalls that the bond between student and teacher was instant. Clarence Thatch remembers the first meeting even more profoundly.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” Clarence said.

While Clarence and Tawnyetta began to date and eventually marry, Brandon excelled under the tutelage of the legendary fighter and instructor. And “legend” is the way Clarence is most typically described in the world of MMA. His résumé – filled with titles in boxing, kickboxing, karate and Sabaki – tells the story of a “mixed” martial artist long before the sport had a mainstream name.

Not only did Brandon find a coach to perfect his fighting skills, but Clarence became a true father. He helped young Brandon deal with his anger issues. He cultivated what would become a lifelong passion for Brandon, who’s now widely considered one of the top welterweight MMA fighters in the world. Clarence guided him in and out of the octagon, and carefully through life. He had an immediate impact on everything Brandon attempted to accomplish.

“My first memory of my dad is the gym. He was my instructor then, but he was always charismatic. Everyone gravitated toward him,” Brandon recalled. “Once my mom and he started dating and he moved in, we became a family. He taught me everything. He was my father. He taught me it all.”

Although not genetically related, the similarities in personality and athleticism were uncanny from the beginning.

“They were both naturally gifted athletes,” said Sven Bean, longtime friend and manager of both Clarence and Brandon. “But they both are very funny dudes, slightly different, but in a good way. They also have very, very good hearts. They don’t think of themselves first, which is rare for a fighter.”

Clarence had built himself into a legendary fighter and once retired, he transformed himself into an expert trainer and coach. That path was heavily influenced by his own father. The son of a boxer, Clarence initially enjoyed both aspects of a loving father and a calculated fighting coach.

Across decades of fighting, Clarence went onto a surreal career record of 167-9 and multiple championships in a wide variety of fighting disciplines. However, Clarence’s father’s influence changed when he returned from the Korean War.

Clarence’s once caring, thought-provoking father was distant, angry and detached. It was a tough experience for Clarence, but one that molded him into the father that he became for Brandon and his two daughters.

“He was one of those hardcore dads,” Clarence said of his father. “He went to war and came back ruined. He left a great human being, someone who really loved us, took care of us and would do anything for us. And he came back brutal, but he was still a great coach. It also cleared a conviction I have – that I would never treat my kids the way he treated us when he returned.”

Now with his fighting career long over, Clarence has trained thousands. But in a twist of fate, the young boy who needed both a father and a coach has become his most-talented and naturally gifted student.

“He is everything I was – but better,” Clarence said, beaming with pride. “He’s a much better fighter than I ever was. It took me a few years to learn how to become a good fighter. It didn’t take him anytime at all.”

Across the years Brandon dominated kickboxing tournaments and learned from the best in MMA while training at his father’s gym. Today, he’s a featured fighter in the top MMA organization in the world, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

On his way up the ranks, Brandon has had to deal with issues with his biological father. Through several disappointing and even traumatizing meetings with his estranged father, Brandon found that Clarence is the only male role model and father he needs.

“Having the MMA that we both are into is amazing, but it’s not the only thing that draws us together. I am very lucky to have him in my life,” Brandon said. “I could have had my biological father in my life and things would have been fucking shitty. It would not be the same.”

Brandon currently sits at an 11-2 professional fighting record, 2-1 in the UFC. With an upcoming fight on July 11 (coincidentally his 30th birthday) against John Howard, Brandon will try to continue his ascension as a fighter. On his way, he will always be thinking of his legendary father.

“I know he doesn’t care whether I win or lose,” Brandon said. “But at the same time, I want to win and I feel like every time I do win, a piece of him wins. There is definitely a big drive to win for us both.”

Clarence reached the pinnacle of success in several fight sports from Sabaki (no pads, full-contact karate) to boxing (a 20-0 career record) to several heavyweight titles in professional kickboxing. On the way, he developed a mantra that he said before every fight: “I am the best. There are none better. I will win.”

And while Clarence needed that belief to fight successfully, and while he teaches his fighters the same credo today, it’s what Brandon learns through MMA and life that remains paramount to Clarence.

Despite a February loss to former UFC titleholder Benson Henderson, Brandon is still an up-and-coming star. Clarence, still the coach and fighter, is more concerned with Brandon’s life outside of MMA.

“I see him winning the UFC world title, but if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t be upset about it,” Clarence said. “I don’t have to hope anymore or wish because I have seen it. I wanted him to be a fair, honest, respectful person and he has grown up to be that person. He has every trait a father would want to see in a son. That’s all I wanted.

“I didn’t care about the fighting all that much, but I wanted him to be a good man.”

Life has a strange way of bringing people together. And despite long odds – not being related by blood – the relationship between Clarence and Brandon has blossomed into what appears to be a perfect father-son bond.

“In the truest sense of the word, Clarence is Brandon’s father. And Brandon is his son,” Bean said. “Brandon is Clarence’s pride and joy for sure. He’s Clarence’s son.”

No matter what happens in the octagon, both have little fear of the future given the closeness of their bond. Whether or not Brandon’s MMA dreams come true or not, Clarence will be there – and they will win in any aspect of life together, an achievement both value over championship belts.

“He loves me with all his heart and I love him with all of my heart,” Brandon said. “The guy is literally all heart. He is always available to his family. He will always be in my life as a coach, but more than anything he is my father.”

Destiny brought the Thatches together; hard work in and out of the octagon built that unique relationship into a father-and-son bond much like any other. While genetics do not connect the two, fate made damn sure that their athleticism, passion, humor and a loving nature kept them together through life’s many trials.

UFC glory may or may not be in Brandon’s future, but the uncertainty of not having a father in his life will never be a question he has to contemplate. Win, lose or draw – inside the octagon or out – Clarence will be in Brandon’s corner.

That’s what a true father does.