“I’m leaving for two weeks.”
With those five words, Efrain Escudero probably changed his life forever. It may have only been 14 days out of that life, but the lessons he learned in his native Mexico in September are ones that will always stick with him.
“I wasn’t happy where I was at,” said Escudero. “And one day I told everybody I’m leaving. I packed my bags and left my credit cards and debit card in the US and I traveled to Mexico and I lived with a family there. I worked with them and saw what it takes to live down there and to appreciate what I have more.”
You don’t see accomplished pro athletes pulling a disappearing act like that. You just don’t. But a year after experiencing the lowest point in his five year MMA career, getting cut from the UFC after a 2010 loss to Charles Oliveira, he knew that the rebuilding process had one more step. He did his part in competition, winning four of his five post-UFC fights. Now came the finisher.
“I had to make myself mentally tough.”
He did, doing it the way the toughest of the tough do, for long hours and low pay.
“I was working construction, breaking walls and the ground and putting everything in wheelbarrows and shoveling dirt,” said Escudero of his time in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora. “And after 16 hours of hard labor, I would get paid 200 pesos, which would translate to around 18 dollars. At that point I was hating it. I was sore, I had blisters, I was hurting, but it was a very good learning experience. I went out there, I worked, I did everything that they did, and I got to value everything that I have now more.”
It wasn’t a publicity stunt, wasn’t something someone else told him to do. It was Escudero’s call, he did it, and he came back a different person and fighter. He wasn’t the same as he was in September of 2010, when the Oliveira bout capped off a 1-2 stretch that earned him his release, a move that stunned many, including Escudero, when it happened.
“It did come as a shock,” he said, pausing for a couple seconds before continuing. “It was very shocking. In all honesty, I don’t think I was doing that bad. I was 3-2 in the UFC when I got cut, but it happens and I learned a lot from it.”
It was more than the record though. Instead, it was a perfect storm of various instances coming together to send the Ultimate Fighter season eight winner out of the organization. After a 2-0 start to his UFC career that included an impressive first round knockout of Cole Miller at UFC 103, Escudero would lose a thriller to Evan Dunham in January of 2010 that didn’t see his stock drop at all. But a lackluster decision win over Dan Lauzon four months later didn’t do him any favors, and when he clocked in at 159 pounds for the Oliveira bout, some believed he was fighting for his job against the Brazilian. So when he lost, out came the axe. Don’t expect him to miss weight again.
“Me not making weight was a big issue, but I had to continue moving forward, and making weight should be a priority no matter what and that’s one thing I learned from it,” said Escudero, who, when asked whether all the media he was doing since coming off TUF was distracting him from the gym, didn’t point to that as a reason for him not being on point in his last two Octagon bouts.
“The media and the press are really good and I’m all for it and still to this day I’m all for it, but what I do believe happened is that every time I fought, I took a couple weeks off because my camps were really hard – or so I thought,” he said. “And I would go with my mom to visit my family and I would hang out with my friends and I would stay out of the gym, and the next thing you know, I have a fight scheduled already. So I wasn’t progressing and becoming a better MMA fighter; I was still the same fighter I was the previous fight. I wasn’t evolving and I believe that played a part in it.”
That doesn’t happen anymore, and with Ben Henderson and the rest of his teammates on The Lab Fight Team in Arizona pushing him daily, his focus is back where it belongs.
“I love waking up in the morning and going for a run, I love being in the gym and being surrounded by people that are gonna push me and make me a better person outside and inside the gym,” he said. “I think I got carried away by the whole ‘let’s go hang out, let’s do this’ thing, and now I’ve got my head on straight. I’m a gym junkie again, and I’m back to being the old me. Fight or no fight, I’m still trying to learn.”
From some, that would just be a lot of talk. Escudero backed up his talk by fighting as often as he could in order to get another call from the UFC. It wasn’t a situation of him fighting a pushover and then lighting up matchmaker Joe Silva’s cell phone. He decided that if he was going to get back, he was going to fight his way in.
“Some people sit and dwell and ask themselves why they got released and say it’s unfair and cry and whine,” said Escudero. “I was like, it already happened. I have to get back in the gym, and then I was fighting. I was trying to push myself forward and trying to make myself a better athlete, and that’s where it started. Then my management group and I sat down and they said you do your job, we’ll do ours, and we should be fine. So I’ll fight and continue to fight.”
After his four for five stretch (with the only loss coming via decision to UFC vet Fabricio Camoes in May) and trip to Mexico, the 25-year old Escudero submitted Cesar Avila in less than two minutes in a Bellator show in October. He scheduled a December fight to close out the year, but then he was invited to Vegas for New Year’s weekend, which just happens to kick off on Friday with a UFC bout against Jacob Volkmann. Escudero couldn’t be more excited – or more confident.
“I see my next target,” said Escudero of Volkmann. “I see somebody that goes in there and knows how to win fights. Everybody tells me or writes me and says that he’s not very exciting. But he’s a gamer and he wants to go in there and win fights regardless of what he has to do. He makes people look bad? It happens, that’s his style. But come December 30th, I’m ready to scrap. All I have to say is he did not go what I went through this year. This year was hard and I am so ready for this guy.”
It’s impossible not to believe him. And when you ask how his second stint in the UFC will go, he makes it clear that he’s not about to take it for granted.
“This will be sweeter,” he said. “I learned a lot. Some people learn it the first time around, some people have it in their natural selves to learn it. For me, I had to learn it the hard way, and this time, it’s true, I’m here to stay and I’m physically and mentally ready to go. It’s gonna be a good run and we’re gonna have a lot of fun with it and go out there and fight. Expect a new Efrain. Expect someone who’s mentally and physically better than the old one they saw.”
Maybe someone Reinventado en México…Reinvented in Mexico.
Efrain Escudero - Reinventado en México
The Ultimate Fighter season eight winner Efrain "Hecho en Mexico" Escudero is back in the Octagon this Friday night to face Jacob Volkmann at UFC 141.