As the gold standard for New Jersey MMA, former UFC lightweight champion and current featherweight contender Frankie Edgar’s words hold a lot of weight, especially in the Garden State.
So when bantamweight prospect Jimmie Rivera happened to meet Edgar a while back, long before the Ramsey native was on the main card of the next UFC event in Newark on Jan. 30, it meant a lot to hear words of encouragement from someone who made it to where he wanted to be.
“I met him one time and he said ‘It’s okay, man, you just need a couple more fights, keep plugging away.”
Rivera, already a believer in the blue-collar beliefs that built his state, listened to Edgar, kept working, kept winning, and eventually earned a call to the UFC. And last year, after winning his first two Octagon bouts, he even found himself in the gym with “The Answer.”
“Five and a half, six years later, I’m going to train with Frankie Edgar,” he said. “I’m sparring with him and working with other guys in the room.”
Needless to say, this whirlwind of events that has taken place in a little over seven months still has Rivera a little speechless.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he laughs. “It’s still unbelievable right now. So I’m just putting my head down and focusing on the task at hand and the next fight coming up.”
That next fight, with Brazilian contender Iuri Alcantara, could be a career-changer for the 26-year-old, as a victory will make him 3-0 in the UFC and likely propel him into the bantamweight top 15. From there, it’s all about making his ultimate goal come true.
“I’m not here to fight once a year and say I’m a UFC fighter,” he said. “I’m here to keep fighting and I’m going for the belt.”
From some, it’s just a snappy quote. For Rivera, who was signed to the UFC last June and then fought twice, stopping Marcus Brimage in July and decisioning Pedro Munhoz in November, it’s the way he conducts his career. And that goes for today in the UFC or five years ago when he tried out for The Ultimate Fighter 14 and lost in the elimination round to Dennis Bermudez.
Then 8-1 as a pro, Rivera had seen his UFC dreams fall apart before they even got started, but he was still a fighter, and still an instructor for Tiger Schulmann MMA. And both endeavors wouldn’t – and couldn’t – grind to a halt.
“Someone asks what I do, I usually tell them I’m a teacher,” Rivera, now the head instructor at the TSMMA branch on 23rd street in Manhattan, said. “That’s always been my first passion. Then I started competing as a teenager, and when I turned 18 I started fighting and I wanted to see how far I could take this. My goal is to fight for the title and be the champ.”
Once back in action after TUF 14, Rivera kept fighting and winning, but the call from the UFC brass wasn’t coming. A year ago, Rivera was 15-1 and preparing for a March fight in Atlantic City, but that fell through. The next one he got changed everything.
“I was ready to fight in March (of 2015), but something happened and I got pushed back to May. That was against Carson Beebe. I was so focused on doing what I was doing, and I said hopefully I’ll get the call and be ready to fight.”
He knocked the well-regarded Beebe out in just 16 seconds last May. A month later he was a UFC fighter and preparing to go to Scotland to face Brimage. Since then, nothing has slowed down and that’s just the way he likes it. And while his career is certainly on the upswing, Rivera is also enjoying being a testament to the power of hard work while remaining unaffected by the three letters on his gloves.
“I think some people let the UFC get to their head,” he said. “I’m very humble, and I don’t really talk about it or brag about it. But I can become an inspiration to some people, so it makes me want to work even harder.”
Rivera is already making an impact. He recalls a text received on Christmas morning from one of his students who bought 15 tickets to next week’s fight, and there will certainly be a lot of Rivera fans in the Prudential Center when he makes that 25-minute drive for the biggest fight of his career. He’s come a long way in a short time, and he’s loving every minute of it.
“It’s a great feeling to be home and be in my backyard and fight, and be on the main card as well,” he said. “It’s unbelievable and I’m so excited for it. There’s nothing I can say to really capture the emotion. I just want to get in there and do my thing.”
Spoken like another New Jersey fighter who had his third UFC fight at home at “The Rock” and went on to some pretty big things in the Octagon.