Before the Octagon door closes at the O2 Arena and Jamal Pogues gets into a fistfight with Mick Parkin on Saturday, California’s Pogues has already won.
He made it. He’s a UFC fighter, a 1-0 UFC fighter to be exact, and in traveling to London for this weekend’s matchup, the 27-year-old heavyweight prospect is doing something no one in his family has ever done.
“I got a passport and I'm going to leave the country,” said Pogues before he made the trip across the pond to the UK. “I don't even know any of my family who even left the country, or even left city limits or state lines. And I'm not trying to bring race into it because I know a lot of people do it, but the people who look like me and my demographic and where I came from, no one got to enjoy some of these things that I'm going to be able to enjoy, especially from the cities that I came from, growing up in LA and then moving to Victorville.
“And that's why I have so much support from LA and Victorville; it’s because these people understand the story of where I came from,” he continues. “But to say that I'm the first to get to go leave the country and go fight in another person's country, you can't tell me anything else. You can't tell me that my sacrifice wasn't worth it. You can't tell me that I'm not proud of myself or the person I became because if I would've never made those changes in my life, I would never be here.”
Everybody in the fight game has a story. Some have gone down harder roads than others, but none have been easy. What you see when the bright lights are on doesn’t represent what that person had to go through to get there.
Since the age of 13, more than half his life, Pogues has been chasing a dream to fight with the letters U-F-C on his gloves. That’s like a kid picking up a bat and a glove and saying he wants to play centerfield for the Yankees. Yeah, there’s a chance, but it’s not a good one, and Pogues had his battles, not just against his opponents, but the doubters, both internally and externally. And he knew that every setback would mean he had to go back to the bottom of the mountain again.
“It breaks a lot of people, and it broke me a lot of times,” he said. “I'm not going to be like these guys and tell you that it didn't hurt me, or I wasn't scared, and I wasn't afraid. I think it gets to a point where you just don't want to lose anymore and you're tired of feeling the way you feel. And my mom always told me, you're going to be sick and tired of being sick and tired. And that's kind of where I got to in my life where I just got sick and tired of it and I was like, man, I don't like this feeling.”
That was the start and the spark, with a loss to Alex Polizzi, which took place six months after a win over Marcos Brigagao on the third season of Dana White’s Contender Series didn’t garner him a UFC contract, really pushing him to go all-in on making his dreams a reality.
“That was probably one of the fights that made me change my whole mindset around,” said Pogues. “There were a lot of things that went wrong in the camp and I could have pulled out, but I didn't because I wanted to be the tough guy. And I remember after that moment, it just kind of changed my mind. I was like, man, I'm tired of losing and I don't want to keep losing, so I have to change my whole mindset around - my life, my training situation. I have to change everything around because it was time to start taking that next step and to get to where I want to be.”
Pogues bounced back with a win over Tim Hiley, then got a return call to the APEX for the Contender Series. This time, a win over Paulo Renato Jr. got him a UFC contract, which he broke in with a February victory over Josh Parisian. He was happy, as evidenced by his smile throughout fight week, but not as happy as his mom, Janine, who went on to win her own fight against cancer, proving that there’s plenty of tough in the family.
“She tells me all the time that she sees the growth and the change in me, my attitude, and just the way I live my life day to day,” said Pogues of his biggest fan. “So she sees it and my old teammates and coaches are starting to see the progress. I'm proud of the changes that I made for myself. And that means more to me than any win or anything. When I come to the cage, I'm winning a lot of battles mentally that I used to lose. So now, as I'm winning them or I'm overcoming them, it just makes it much more sweeter that I get to show it in the cage.”
But is mom decked out in UFC gear all the time these days?
“She comes to the PI, sees all the UFC fighters, ‘Take a picture with me, my son's in the UFC.’ It’s a proud moment I can enjoy with my mom because she's been there from the beginning and it's one of those promises I made to her, so I'm glad I got to stick to my side and actually get it done.
I love the smile on the face. I know my mom always been proud of me, but I’m setting the tone for my family, for my friends, for people in my city. And I'm the first one to do it, so I'm setting a bar. So I hope everybody else can raise it and hopefully surpass me, but I'll be the first one to do it.”
Joining the UFC roster, getting a win in the big show and now traveling to England for a fight, it’s all great stuff for a fighter, but, as you can tell, this is more than a fight story. It’s a life story, and that’s really what Pogues wants anyone in the struggle to take away from it. There are no dead ends if you refuse to be stopped. Of course, it’s not easy, but nothing good is.
“It is difficult (to change), but one thing I know I didn't want to be is in the space I was mentally,” he said. “And that's the biggest thing that I could say I didn't like. It was too uncomfortable, and I didn't want to be there and I just didn't want to be in that position anymore. So making those changes, it's scary. But do you want to still stay in this situation or do you want it to change? Growth is scary, growth hurts, it's uncomfortable. But if you keep putting yourself in those positions and trying new things, you start to see the outcomes of it. So just challenge yourself, and win these battles for yourself. It’s you against the world. And honestly, some of these little things, you start to see, oh man, this is easier, this is not too bad.”
Like getting booed by a packed arena full of Mick Parkin fans on Saturday?
“I've been doubted, I've been last picked my whole life, so this is nothing new going into enemy territory,” he said. “It's going to be perfect.”
UFC Fight Night: Aspinall vs Tybura took place live from the O2 Arena in London, England on July 22, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!