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Jeff Molina's Breakout Year

Glory MMA Standout Made The Most Of His Rookie Campaign In 2021

You wouldn’t know it by his looking at his Twitter or Instagram feeds, but there was a time when Jeff Molina didn’t see the value of flexing his thumbs and snapping pictures of his daily activities.

“I didn’t want to be that guy that is posting my egg whites every morning, posting every time I’m in the gym because I’m in the gym two, three times a day,” the emerging flyweight said with a laugh. “But Jason High used to get on me hard and I understand it now.”

In addition to being a must-follow and engaging presence on various social media platforms, the 24-year-old Glory MMA & Fitness representative is one of the top young talents in the UFC at the moment, having gone 2-0 in his 2021 rookie campaign after graduating to the biggest stage in the sport with a victory on Dana White’s Contender Series in the summer of 2020.

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Molina’s debut was originally expected to take place before the end of 2020, but was pushed to January 2021 when his opponent tested positive for COVID-19. A couple days before he was slated to fly out to Abu Dhabi to face Zarrukh Adashev in January, Molina’s test came back positive, delaying his debut until April, where he took on Aoriqileng in a spirited clash at UFC 261 where he earned a victory and an additional $50,000 for Fight of the Night.

“I was feeling the momentum (after Contender Series) and looking to ride that momentum, and then to not fight for eight months after my Contender Series fight sucked,” Molina began, reflecting on the past year and change, speaking in the same quick pace he deploys inside the cage. “It was a bummer, but if there was one thing I learned this year, it was to trust the process.

“I didn’t get to fight in November, I didn’t get to fight in Abu Dhabi, but instead, I got to fight on the first card in front of 15,000 people in Jacksonville and get a Fight of the Night bonus.

“It wasn’t the type of fight I wanted — I thought my performance was awful that night — but there were positive takeaways,” added the engaging flyweight. “It says he’s five-foot-seven, but that’s a lie, dude. I’m five-foot-seven — five-nine on Tinder — and that dude is not five-seven; he is five-foot-12. He’s huge. He’s tall for the division, lanky for the division, and I had to figure him out. I was having a hard time finding him.”

Neither fighter looked comfortable in the first round, which was understandable given that it was the first time each had crossed the threshold into the UFC Octagon. But both Molina and Aoriqileng settled in after the opening five minutes, with “El Jefe” drawing even on the scorecards by sitting down his Chinese adversary a couple times in the middle stanza.

Jeff Molina interacts with fans after defeating Aoriqileng during the UFC 261 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Molina interacts with fans after defeating Aoriqileng during the UFC 261 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

In the third, he showed why so many were eagerly anticipating his debut, cranking up the volume and the pace to put it on Aoriqileng, taking a close fight and making it clear he was the better man by running away with things over the final five minutes.

Six months later, Molina delivered the kind of performance he’s always seeking, collecting a stoppage victory over Daniel da Silva just 46 seconds into the second round.

“It felt really good,” he said of the stoppage victory in his second appearance. “I was coming off two decision wins after having finished all my fights prior to the Contender Series and the UFC. I know the level of competition has obviously gone up, so the fights are going to be tougher, but I know what I’m capable of and my coaches know what I’m capable of, so it felt really good to show a small piece of that in this last performance.”

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Like his debut, it wasn’t smooth sailing or straight one-way traffic against da Silva, as the Brazilian came out firing off heavy kicks, threatened with his grappling, and forced Molina to show his defensive capabilities, his resolve, and his Fight IQ.

Following a quick chat with his head coach James Krause in the corner, Molina loosened up in the second and took command of the center, putting da Silva on the deck with a right hand counter to a lazy low kick 20 seconds into the frame before following him to the canvas, climbing into mount, and pounding out the win.

It may not have earned him a bonus, but it was as equally an impressive showing as his debut.

“I know what I do in the gym, and if I can translate half of that into these fights, I feel like I’m a problem in this division,” Molina said.

He’s not the only one that feels that way.

In addition to garnering Honorable Mention status in the UFC.com staff’s picks for the Top 10 Newcomers of 2021, the entertaining emerging talent cracked the Top 10 on ESPN’s list of the Top 25 MMA Fighters Under Age 25, landing at No. 9 on a list that includes Song Yadong, Ilia Topuria, Casey O’Neill, and Erin Blanchfield.

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People have certainly taken notice of Molina, and although he appreciates the recognition, the way he thinks about it all illustrates part of the reason so many people — myself included — believe he has a very bright future.

“All the awards and accolades and getting recognized for my last two performances is really cool,” began Molina. “I told Krause this after I got that ESPN thing, ‘It’s really cool to get recognized for the decade of work I’ve put in,’ but I don’t really let it get to me.

“It’s cool and I’ll re-post it, but my next fight, the guy is not going to care that I was on that list,” he added with a laugh. “I don’t let it blow my head up and I don’t put too much thought into it.

Highlight: Jeff Molina TKOs Da Silva | UFC Fight Night: Costa vs Vettori
Highlight: Jeff Molina TKOs Da Silva | UFC Fight Night: Costa vs Vettori
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“It’s cool — don’t get me wrong — but I’m just so used to just putting my nose to the grindstone and working that I don’t let it get to me.”

Not only is that approach a piece of what makes Molina such an intriguing young talent, but it also feels representative of the mindset forged at Glory MMA & Fitness under the direction of Krause, who enjoyed his own breakout campaign as a coach in 2021.

“I think we just signed our 17th UFC fighter,” Molina said of his team. “We have 17 UFC fighters at a small gym in B***-***, Missouri; that’s incredible.

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“No one comes to Missouri for the incredible weather and all the stuff to do — the weather sucks and there is nothing to do, so for someone to up their life and make the move out here, it shows how committed they are.

“And having James Krause in your corner is a cheat code,” added Molina, whose style was compared to that of his coach following his win over da Silva by someone on Twitter, which he views as the greatest compliment imaginable.

“I’m really fortunate to have a style that is really similar to James. I’ve known him since I was 14 and started in combat sports. After that last fight, I got some comments like, ‘You look like a mini-James Krause out there’ and that’s the nicest thing anyone could say because James is the f****** man!”

In addition to being evident in the way he moves and competes inside the cage, it’s also clear when the conversation shifts to his thoughts on who and when he would like to fight when he begins his sophomore campaign inside the Octagon.

Just as his coach has already been ready to take on tough challenges in order to test himself and showcase his skills, like moving up to middleweight on 24-hours’ notice to fight Trevin Giles when he needed a dance partner, Molina isn’t looking to forge an easy path for himself in the increasingly competitive flyweight division.

“I want to fight ASAP — late March sounds good to me — and as for who I want to fight, I think Tyson Nam would be a fun fight, man,” offered Molina, name-checking the veteran knockout artist. “I’m not sure what his situation is, but that’s a fight that excites me.

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“That’s a fight that would wake me up extra early in the morning because he’s a big name in the division, he hits hard, and he has that knockout power. That type of danger in a fight excites me.”

Entertaining in the cage, on social media, and excitedly pursuing dangerous dance partners?

It’s pretty clear to see why Molina has quickly become a fan favorite and a breakout fighter to watch going forward.