Jeff Molina’s parents knew early on that their son was probably going to make a living punching and kicking people one day, perhaps even as soon as he was having nighttime fight cards with his WWE action figures, complete with blood drawn on their faces.
“Crayola water markers,” Molina said when asked his weapon of choice in bloodying The Rock, John Cena and the gang. “I would only use the red ones for the blood. (Laughs) I would spend hours, literally hours, playing with the action figures. And they weren't even wrestling - it was them punching and kicking each other. And I was doing that from a young age, like seven, eight years old. And I did it until an age I probably shouldn't be playing with action figures anymore. (Laughs) I don't know if my parents thought I was gonna be a serial killer or something.”
Colombian immigrants who made a home in New Jersey, where Molina and his brother Jonathan were born, the Molinas worked tirelessly to provide a life for their family, and when Jeff’s passion for combat led to him wanting to take martial arts even though funds were tight, there was a way for them to make it happen.
“All these schools had week or two-week trials,” he explains. “Sometimes they had a month trial if we were lucky, at different karate and taekwondo places.”
The brothers would take their trial lessons, and when the trial was up, it was off to the next one. And when the family moved to Kansas, the passion didn’t fade. Luckily, a relative brought Jeff and Jonathan to kung fu classes, where, after five years, Jeff had a black belt.
Then the MMA bug hit, thanks to the UFC video game.
“I said, ‘I need to do this,’” remembered Molina, and again, it was a family affair to get the promising teenager what he needed and where he needed to go.
“My brother was super supportive,” he recalled. “He knew my parents couldn't afford the equipment, so he bought me my first pair of MMA gloves and shin guards and my mouthpiece.”
As for mom and dad, they teamed up after working a full 8 to 4 shift to pick Jeff up, bring him to the gym, and then clean a local bakery for two hours to pay for his gym membership.
By 15, Jeff Molina was fighting. At 23, he’s about to make his UFC debut on Saturday night against fellow newcomer Aoriqileng. You might think he’s too young to be called a veteran, but he’s earned his stripes in the fight game.
“My first fight, I was 15, I still had braces on my face, and it was at a bar called the Whiskey Tango, which was kind of legendary here in the Midwest,” Molina said. “People were throwing beer in the crowd and I remember looking through the cage and seeing my mom covering her eyes because she was terrified. (Laughs) So it's kind of weird to say I'm a vet, but I dedicated the last ten years of my life to this sport, and when I say dedicate, I watch film every day, I'm obsessed with this sport and it's really one of the only things that cross my mind every day. I feel like a vet.”
A pro since 2017, Molina paid his dues on the local circuit, ultimately getting to the point where the buzz was that he was going to get the call to either the UFC or Dana White’s Contender Series. And going into a February 2020 bout against Ken Porter, he believed a big win would make that call happen.
“Before that fight, it was like, ‘an impressive finish over this guy will get you that shot,’” he said. “That was the expectation. We knew the UFC was looking to rebuild the flyweight division, and my style fits perfectly in what the UFC is looking for.”
Molina got his finish, submitting Porter in the second round.
“I think I got the call a week after finishing him, so it was expected, but even with it being expected, it was unexpected. (Laughs) I was in shock and on Cloud Nine. I felt like a little kid.”
In his Contender Series fight on August 25, Molina delivered again, decisioning Jacob Silva over three rounds. And with his UFC contract in hand and his debut looming, expectations are pretty high that “El Jefe” will do some big things at 125 pounds both this weekend and in the coming years. It’s talk that he’s heard.
RELATED: Aoriqileng Makes His Debut
“I'd be lying if I said I haven't noticed that,” he admits. “I think it has to do with my style of fighting. I've never been in a boring fight. Even when I was under the age of 18 and doing kickboxing fights, I remember my first fight, and that was a barnburner. It was just me, no technique, just swinging wildly. So I've never been in a boring fight and I think that translates to people wanting to see me fight. And the matchup is gonna be a barnburner. People can expect an exciting fight. So, I for sure think my style has something to do with that.”
That doesn’t hurt. Add in the seal of approval from his coach James Krause and his teammates on the Glory MMA squad, and Molina has a sizeable upside in the sport. But what may set him apart is that on fight night when the gate shuts, he’s not interested in dancing.
“I think the difference is, even if I were to go out there and grapple for 15 minutes, it won't be boring,” Molina said. “I'm trying to hurt you. I'm trying to rearrange your face, I'm trying to move your eyebrows. One word to describe my fighting style would be 'violent.' So even if I'm pushing you against the fence for 15 minutes, I'm working you. I'm throwing knees and elbows everywhere, and it's just constantly looking to do damage. If I'm on my back, I don't plan on staying there for long, but I'm making sure I'm elbowing you from bottom. I'm pushing your face away, and it's not pretty. I want to be known as the violent guy who's always looking for the finish, no matter if I'm on top, riding your back for 15 minutes. I want people to know I'm dangerous everywhere and not just for striking, but submissions and wrestling.”
Over 20 years in this business and I never heard anyone talk about moving someone’s eyebrows.
We both laugh.
“That's what the game is, right?” said Molina. “I'm trying to open an Xbox logo on your forehead and he's trying to do the same to me. You're trying to knock me out in front of my mom, and I'm trying to do the same to you.”
Yeah, the kid can fight, and he’s got the backstory and personality to transcend fight night and become a star in the sport. But first things first, and that’s Aoriqileng on Saturday night. It’s the start of a new journey for Molina, one that he hopes will not only serve as a boost for his own life, but for his family as well, especially his dad, Medardo, who recently underwent a pair of five-hour surgeries for kidney cancer.
It’s been a difficult time for the Molinas, but Jonathan has set up a GoFundMe page for their dad (https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-medardo-fight-cancer), and seeing Jeff begin to chase his dream of UFC glory is an uplifting moment for the entire family.
“They've always been super supportive, cheering me on cageside and supporting my dream,” said Jeff. “There's so many sacrifices you have to make in this - I haven't had a serious relationship with a girl since high school, and not many people understand what it takes to do this. This is my life, this is all I know. But what kills me is he really wants to be there for my debut. In the surgery, they targeted the tumor and luckily everything went as well as it could. It's tough to be in the situation because my parents came to this country about 30 years ago and they busted their ass for the last 30 years working s**tty jobs, factory jobs, jobs as a maid, just to provide for me and my brother. And it sucks to see the stress financially of this happening. But I feel like I can relieve some stress from getting financial freedom from being successful in this sport.”
If you wanted to know why Jeff Molina fights so hard, now you know.