We won’t call this an official call-out, but featherweight Jonathan Pearce makes no bones about it; no matter who the UFC put in front of him this weekend in Las Vegas, he was willing to fight, even if it was the heavyweight champion of the world.
“This is for everything, this one,” he said. “I think the wait is worth it. UFC 266, you can't turn that down. I don't care who they would have given me. They could have given me Francis Ngannou, it's UFC 266, you gotta take it.”
Pearce means it, too, because he has been chomping at the bit since his November 2020 win over Kai Kamaka to make the walk. He was scheduled to fight Gabriel Benitez in May, but when Benitez clocked in at 150.5 pounds for the featherweight bout, Tennessee’s Pearce wasn’t having it.
“I knew this guy was a '55er and he was older than me, and I'm coming off a win and I got in there and that dude came in over and wanted to make all these excuses,” said Pearce, who still hit his mark at 146 pounds. “It was a hard weight cut for me, and the first time I made weight was on the scale. So, I was really upset with him and the fact that I had worked so hard to get to this point and then this guy's gonna do me like this, he don't even deserve to step in there with me, is how I feel. At this point, it's not amateur no more, it's not games no more. Back in the day, I'd fight dudes that were like ten pounds over, I didn't care. But this is my career. I didn't want to put myself on the chopping block, because I already have one loss from (Joe) Lauzon.”
The loss to the lightweight veteran in 2019 prompted a move down to 145 pounds, and Pearce was determined to not get lured into what was essentially another lightweight fight in order to pick up a paycheck. Simply put, the 29-year-old is in this for the long haul, and he’s not about to give anyone an unfair size advantage.
“This is a sport where you've got to protect yourself at all times,” he said. “And I'm not dumb about my career. It was more of a health thing for me. I'm just coming off a surgery and this dude's a big kicker and then he wants to come in five pounds over? Hell no.”
Sticking to his guns, Pearce left Las Vegas unable to fight on his birthday, and that stung, but he has no regrets.
“It was so hard because it was my birthday and I'm born to do this,” he said. “I felt like I let myself down, not to mention all the people that came down. I didn't get to prove to myself how good I was. I've been doing this since I was 12 and I'm 29 now. Professionally, I'm 10-4, so I've only got to do what I love to do 14 times professionally. But you work your whole life to be able to do it, and people don't understand if they haven't competed on that level. It's a lot of sacrifice.”
Many outside the sport don’t understand a lot of things about what a fighter has to go through just to make it to the venue to compete, or even what it takes to fight at the UFC level. Pearce has heard plenty of folks saying that they can do what he does, and while that irks him, he usually lets it go.
“At the end of the day you've got to choose which fights to fight and which fights not to fight,” he laughs. “And a lot of times I choose not to fight and think, ‘Let 'em look dumb, let 'em say what they're gonna say.’ But if they keep going and going, then you'll be like, ‘All right, why haven't you done it or why don't you do it?’”
That won’t happen, and Pearce knows it, so that’s why he chooses to focus on the important things, which includes Saturday’s return against Omar Morales. It’s an important fight for both featherweights, and Pearce is especially excited about hearing the roar of the crowd at T-Mobile Arena, his first chance to do that since his Octagon debut in October 2019. And though that’s not easy, either, compared to fighting in the UFC APEX, he doesn’t mind.
“When you watch it on TV, you're like, 'Aw, I can do that,' but you can't even hear your coaches,” Pearce explains. “You think you went to a concert and it's been loud, but you're not the one playing. That's the difference. So you gotta keep the party going, and people don't understand that. So that's what it's all about - it's about being an entertainer and just being real and loving what you do.”
Pearce does love it, even through all the good, the bad and the ugly. He’s a fighter, and he’s not stopping until…well, until he decides he’s reached where he wants to be.
“It took me almost a decade to be able to get to that point where I did something I put my mind to and I said I was going to do,” he said. “And there's a lot of failures that you stack up to get that one big win, but winning isn't just winning; winning is winning and holding on to it. And that's a thing that's very hard to do, and a lot of people can't do, but I strive to do that. All I can tell anybody is just keep going. There's no going backwards. No matter how bad or how hard it is or how dark it gets, because the highs and lows that we experience, nobody will ever experience those, and that's what living is really all about.”