Everything about Jordan Wright’s life and career has been influenced by his mother, and now, the 31-year-old pushes forward in her honor.
“My mother passed away last weekend,” Wright said, emotions flooding his system, when we spoke at the start of the month. “It’s been pretty hard dealing with just seeing her fight ’til the end. She died of pancreatic cancer. It was really hard.
“I’m just so proud to have been able to see her fight for so long,” continued the 31-year-old, who returns to the light heavyweight division in an important clash with Zac Pauga in this weekend’s co-main event. “There were times where I wanted to pull out of the fight because I wanted to spend more time with her, but I know she would have wanted me to keep fighting, and that she’s rooting for me right now.
“As long as I stay strong, I’m just going to make her proud.”
Wright comes from the opposite type of upbringing than what you typically hear when fighters map out the path that led them to pursue a career inside the cage.
While the fascination with martial arts movies and their stars is increasingly common, an athlete growing up in complete financial comfort, growing up in Malibu and Pacific Palisades, California and aspiring to earn a living as a mixed martial artist is not.
Wright isn’t ashamed to admit that he comes from an affluent family, but does suggest that the hard scrabble stories of financial struggle and hardship often told by competitors on the way up have been slightly exaggerated from his experiences.
More importantly, he believes that despite a different upbringing than many in the fight game, he and the vast majority of his contemporaries share the same motivation for stepping into the Octagon, and it’s not money.
“From my experience of doing martial arts my whole, entire life, so much of that is blown out of proportion,” offered Wright, who began practicing martial arts as a child and has trained in respected rooms throughout his mixed martial arts career.
Jordan Wright 1st round TKO | UFC 262: Oliveira vs Chandler
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Jordan Wright 1st round TKO | UFC 262: Oliveira vs Chandler
“Victor Henry is one of my best friends — that dude grew up homeless; that dude grew up under a freeway. But I also know a lot of other fighters that are a little too ashamed to admit they didn’t come from something similar — they weren’t eating garbage, and I feel like part of them feel threatened that ‘I can’t admit that I grew up with money.’
“There are a lot of ways to make money, and fighting is a pretty damn crazy one,” Wright continued, laughing. “I feel like we hide behind the mask of ‘I’m doing it for this; I’m doing it for that’ a little bit. We do it because we really want to; at least most of us.
“I guarantee that if you gave $10 million to a lot of fighters, a lot of them would still be fighting because they still want the belt.”
Winning a UFC title is a big part of the motivation for Wright, not only because of what it represents, but also because of an outstanding promise that he made to his mother.
His moniker “The Beverly Hills Ninja” isn’t wholly cribbed from the Chris Farley cult favorite, though the former Dana White’s Contender Series competitor does have a fondness for the action-comedy from the late Saturday Night Live standout.
“I saw that movie in theatres when I was six years old and it’s one of my favorite martial arts movies, and one of my favorite comedies,” began Wright, when I asked him about the origins of his nickname. “My mom was born in Beverly Hills, and maybe junior year of high school, we moved back. I was only there for about a year, and then I moved to New Mexico after that.
“How the name came about is that I was running the sand dunes in New Mexico and one day I just cracked a joke with Greg Jackson when we were running. I said, ‘I think I like the Beverly Hills more than the sand hills,’ and we was like, ‘You know what? Beverly Hills Ninja! I can’t believe I didn’t think about that. It’s a great name.’”
After beginning his amateur career with Muay Thai and MMA fights during his high school days and bent on forging a career as a professional fighter, Wright made the decision to move to New Mexico in order to train with the famed Jackson-Winklejohn crew in Albuquerque, but it came with a trade off.
“I moved to New Mexico to initially train at Jackson-Wink MMA, but when I was a little kid, I promised my mom I would go to college,” said the dutiful son, who struggled to a 1-4 record in five middleweight appearances after winning his promotional debut at light heavyweight. “I didn’t want to in that moment, but I promised her that I would, so I did both simultaneously.
“I was in the gym throughout my entire college experience because I was very dedicated and focused, so every day was more of a rush because I was trying to get through college to move on and become a professional,” continued Wright, who has earned each of his 12 careers wins by stoppage, 11 in the first round. “For anyone I would tell coming up, if they’re in college and want to do something outside of it as well, if you choose college and don’t like it, don’t stick around.
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“Either do it and enjoy it or don’t do it at all.”
You could argue that philosophy carries over to Wright and his professional career as well, as despite his struggles, he remains in love with martial arts and the requirements of his job being to train, get better, and compete.
And with this move back to the light heavyweight division, he believes he’ll finally be able to give a full and proper accounting of himself inside the Octagon, and make good on that last remaining promise he made his mother.
“I’m losing around 30 pounds heading into every one of these fights, and I never feel fully there on fight night,” Wright said when asked about relocating to the 205-pound ranks, explaining that the weight loss is split between dieting and his cut. “One of my best performances was my short-notice debut where I fought at 205 (pounds) and didn’t have to do a weight cut.
“With training, you’re going to have days where you’re a little broken down, a little slow, but it’s nice to have days where you’re like, ‘You know what — I’m gonna go get a burrito instead of chicken and rice to help repair my body and my mind.’ I’m still eating super-healthy, but I feel like it’s been a lot more beneficial to my mind, to my training to not have to worry about the weight cut.”
To be clear: every situation in life is made better by having a burrito for dinner instead of chicken and rice.
“I just figured this was what everyone does,” he added. “I feel like people are going to start waking up thinking ‘this 205-pound Jordan is going to be a different monster.’”
When I asked Wright if he sees Saturday’s meeting with Pauga as the start of a new chapter — a chance to wipe the slate clean, reset, and approach things like he was 0-0 again — he quickly corrected me.
“I’m 1-0 at 205!” he roared, showing in that one sentence that despite dealing with unbearable sadness and loss during the course of his training camp, he remains dialled in, focused on moving forward, and ready to push towards that championship promise he made his mother.
“I told her I was going to graduate college, and I did that, and I told her I was going to be the UFC champion, and that’s what I’m going to be,” he said. “She strengthens me every day, and I want to keep giving her honor.
“I know she wouldn’t want me to curl up into a ball and be a victim, someone that can’t push forward because bad things happen. I can deal with this pressure and the losses and people doubting me.
“None of it matters — it’s you versus you,” Wright added. “The small s*** is bulls***. I’m coming to show the world that I’m the best.”