At 5-8, Francisco Rivera may not have been a leading candidate to play Division I college football, but that was on paper. On the field, that was another story.
“I was like a Wes Welker,” Rivera said, referring to the 5-9 NFL receiver best known for his stints with the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. “I was really small but I was fast, I had the best hands on the team, and I averaged two touchdowns and 200 yards a game receiving. I also had an interception or two every other game. I believe if I was 6-foot, I could have gone to a D-I college easily out of high school.”
Instead, after graduating from Buena Park High School, he enrolled in Orange Coast College, broke his ankle and his football career was over.
From there, it was off to “regular” life for the Whittier, California native, and while he stayed active at a local gym, lifting weights and playing basketball, there was no indication that in June of 2015 he would be a professional mixed martial artist sitting in New Orleans preparing for a nationally televised fight against Alex Caceres that takes place this Saturday.
“I got into MMA by accident,” Rivera laughs. “It wasn’t something I was looking into or really interested in.”
He was a fan, even taking a picture with future opponent Urijah Faber long before he put the gloves on, but when a buddy got him into Muay Thai and grappling, it wasn’t with any career aspirations.
“It’s crazy how life works, and to have done what I have is just a huge accomplishment,” he said. “It just goes to show what determination and hard work I put into anything I do.”
What Rivera has done is earn a spot in the top 15 of the UFC’s bantamweight rankings, fight against top level competition in the Octagon, and develop a reputation as perhaps the hardest puncher in the division. That last part he still owes to his time on the gridiron.
“I’ve always been strong and had that natural strength, and even in football, I was small but guys were scared to go hit me, or when I tried to hit them they would cringe because I had no fear,” he said. “So I knew I was strong upper body wise, and once I got into MMA and started throwing punches, I was using my hips and my body and my hands, so it was double the power.”
You could say Rivera was a natural, and though he was a late starter at 24, he quickly raced out to a 5-0 record, earning him a call to the WEC in 2010. He lost his debut to Erik Koch via TKO in 96 seconds, and his UFC debut seven months later didn’t go much better, as he was submitted by Reuben Duran. He was released shortly thereafter, and while he didn’t expect to become a professional fighter, now that he was one, he wanted to be the best that he could be, and what he was doing at the time – or more precisely what he wasn’t doing – just wasn’t cutting it.
“At that point in my life, my head wasn’t in it,” Rivera admits. “I didn’t have my son, I didn’t have a family. I was more just hanging out and not really training too hard. I was thinking I was a bad ass, but my work ethic wasn’t there.”
After getting cut by the UFC, he went back to work full-time, with a 5:30am wake-up call part of the deal.
“I was like ‘what did I do?’” he laughs.
Soon a series of events set him back on the track he had come to believe he belonged on. He began going to church with his sister, he found a manager (Jason House) he believed in, he got “the right team and the right coaches” around him, and he had a son.
“That started everything again,” Rivera said, with the goal a simple one - get back to the UFC.
In his next two fights, he knocked out Brad McDonald and Antonio Duarte in a combined 1:55. UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby called shortly thereafter and by May of 2012, Rivera was back in the Octagon and he doesn’t plan on leaving again.
In his return, the 33-year-old has gone 3-2, 1 NC with two knockouts and a spirited effort in his last bout against Faber. In that UFC 181 match, Rivera looked to be on his way to an upset when an accidental eye poke allowed Faber to lock “Cisco” up and submit him. Rivera isn’t bitter about the turn of events, knowing that he has a chance to get back in the win column on Saturday against Caceres, and when it comes to this gritty slugger, a second chance is usually all he needs.
“You never know what can happen in a fight, and unfortunately, it happened to me against Faber,” he said. “It’s the luck of the draw. I’ve got to look past it and move forward and continue to fight to support my family. And fighting Alex Caceres is going to be a huge opportunity to prove that the Faber fight was no fluke.”
And what better way to do that than with a trademark Cisco Rivera knockout? But when he does get a KO win, what’s better, that or a touchdown?
“Definitely a knockout,” he laughs. “I would trade every touchdown I’ve ever had for a first-round knockout. There’s no other feeling like it.”