You won’t catch Yaotzin Meza smiling too much, at least not when it’s time to fight.
“I’m serious when I’m supposed to be serious,” he said, and that all business attitude has not only kept him in mixed martial arts for a decade, but on the UFC roster since 2012. That’s not an easy feat, but the 35-year-old is willing to share some advice on career longevity with the younger crowd.
“If you’re young, you’ve got to take this chance and make the best of it,” he said. “You just can’t show up. Some kids take it for granted. They don’t want to train hard, they don’t show up to practices. They’ve got to take their job seriously. I’m glad I came into the UFC at a little bit older age and I take this seriously; I don’t mess around. I show up to practice when I’m supposed to, I do my conditioning, and no one wants to go out there every day and train hard, but you mature when you get older, and you know you’ve got to work hard to stay here.”
This Saturday, Meza will compete in the Octagon for the seventh time when he faces British young gun Arnold Allen in London. He’s been on the road before, having competed in Poland, Australia, Mexico and Canada over the course of his time in the game, and if you think he’s practically seen it all, that’s pretty accurate. But nothing Allen can throw at him this weekend can likely compare to the dilemma he faced three fights into his pro MMA career, when that trio of fights resulted in three losses.
No one wants to start their career 0-3, and most would decide to pack it in at that point. Meza had questions, and they needed answers quick.
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“It was hard,” he said of those early days. “I started off as just a high school wrestler, and when I started fighting, I lived in a small town in Flagstaff (Arizona) for a little while and there’s not that many people around there, so I was just training with wrestlers, and I wasn’t really working my stand-up and stuff like that. But when I lost those three fights, I was like ‘man, is this for me or isn’t it?’ And I had to make a choice.”
He decided to give it another go.
“My dream was always to get to the UFC one day, so I decided to make a change and I moved from Flagstaff to Phoenix and started training with guys like Drew Fickett, Efrain Escudero, Santino DeFranco, and my brother Victor,” Meza said. “I started getting more quality training with guys that had been around the game.
“After those first three, I said I’m gonna have to win these next fights,” he continued. “If I don’t win these next couple, that will probably be it.”
Beginning with a unanimous decision over Robert Maldonado in August of 2006, Meza started winning, and he kept it up, taking 12 of his next 13 bouts, with eight victories coming before the final bell.
“I started training harder, and I didn’t want to get that feeling back of when I lost those three fights,” he said. “I came on strong from there.”
By 2009, it was clear that Meza had the talent and work ethic to succeed. And it all had to do with his determination and the work he was getting with the aforementioned Arizona crew, along with future UFC fighters like Danny Martinez and Seth Baczynski. Eventually, the tightknit team of training partners splintered off and went to different gyms as their careers progressed, but none of them ever forgot where they came from.
“We all went our separate ways, but we all kept in contact and we’re all friends,” Meza said. “We all had a dream to get where we’re at now, and we all got where we wanted to be.”
A longtime standout from The MMA Lab team in Glendale, Meza has become a leader in the gym and a familiar face to UFC fans even before he made it to the UFC as one of former lightweight champion Benson Henderson’s cornermen. And whether Meza is in the corner or if his teammates are doing the same job for him, there is a feeling among the squad led by coach John Crouch that this is more than a bunch of guys (and gals) getting each other ready for fights.
“All our teammates at the gym, we all get along good,” he said. “It’s a family atmosphere.”
Now that can make Yaotzin Meza smile.