After four fights in six months, Jerome Rivera needed a break. So, he took one.
For two weeks. Then it was back to work, and since March, he’s been in the gym, getting ready for a Saturday bout against Zhalgas Zhumagulov. And if the phone rang for a short-notice bout over the last couple months, he wasn’t answering.
“We did the short notice thing and it's probably not the wisest move, so I just put my head down and said, okay, I want a full camp this time, and no matter what they offer us in between, we're gonna say no,” said Rivera. “I need to go and showcase what I can do at three or four months of getting ready for this fight and that's exactly what we did.”
As the aforementioned four fights in six months stat demonstrates, the 26-year-old Rivera is normally one of those anyone, anytime, anywhere fighters, but after his first three UFC bouts turned his 10-2 pro record to 10-5, he decided to give himself the best chance of winning by getting a full training camp at his optimum weight of 125 pounds.
“It's been a really long training camp, and you gotta be really smart when you have long training camps like this, but I said even if Zhalgas doesn't make it to that date, I know somebody's gonna make it there and I'm gonna be ready,” said Rivera, who knows that while a full training camp is the best situation for any fighter, that fighter and his team has to do it right.
“It can be a little bit tough,” he said. “You're gonna hit highs and lows, you're gonna have good training days, bad training days, and then starting camp out from that far you really gotta time where your body's gonna peak. So midway through camp, you're gonna have days that are just so tiring, and you've got to be able to recognize that and say, okay, well the following week I better pull back a little bit. So, me and my coaches, we've really been working together really well and communicating, and I'm going according to how my body's feeling. We've had an amazing training camp and we're ready to go.”
Santa Fe’s Rivera is in good spirits despite the lengthy camp and the importance attached to any fight coming on the heels of a three-fight losing streak. But then again, he knows he’s not an 0-3 UFC fighter despite what the record says. And, like anything, there are always circumstances beyond what’s on a won-loss record.
In Rivera’s case, after winning a fight on Dana White’s Contender Series last August but not getting a contract, he got a September call to face Tyson Nam at bantamweight. He lost that fight and dropped a decision to Francisco Figueiredo back at 125 pounds in January. Then came another short notice call, this one to face Ode’ Osbourne on February 6. He took it, but only if he didn’t have to cut weight, so that bout was contested at featherweight and resulted in a third defeat.
But now, he’s back at flyweight – this time for good.
“Flyweight's my home, for sure,” Rivera said. “We only took the fight at 135 to get into the UFC, and then we took that fight at 145 because it was short notice and I didn't want to cut any weight. Flyweight's gonna be my home for a while.”
The division is a good fit for Rivera, especially since a couple wins in a wide open division will go a lot further than the same wins in an ultra-stacked weight class like bantamweight.
“That's always something that I've really liked about the flyweight division,” he said. “Everybody in there is a killer, but they're not very recognizable names. You rattle off two or three big wins - look at Brandon Royval, he rattled off two wins and he was almost about to fight for the title, so that's always really cool about that division. And I started off 0-3 in my UFC career, but I go and get a big finish on this dude on a really big card, I think I can do enough to get them to re-sign me.”
That’s the first goal, and while he’s had Zhumagulov in his crosshairs for quite some time, it’s not as if he has the Kazakhstan native’s picture on his mirror or anything like that.
“The funny thing is, I usually get a little too obsessive,” Rivera laughs. “Once I start watching tape on dudes, I'll stay up watching tape all night sometimes or everybody I look at when I'm sparring, I'm picturing that dude's face. But this time, I've actually taken a step back and I've zero studying on him. I watched him the first couple weeks and I said, okay, I saw everything I needed to see, and my coach said, ‘I don't want you looking up anything on this dude; just let us handle it from here.’ And that's what we've been doing.”
Which means all Rivera has to do on Saturday night is fight. And win.
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“It's super frustrating because you never picture yourself starting off like that,” he said of the beginning of his UFC career. “Here's my dream to get to the UFC and you picture crushing it and doing this and doing that, so it's unfortunate that that's how it started off, but in the same sense, I'm glad that I stacked the odds against myself because now I know I gotta work harder, and I got an even cooler story one day when I do win that belt.”