If you want to find out how fighters are made, sometimes the answers are right in front of you. For Jorge Rivera, the heart that has carried him through the highest highs and lowest lows on his road to becoming a middleweight contender came from the man from whom he takes his name – his father, Jorge Rivera Sr.
“A lot of things I do in my life, they’re for my father,” said Rivera quietly. “My father’s been a great influence in my life. He was an orphan, his mother passed away in child labor, he was raised by an aunt, and he had a very, very rough upbringing. But he showed us through example what it is to be a man. He’s a great, great family man. As I grew up and had my own children, I’ve always wanted to emulate my father and make him extremely proud of who I am.”
You could say that mission is accomplished. A father of children of his own who lived through a parent’s worst nightmare when his 17-year old daughter Janessa passed away in 2008, Rivera is a survivor in and out of the Octagon. That wasn’t always easy, as he admits that over the years that he “made some bad decisions,” but overall, he says, “I want to redeem them all and make them all right.”
He’s done that, solidifying his name as one of the sport’s good guys with a feel good story that even makes his opponents want to root for him. Long a journeyman with talent and power who just couldn’t put it together in big fights or on a consistent basis, Rivera’s career renaissance began in April of 2009 when he fought up and coming prospect Nissen Osterneck. It was Rivera’s first fight since his daughter’s tragic passing, and emotions were obviously running high. But he won that night, a hard fought split decision that went in the record books as his fifth UFC victory. It was more than just another paycheck though.
But first, let’s jump ahead to his UFC 122 co-main event bout against Alessio Sakara in Germany this Saturday night. Talking about his opponent, Rivera is complimentary and honest. “The guy’s an outstanding boxer, good handspeed, has a quick right hand and a good left hook. His ground game and everything else is average. It’s not top tier level.”
Then Rivera chuckles before giving his ultimate breakdown of the fight.
“This is gonna be a matter of who gets who first.”
A pause. Then he continues.
“I know in this fight he’s gonna punch me in the face, I know it’s gonna hurt, and I’m all right with that – no problem. I’m gonna punch him in the face too and I’m gonna hurt him too. This is what I do, this is my job, and I get it. Your job is to entertain people by putting your life and body on the line. Once you understand that and once you get it, it’s gonna help you with your performance.”
But when did Rivera get it?
“I got that right after the Osterneck fight,” he said. “I was all banged up and everything and I was watching other guys perform and how the fans reacted and what was being said, and I want to be one of those guys. I want to be remembered long after I’m done fighting for my style of fighting and my heart.”
Since then, Rivera hasn’t lost a fight and he hasn’t let his opponents hear the final bell. A punishing third round TKO of ultra-tough Rob Kimmons followed five months after the Osterneck bout, and in March of this year, he walked through another granite-chinned foe – Nate Quarry – with frightening precision and power. Rivera-Quarry was supposed to be a Fight of the Year candidate. It was anything but that.
“I thought it was gonna be a war with Nate too, and I was ready for that,” said Rivera. “I was ready to go all out and get beat up and beat him up.”
The beating was all in Rivera’s favor though, and the victory put him in a position to not only be in a UFC co-main event, but to win four in a row for the first time since 2002, and to start making some noise for a possible move to the next tier of competition in the middleweight division. It’s a tier he’s used to, having faced the likes of Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin, and Chris Leben over the course of his nine year pro career, but this time, he will be going in with the mental and physical tools to win, and if you ask him about it, he doesn’t pat himself on the back – he deflects all praise to his team.
“The honest truth is that I surrounded myself with good people,” said Rivera. “The difference in my fighting has been Peter Welch, Matt Phinney, and Tim Burrill. And the difference in my mindset have been the guys at (his sponsors) Ranger Up. They’ve made a huge difference in my life. They believed in me, they supported me and they’ve given me a lot of the things that I need to do well and succeed. That’s been the difference in getting me physically, and more importantly mentally, in a place where I feel confident.”
And with his mind cleared of any distractions, it allows his body to do the work necessary for him to succeed.
“It’s peace of mind and they help me focus,” he said. “And things that happen in life just put things in the proper perspective for you and help you deal with things.”
One of the things that he doesn’t deal with are ‘what ifs’. That’s not so easy for most, and when it comes to Rivera, it would be too simple to look back and wonder what might have been had he met up with his current team years ago. Would he have been a champion? He refuses to speculate.
“I often say to myself what if the UFC came around in ‘83 instead of ‘93, but that’s life and that wouldn’t just be me; that would be a million other guys,” he said. “Life is what it is and I got to where I am because this is my fate, my destiny, then so be it.”
It’s not a bad destiny thus far, one where he’s co-headlining events, adding to his fanbase daily, and making a living that provides for a family that keeps him grounded. And while he’s 38 in body, in his mind, he’s still a teenager with the heart for a good scrap.
“My body’s stayed relatively healthy, and mentally, I don’t care how old you get, you always stay 18 and you only realize that you’re getting old when you look in the mirror,” he laughs. He’s right though, because if his last three performances are any indication, he may be peaking later than most. Saturday night will add another chapter to that tale, but how does the Jorge Rivera story eventually end?
“I came in a winner, I’m going out a winner,” he said.
Again, a pause before continuing.
“Fairytale ending? I fight for the championship, I win, I retire that night.”
Hard to top that.