All this talk of fighters at the ends of their careers and the looming specter of inevitable retirement is bringing me down. Yes, the shelf life of an MMA competitor is short, and the fact that they’ve endeared themselves to us with years of hard-fought battles only makes the pill of their newfound failings all the more bitter. But why must we harp on it? At UFC 133, Jorge Rivera, a.k.a. the “Conquistador” returns to the Octagon for the fifteenth time in a fighting career that spans twelve years (eight of which have been in the UFC). Nowadays, talk of retirement – from Rivera’s mouth and from others – follows him wherever he goes, with each successive win seemingly staving off the end while each loss brings it closer and closer.
I don’t want to think in those terms when I think of Rivera. I’d rather remember the stone-cold striker I first met years ago. Instead of pondering whether these are Rivera’s last days, I prefer to celebrate the killer from that night at in Lowell, Massachusetts, back in 2002, when, before an audience of countless cheering fans (that included Dana White and Chuck Liddell), the Conquistador survived Travis Lutter’s worst to return the favor and kick ass.
The promotion was Ring of Fury, and it was the biggest thing going inNew Englandin terms of “grand affairs”. Four months before, at ROF 1, Rivera needed only 52 seconds to clobber his foe in the co-main event, so of course he was headlining the organization’s second installment. And this time his opponent was tougher, an aggressive jiu-jitsu guy who trained out of theTexasbranch of the Lion’s Den, flown in especially for the task. “Travis has got some surprises for Jorge,” one of Lutter’s coaches assured me as everyone migrated from the hotel to the Tsongas Arena. By now, the scuttlebutt was that no one could stand with Rivera. He was simply too much on the feet. But the big question mark was how well the local star could handle himself in the grappling department, and Lutter was for sure going to test him.
The town ofLowellturned out en masse,Lowella big boxing town (Mickey Ward, anyone?) yet keen on this “new” sport where dudes kept punching even when they fell to the ground. And the UFC’s big cheese was there, a guest of honor with “that crazy Mohawk guy” in tow. White and Liddell had come by to watch some fights and maybe catch a glimpse of future Octagon talent (note: six of the eighteen fighters on that card would end up fighting in the UFC at some point), and maybe their presence ratcheted up the stakes. Maybe not, though. Maybe it was the legion of fans chanting for Rivera that turned the place into Arkham Asylum.
The Conquistador made his way to the ring wearing his usual “conquistador” garb, which was a chainmail headdress, and as he removed it, handed it to a corner man and climbed through the ropes, it was as if everyone inhaled and held their collective breath. Lutter bounced from foot to foot in his corner, ready, and when the referee gave the signal, the Texan wasted no time with those promised “surprises” – smooth takedowns and a suffocating top game.
Round 1 saw Rivera struggling to avoid every submission Lutter attempted, and Round 2 was more of the same, with each dangerous position drawing gasps from the crowd. But the jiu-jitsu fighter was tiring, and the frequency with which Rivera returned to his feet began to increase. Finally, in the third round, Rivera’s fists started finding their mark, and at the 3:46 mark Lutter was laid out on the canvas, stunned and out of breath.
Rivera earned a championship title for his efforts that night, and White was invited into the ring so he could strap the promotion’s belt on Rivera himself. In a year, the Conquistador was fighting in the UFC, the first of many Octagon appearances, and his career would include a stint on TUF 4 and a slew of seemingly improbable wins (really, they were only improbable if you didn’t know him and what he’s capable of).
Some, when they watch Rivera fight now, see only someone at the end of their run, with each subsequent trip into combat pure folly. But that’s not what I choose to see. I still picture Rivera from that 2002 night in Lowell, a man who would not let himself be submitted and whose right hand could not miss. Retired or not, to me, that’s who he’ll always be.