"Conquistador" seeks to conquer Sakara
Not every fighter can have the strength of Brock Lesnar, the athleticism of Georges St. Pierre or the flashy style of Anderson Silva. Without overwhelming physical gifts, most fighters have to get by on grit, toughness and mental fortitude. In that department, few can match 38-year-old veteran Jorge "El Conquistador" Rivera.
Rivera made his UFC debut in 2003 as a heavy underdog against rising star David Loiseau. Loiseau was known for his impressive kickboxing ability and was considered a future title contender. But in a gritty 15-minute fight, Rivera wore down Loiseau with a tight clinch game and give-and-take dirty boxing. The tough decision victory was a harbinger of things to come for Rivera.
Throughout his UFC career, Rivera's fights have followed a similar pattern. He strikes on his feet, isn't afraid to take a punch to give a punch, and keeps coming even when put in a bad position. There is nothing spectacular about Rivera's style, but there is an innate toughness.
That toughness originates from Rivera's father, a 5'2" Puerto Rican immigrant to Massachusetts. The elder Rivera was one of nine children, orphaned at a young age by the death of their mother and forced to raise themselves.
"Nobody disrespected my old man," Rivera says. "He lived a much harder life than the one he provided for his family. He was a proud man. When he first moved here this wasn't a good place to live if you were a minority. My brothers and I grew up like that too, but he always looked out for us. It helped make us who we are."
Rivera sports a 7-5 UFC record, but had never been able to string together enough wins in a row to move into truly high profile fights. A recent run may have changed Rivera's luck. Following three consecutive wins, Rivera will fight in the semi-main event of Saturday's UFC 122 event against Alessio Sakara.
Sakara is a veteran striker with a similar career trajectory to Rivera. The fight will offer Rivera an opportunity in the spotlight and to move himself towards potential title contention.
"He's a tough guy," Rivera says. "He was has well rounded skills and among the best hands in the game. He's a brown belt in jiu jitsu with American Top Team too. His biggest weapons are his hands but by no means am I overlooking any aspect of his game. I want a good fight where we push each other, win fight of the night, and hopefully I knock him out too."
While Sakara is primarily a striker like Rivera, he has had success against different types of opponents. Rivera has often overwhelmed fellow strikers but had trouble with the submissions of ground specialists. Sakara has frequently avoided the takedowns of grapplers but has been stopped by fighters who challenge him on his feet. That could play to Rivera's advantage. However, striking with Sakara is always a dangerous game.
As Rivera approaches his tenth year of fighting and his 40th birthday, he isn't worrying about how much longer he will compete in MMA.
"I really don't know," Rivera acknowledges. "I'll fight at least another couple years. Maybe until I'm 40. I live life day-to-day. I've got kids I want to play with as I get older. I don't want to be mumbling my words. I take it fight by fight and day by day."
Rivera is likely to conclude his career the same way he has reached this point: quietly going about his business and delivering tough, no-nonsense performances. But if he can string together a few more wins in a wide open middleweight division, maybe the true life Rocky story can conclude like one of the Rocky movies.
"You always want to be champ in everything you do, no matter what you do," Rivera notes. "I love competing but I want to win a title for sure and hopefully ride off into the sunset as the champ."
Rivera pauses for a moment.
"That's the dream."