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As long as there have been MMA fighters and MMA trainers, “gym hopscotch” has been a sport within the sport.
Sometimes fighters leave their gyms and move elsewhere because they lost. Sometimes they win and leave anyway.
Sometimes it’s professional, sometimes personal, sometimes financial, sometimes a combination of the three.
But it’s a game Tim Means has never played.
As always, Tom Vaughn of Albuquerque’s FIT-NHB gym will be in Means’ corner when he faces Californian Daniel Rodriguez Saturday on UFC Rio Rancho at the Santa Ana Star Center.
Means has been a professional MMA fighter since 2004. But there’s a 47-month gap, from March 2005 to February 2009, during which he had no fights.
For some of those 47 months, he was in jail.
“I had all the friends in the world when I was fighting (before the forced hiatus), when I was winning,” Means said on Wednesday. “Everybody wanted to be my friend and wanted to be at the table.
“Then when I hit rock bottom, the lowest of the low, there was just a couple of people that would answer my phone calls when I was in jail. Tom was one of those guys.”
Vaughn has never stopped answering the phone, and Means has never stopped answering the bell. He enters Saturday’s fight against Rodriguez (10-1) with a record of 29-11-1.
Saturday is an anniversary of sorts, in that the Santa Ana Star card is taking place exactly eight years after Means’ UFC debut. On Feb. 15, 2012, in Omaha, Nebraska, he beat Bernardo Magalhaes by unanimous decision.
Since then, there’ve been wins and losses, good times and bad.
He was cut from the UFC roster in 2013 after twice failing to make the contracted lightweight limit of 155 pounds. But he returned to the UFC as a welterweight (170) less than a year later after two victories on the Legacy FC circuit.
In 2016, a scheduled bout against New Mexico rival Donald Cerrone was canceled – and Means’ career derailed – by a positive test for the banned substance Ostarine. Facing a possible two-year suspension, Means took work as a welder.
But, the suspension having been reduced to six months because it was determined a tainted supplement was the cause, he returned with a victory by second-round TKO over Sabah Homasi that August.
Last March, after losing by knockout to Niko Price, Means had lost four of his last six. Of far greater concern, he’d suffered a gruesome injury – broken ankle and tibia – that night. But he came back with a victory by first-round submission (guillotine choke) over Thiago Alves on Dec. 7 and was rewarded with a new four-fight UFC contract.
Now, as Means prepares for Saturday’s fight, he and his wife, fellow fighter Brenda Gonzales Means, are mourning with their community of Moriarty the loss of two of their own. Moriarty High School students Pedro and Mateo Sandoval were killed in a car crash on Jan. 14.
It’s an appropriate time, then, to be fighting at home. Means hasn’t fought in New Mexico since May 14, 2011, when he defeated Cris Leyva by third-round TKO at Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino.
Even before Means returned from his victory over Silva in Washington, D.C., Vaughn had been on the phone with UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby in an effort to get Means on Saturday’s card. Success – though there were anxious moments after Ramazan Emeev, Means’ original opponent, dropped out.
“(Finding a replacement) took a little while longer than I was hoping for,” Means said, “but (Shelby) said ‘Stay ready’ and here we are.”
Here as well are Vaughn and his wife and FIT-NHB co-owner Arlene Sanchez Vaughn.
“Besides Tim validating the strength of our program,” Vaughn told the Journal via email, “he’s an inspiration to be around.”
Regarding that gym hopscotch, FIT-NHB has lost a few. But, Vaughn said, “No one has ever left and done better (elsewhere).”
Meanwhile, Moriarty will be well represented. Bantamweight and fellow Moriarty Pinto John Dodson, who’s scheduled to face England’s Nathaniel Wood on Saturday, said in an interview last week it was Means who introduced him to MMA.
With all that going on, Means said – his UFC anniversary, dedicating the fight to the Sandoval brothers, representing Moriarty, fighting on his home turf – he’s beyond motivated.
“It’s the right time,” he said, “to get in a fistfight.”
UFC Rio Rancho, 3 p.m., Santa Ana Star Center: Corey Anderson vs. Jan Blachowicz, 11 other fights. ESPN+.
Tickets: $80 and up, ticketmaster.com.