That trip to Kazakhstan never materialized, but Jordan Espinosa is a well-traveled man all the same.
There’s one trip, though, that he definitely doesn’t want to make – a one-way ticket out of the UFC.
To avoid that unwelcome journey, he believes, he needs to defeat Mark De La Rosa on Saturday on a UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas, Nevada.
After back-to-back losses by first-round submission, the former West Mesa wrestler believes, his back is to the wall.
“There’s not many people in the UFC that lose three in a row and still end up sticking around,” Espinosa said in a recent interview at Albuquerque’s Luttrell-Yee gym.
De La Rosa is one of the exceptions to that general rule, having lost three in a row and still fighting in the UFC. That, in Espinosa’s mind, does not make his need for a victory any less urgent.
“I think we’re both fighting for our spot in the UFC,” he said, “and I think that makes for an exciting fight.”
About Espinosa’s travels:
After losses to Matt Schnell and Alex Perez, Espinosa (14-7 overall, 2-2 UFC) was to have fought Zhaigas Zhumagulov in the Kazakhstani city of Nur-Saltan. But the coronavirus forced the card to be shifted to Las Vegas, with Zhumagulov, a Kazakhstan native, unable to travel to the U.S.
“I was disappointed,” Espinosa said of the Kazakhstan cancellation. “That would have been my first trip out of the country and my first international fight.”
Even so, within the borders of the U.S., Espinosa has gotten around.
Born in Connecticut, he spent most of pre-adolescent years in northwest Indiana – East Chicago and Gary. After his parents split up, he moved with his mother to Memphis, Tennessee, then, when he was 14, to Albuquerque.
He’s been here ever since, save for a year-and-a-half living and training in Ohio.
“I’ve lived here over half my life,” said Espinosa, 30. “So, I consider Albuquerque my home.”
Espinosa is of mixed race, half-African American, half Puerto Rican. Living in areas with heavily black populations while growing up, he said, provided him a window into the racial tensions that have boiled over in this country the past 2½ weeks.
“I’ve seen some things as a kid, so it reminds me of those times,” he said.
“Some of that stuff, I grew up with. … There were shootings all around, and for me, as a kid, I didn’t know any better. That was just how things worked. That’s all I knew.”
In Albuquerque, Espinosa prospered and became part of the storied West Mesa wrestling program under coach Lenny Lovato. Espinosa had his first MMA fight in 2010 and turned pro two years later.
He earned a UFC contract after his second appearance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series with a victory over Riley Dutro by third-round TKO (punches) in July 2018. He followed with a win by unanimous decision over Eric Shelton the following March.
Then came those damaging losses to Schnell and Perez, both by triangle choke in a combined time of less than four minutes. Both are now top-10 fighters in the UFC flyweight (125-pound) rankings.
Saturday’s fight against De La Rosa will be contested at the 135-pound bantamweight limit. Espinosa, while acknowledging that 135 is far more comfortable when it comes to making weight, said cutting to 125 for the Schnell and Perez fights was not a factor in the losses.
“By the time I walked into the cage (for those fights), I felt great,” he said. “It was more just mental and technical errors inside the cage that cost me those fights. I have to take full responsibility for that.”
In De La Rosa, he’s facing a fighter he was supposed to have fought in November 2018. An LCL injury suffered by Espinosa delayed their meeting.
“I’ve trained for him before,” Espinosa said. “He’s a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s a fighter that likes to come forward. He’ll take a few shots to give a few shots, and I expect him to push the pressure on me.”
The pressure of having to win to keep his UFC contract, Espinosa said, will not negatively affect him on Saturday – nor will the strangeness of COVID-19 testing and an empty arena.
“I think it’s gonna be a perfect time to showcase my skills,” he said.
BORG OUT: Albuquerque’s Ray Borg has withdrawn from his scheduled bantamweight fight on Saturday against Merab Dvalishvili, citing personal reasons. Borg’s manager told ESPN Thursday that the fighter had a family emergency.
On Twitter, Borg posted, “Family comes first. See you soon son!”
Borg’s son Anthony, 2, has a condition called hydrocephalus that has required multiple surgeries.