Jerome Rivera is 0-3 as a UFC fighter. Going 0-4, he’s aware, could spell the end of his career in MMA’s most powerful organization.
Yet, the Santa Fe native says, that’s not his primary source of motivation as he prepares to face Kazakhstan’s Zhalgas Zhumagolov on Saturday in Las Vegas, Nevada.
All he needs for inspiration is to look at his gym bag, where he’s affixed photos of his fiancée, Gabriella Fischer, and their almost 3-year-old daughter Emilia.
“Every time I open my gym bag, I get to see their faces,” Rivera said in a phone interview. “They’ve really helped push me through this (training) camp. There were a lot of times where I was super tired and I was like, shoot, I don’t want to go to this practice.
“Then I thought, if I go to this practice and I don’t give it my 100 percent, then I’m wasting my family’s time, and that’s time I’m spending away from them that I can’t get back. So that really just made me realize that I’ve got to give my 100 percent every single time I’m away from them, because I owe that to them.”
Rivera (10-5), a flyweight, has traveled a rugged road since signing with the UFC in September 2020.
The UFC did not initially sign him after his victory over Luís Rodríguez on Dana White’s Tuesday Contender Series that August – instead bringing him into the fold with eight days’ notice to fight veteran Tyson Nam on Sept. 19. He lost by second-round TKO.
After a loss by unanimous but close (29-28 on all three scorecards) decision to Francisco Figueiredo on Jan. 20 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, the UFC made an urgent request. Would Rivera be willing to step up two weight classes to featherweight (a 20-pound leap) on short notice to face Ode Osbourne in Vegas on Feb. 6?
Yes, he would – and was knocked out by the powerful Osbourne in just 26 seconds of the first round.
Few fighters survive an 0-3 start with the UFC. Rivera did, because his have-gloves, will-travel attitude did not go unappreciated.
Including the Rodríguez fight on DWTCS, Rivera fought for the UFC four times during the COVID-19 pandemic. As for the Osbourne fight, “They said, ‘Hey, if you take this fight it’s gonna be off contract and we promise you another fight (win or lose).'”
And, despite the outcome, Rivera doesn’t regret having taken the risk against Osbourne.
“I tried to do something great and I came up short,” he said. “I made a technical error (in the fight). … My philosophy behind it was, win lose or draw, I’m gonna be better for the experience.
“I feel like I grew up so much mentally that fight, and I feel like a completely different person.”
He’s a different fighter, he says, as well – more the free-wheeling athlete who won his first seven pro fights than the sometimes tentative one who has lost five of his last eight.
Since signing with the UFC, Rivera sometimes has had trouble getting out of his own head. No more, he said.
“My pressure isn’t really to win,” he said. “I feel like, of course I’m always going in there to win, but I’m not afraid of a loss like I used to be.
“I know that a loss doesn’t mean I don’t get to go home and see my daughter. I still get to go home and see my fiancée. I still get to fight another day.”
Against Zhumagulov (13-5), who stands 5-foot-4, Rivera, a tall flyweight at 5-10, will have a substantial reach advantage that he intends to exploit.
“I think I’m gonna create problems for him trying to take me down,” he said. “I think I’m gonna be hard for him to get on the inside and utilize his boxing, and I think I’m just gonna keep him at the end of my punches.
“And, yeah, I think I have an answer for this guy any way the fight goes.”