One of the reasons that the UFC gave its entire American broadcast rights to ESPN was management’s belief that the exposure fighters could get on the various ESPN platforms will best serve the cause of turning some into pay-per-view stars.
Those are fighters who command media attention, who regularly sell out arenas and whose pay-per-view numbers regularly threaten, or surpass, 1 million.
There are few of those people in the world. It takes a special combination of talent, perseverance, circumstance and luck to get to the level that Conor McGregor, Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey and Georges St-Pierre reached.
There are far more fighters, though, who never make that breakthrough, who aren’t appearing on the covers of magazines, who don’t have TMZ tracking their every move, who aren’t so tired of doing media that they beg not to have to do a news conference.
But is there anyone who regularly watches MMA who would say that Jimmie Rivera is not a star? The No. 4 ranked bantamweight is 21-1 overall in his MMA career and 5-0 in the UFC, and he’s done it the hard way: He wasn’t gifted any easy fights and fought his way up the ladder.
He won the King of the Cage bantamweight title (called flyweight in KOTC) and defended it once. He captured the Ring of Combat bantamweight belt and defended it once. He won the CFFC bantamweight title and defended it once, finally getting a UFC contract.
In all, he’s won 20 in a row and hasn’t lost in nearly a decade. He won’t sell a million pay-per-views, and it’s significant that he’s headlining on Friday in Utica, New York, rather than a week later in Chicago, when UFC 225 is held at the United Center.
Still, he’s one of those fighters who is appointment viewing. When you hear he’s fighting, you set the DVR, clear the schedule and make sure the refrigerator is stocked.
As he showed in a one-sided victory over Hall of Famer Urijah Faber on Sept. 10, 2016, Rivera has the talent to compete with the best in the world in his class.
He’ll face fifth-ranked Marlon Moraes in a fight that figures to be highly interesting if not highly watched. Rivera and Moraes have gone back-and-forth on Twitter for several months before finally agreeing to fight.
When Rivera defeated Faber, much of the post-fight attention went to Faber, not Rivera, and that fundamentally changed the way he viewed his career.
“I had great respect for Urijah, and I did for a long time before we fought,” Rivera said. “A lot of people talk about all he did to help the lighter weight classes, and that’s true, but really, he was a great ambassador for MMA, period. He is one of the guys who pushed this sport and helped grow it. So I gave him his respect.
“But after the fight, I won 30-27 on all cards and everything was like, ‘Urijah, what’s next for you?’ I was like, ‘What’s next for him? Who gives a [expletive]? I just beat him all three rounds and you’re asking what’s next for him?’ It kind of pissed me off and I realized I couldn’t be such a nice guy anymore.”
A fighter has to make noise in the marketplace. Some do it with a string of dominant victories. Others do it by talking. Most who reach the top use a combination of them.
Rivera has done his part to sell the fight with Moraes, a kickboxer who has scored back-to-back wins over John Dodson and Aljamain Sterling after a split-decision loss to Raphael Assuncao in his UFC debut.
Each has accused the other of ducking, and there was a brief back-and-forth with Rivera and Moraes manager Ali Abdelaziz.
At the end of the day, though, Rivera has great respect for Moraes’ talent and knows that a win will be a significant one which will carry weight with it in the division.
“He’s a tough guy, no doubt about it,” Rivera said. “He’s not as good as I am, though. I honestly believe that. However it goes, wherever it goes, I believe I’m better. I have to go in there, figure out a play, feel him out and then beat him up, picking him apart slowly but surely.
“He’s a kickboxer and if you watch him over any length of time, that’s what he relies on. I just have to go in and be the better kickboxer that I am and I think I’ll do what I have to do.”
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