On Nov. 13, MMA veteran Jorge Rivera will attempt to extend his three-fight winning streak against Alessio Sakara at UFC 122 in Oberhausen, Germany. But before he finds out what his future holds, Rivera took a look back at his past with us for "My First Fight," a new feature on MMA Fighting where fighters revisit their very first professional MMA bout to tell us what they remember now, and what they've learned since.
The year was 2001. Jorge Rivera, then 29 years old, had come down from Milford, Mass. to Chester, W. Va. for one simple reason.
"I really just wanted to know how good I was, because I honestly had no idea. It turned out the other guy was much better."
By that point he'd had, by his own estimation, seven or eight amateur bouts. He'd done well, but he couldn't be sure whether it was just because he was facing a lower order of competition.
So to find out he turned pro and showed up at Reality Fighting's "Attack at the Track" event to face Branden Lee Hinkle, who by then had been a pro for three years, fighting often in Brazil and Japan throughout the late nineties and early part of the millennium.
Rivera knew Hinkle's resume going into the bout, he says, so he was expecting a tough test. That didn't stop the butterflies from fluttering in his stomach when he first stepped in the cage.
"I was extremely nervous. At that time he had Mark Coleman in his corner, who had been the UFC [heavyweight] champion, Pride [2000 Open Weight Grand Prix] champion. I remember looking over at Coleman in his corner and just being in complete awe. Then I said to myself, put your head down and f-ck it, let's go."
Things started off well enough. Hinkle seemed content to stand and trade early on, which was exactly what Rivera was hoping for.
"I landed a good right hand that knocked his mouthpiece out and I had him on queer street for a second," he says. "I could hear Coleman screaming at him, 'Take him down!' He shot in with a double-leg and picked me up over his head and I was just thinking, 'Oh God, here we go.' I tried to grab on to the fence to hold on, but he slammed me hard. Then he just beat the piss out of me."
The fight was pretty one-sided after that, Rivera recalls. Hinkle kept pummeling him with punches and he kept taking them. This continued through the first round and into the second before Rivera's corner finally stopped it just short of the two-minute mark in the second frame.
"You know, they should have stopped it sooner, honestly," he laughs now. "Din Thomas was the referee and he told us before the fight, 'Look to your corner to stop the fight, because I'm not going to stop the fight.' Of course, when you're in a fight, you're stupid. You don't ever think they should stop the fight. But honestly, he should have stopped that fight."
Afterwards, Rivera says, he felt very much like a man who had just taken a severe beating. He looked like one too when he returned home to Milford, trying to hide his bruises behind a pair of sunglasses.
"My eyes were so swollen. My nose was broken. My face was all bruised up. I was a mess, man. I remember my son looking at me and it was like he was afraid of me, seeing my face like that. It just gave me more fire to train harder and to come back."
And yet, truth be told, the pounding he took at Hinkle's hands sowed some doubt in his mind. Losing like that was an inauspicious way to begin a career, and it made him wonder whether he was really cut out for this business.
"I was second-guessing myself for sure. I was like, 'Man, I just took a serious beating. Do I really want to continue to get beat up like this?' I was questioning myself. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. But I just got back into training hard, beat a couple of people in the smaller shows, and just kept building myself back up."
Nine years later, Rivera is 18-7 as a pro, with 12 of those fights coming in the UFC. Even if his career got off to a rocky start, he went on to have memorable battles with fighters like Rich Franklin, Anderson Silva, and most recently, Nate Quarry.
It's been a good ride, he says, and one that's made him grateful he didn't pack it in after that one painful June night in West Virginia back in 2001.
"I've had great fights. If my career were to end today, I'd be happy with what I've done. Do I want more? Of course. It's human nature to always want more. But I can be happy with the fights I've had."
(Editor's Note: Check out Rivera's recent interview on The MMA Hour below.)