Like a lot of would-be UFC fighters, Justin Salas had started to wonder if the call would ever come. The lightweight had had nibbles from the big show, vague assurances that ultimately went nowhere. After he beat former Ultimate Fighter contestant Rob Emerson on a mat so heated by arena lights that it tore a chunk of skin off the bottom of his foot, his coaches at Denver’s Grudge Training Center felt sure that he’d get his shot.
When he beat Joe Ellenberger -- the undefeated brother of UFC welterweight Jake Ellenberger -- ten months later, it seemed all but certain. For the first time, conversations with the UFC brass had begun to take the form of when rather than if.
"Then they called us back and said, ‘Have him take another fight. We don’t know if we’ll be able to take him right now,’" Salas said. "I just thought, well, guess I’ll have to find another guy like Joe Ellenberger. ...I don’t expect anyone to hand me anything. They don’t think I’m ready? Then I guess I better keep proving it."
Salas had accepted another fight in another small organization and had begun training for it when the call came. February 15, they told him. The UFC on Fuel event in Omaha. That’s when he’d get his shot. Just like that, Salas was a UFC fighter.
It’s difficult for some people to understand exactly what that moment means for a young fighter. They look at a guy like Salas, who’s making his debut against fellow UFC newcomer Anton Kuivanen on the prelim portion of a mid-week fight card that’s airing on a cable channel that many fight fans don’t even get, and they don’t see what the big deal is. It’s not like he’s headlining a pay-per-view. The UFC doesn’t even have a photo of him on its website yet, so what’s he so excited about?
But then, the people who think that have never been in Salas’ shoes. They’ve never had to try to explain to a stranger that, yes, they are a professional fighter, even if they’re not yet in the UFC.
"You tell them that, and you can see it," Salas said. "They just think of you like their buddy that they met at the bar who fought in some small show that they went to once. Maybe he’s not at your level, but you’re right there in the same category as him in their eyes, no matter how good you are or who you train with. I’ve been pursuing this as my job, as a professional, for a while now. But until you’re in the UFC, people don’t really picture you that way."
That’s particularly true back in Salas’ hometown of Green River, Wyo. There, it’s pretty much a given that you’ll grow up to work in the region’s famous trona mines, spending your life underground in the 2,000 miles of tunnels that employ just about every man of working age in the region. Salas was headed that way himself after leaving the University of Wyoming without a degree once his wrestling career there was finished.
Then one day a friend of his asked if he’d be willing to do him a small favor. Nothing major. It just involved him driving to North Platte, Neb. to do a cage fight against some guy. His friend had committed to doing it himself, but his wife was due to give birth any day, and missing an event like that just so he could fight in some small show in a small town was the kind of thing he might wind up hearing about for the next decade or two.
Salas didn’t have much going on, and he missed the competition of his wrestling days, so he took it. He drove to Nebraska with no real preparation or training and got ambarred by a guy who clearly knew at least a little something about jiu-jitsu. Then he got a return bout with the same guy later that year. This time Salas knocked him out.
By then he was hooked. Salas eventually found a home in Denver at the Grudge gym, where coaches like Trevor Wittman and Leister Bowling transformed him from a haymaker-throwing wrestler to an actual mixed martial artist. And now, after nearly six years in the sport, he’s finally getting his chance to test himself on the sport’s biggest stage. That opportunity alone makes the struggle seem worth it, said Salas.
"In Wyoming, we don’t have any professional sports teams. Me making it to the UFC, it makes the people back in my hometown look at it and say, ‘Wow, you’re actually doing this.’ Because I could have stayed in the mines and it’s not a bad life. You can live a very comfortable life, living close to your family and making a hundred grand a year, living in a new house. But I chose to come out here and scrape by for years. It makes people look at you and wonder, how long are you going to hold out on this? How long can you keep at this?"
The answer, it seems, is long enough to at least get his shot. Salas has dealt with his share of disappointment and frustration just to get the opportunity to fight in the Octagon. Now all that’s left is for him to make the most of it in Omaha next Wednesday night. And that, as many UFC rookies have discovered, is often the hardest part.