At first glance, the story driving Bubba Jenkins' marquee Bellator 132 fight against Georgi Karakhanyan is obvious. After gradually feasting on the lower ranks for four years, Friday night is meant to be Jenkins' breakthrough moment. A chance for the one-time Division I wrestling champion to prove he's finally come into his own as a fighter, topple a former WSOF titleholder under the hot Spike TV lights and announce his presence in the global featherweight ranks.
And for what it's worth, that's true. Karakhanyan is unquestionably the toughest name to cross Jenkins' ledger since his MMA experiment began. But to simplify the fight into such cliché terms, it simply doesn't do justice to Jenkins' curious road, because back on Sept. 20, 2013, when Jenkins hung his battered head into his weary hands somewhere within the bowels of Phoenix's Homewood Suites, up on floor four, room 416, those hot lights were the last thing on his mind.
It won't go down alongside the Serra-GSP's of the world, but Jenkins' stumble that night was no less of a statistical marvel. Pegged as an overwhelming 17-to-1 betting favorite, Jenkins ran out of steam at Bellator 100 then wilted under the pressure of an unknown and inexperienced local kid, LaRue Burley, drowning under a sea of third-round punches inside Grand Canyon University Arena to a foe effectively picked off the street to lose.
The scene left then-Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney speechless. Rebney was the one who repeatedly hailed Jenkins' signing as the signing of "the world's No. 1 MMA prospect," the one who plotted Jenkins' gradual build to stardom, only to see any grand plans unexpectedly imploded by a ‘sure thing' fight booked as a hometown showcase for the Arizona State alumnus.
"I knew nothing of him," Jenkins says of Burley. "He's this guy from Phoenix and he's played football before. ‘Oh, I'm going to crush this guy.' I figured I'll just sit down for four weeks and then cut weight for two weeks and be ready to go again.
"I lost that fight before I stepped into the cage. There were things that I did leading up to it... I just did not prepare correctly. I wasn't mentally there. I wasn't spiritually there. I wasn't physically ready to fight. And like I said, that loss came well before the referee pulled LaRue off of me."
The setback continued a nasty trend of Jenkins' that dated back even to his collegiate days. Lethargic performances at the worst times. Never quite the guy to maximize his vast physical gifts. And Jenkins admits, he was overconfident and underprepared. He believed his own hype and took for granted his abilities against the dregs of the regional fight circuit, his capabilities to beat MMA's schlubs at half-speed. He took for granted men like Burley.
"It was painful. More than physical, it was psychological. It weighed heavily on my head," says Jenkins. "The very next day I went and ran and ran and ran. From that camp to the next camp, I didn't take another day off. I completely trained like a madman, almost to the point of overtraining because I never wanted that to happen to me again.
"I've never been the same since that fight."
It's strange, the way life tends to give us these little reminders of what's actually what.
The 12-month campaign that followed became a tour of validation as much as it was one of vindication. By all accounts, Jenkins slowly transformed from a wrestler into an actual fighter, dropping to his natural class of featherweight and steamrolling through three straight foes with a fervor unlike any he'd felt before.
Anytime Jenkins was tired, he'd think of Burley. Anytime he was hurt or wavering, he'd think of being dragged out of that grey cage, brooding inside that Homewood Suites hotel room with the knowledge that things weren't supposed to end this way. He'd remind himself that this was his career, his livelihood. He was a professional now, fighting other professionals trying to put food on the table for their families, and this road only stretched as far as he'd pave it.
Then came another one of those serendipitous little reminders.
Nearly a year to the exact day of his wake-up call, Jenkins found himself perched in a familiar spot -- somewhere within the bowels of Phoenix's Homewood Suites, up on floor four, room 416, his frenzied head hung in his trembling hands, the memory of that embarrassment flooding over him all over again.
Here Jenkins was, in the same hotel, in the same room, in the same damn bed... waiting for the shuttle to take him to Grand Canyon University Arena and Bellator 126. Hell, Burley was even fighting on the card.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Bellator had given Jenkins an unexpected opportunity to run it all back. A chance to close the circle that started back in Sept. 2013. And he made the most of it.
"When I showed up to the weigh-in room, to the same room that I trained in for the last fight, when I showed up to same exact hotel room that I was staying in the first time, it was an eerie feeling," Jenkins says. "It was like, okay, God's either giving me a restart, or I'm back here to lose again. It weighed heavily on my mind.
"But to get the redemption in Phoenix again, to come back and show that I really am the true Bubba Jenkins that they were expecting to see the first time, it cleansed me mentally. It cleansed me physically. It put me where I was supposed to be initially. That's how it was supposed to go."
Jenkins ground opponent Thiago Meller into dust, passing new Bellator President Scott Coker's final test and graduating to Friday's big stage opportunity against Karakhanyan. A year ago, when he was rash and foolhardy, playing tricks on himself with his own potential, Jenkins likely would have faltered in such a pivotal spot. But there's no remedy like an old-fashioned humbling, and with that chapter finally behind him, Jenkins is confident to now take the next step to his career.
"Not even the past four years -- this is the product of my life," Jenkins says. "Everything that I've been through, from the day I first picked up a shoe to tie it, this has been waiting for me.
"I'm ready for this fight. I'm comfortable with being a fighter. I've gotten to the point where I'm comfortable with biting down on my mouthpiece and getting hooked and punched and uppercutted and responding to that. Because there was a time where I wasn't comfortable with that. There was a time where I wasn't comfortable with talking. There was a time where interviews scared me. There was a time where the big match and the big stage weren't the things I was looking for. There was a time where punching absolutely bothered me. Now I'm at a point, I'm at peace in my mind, I'm at peace spiritually, I'm at peace physically, and I'm ready to go."