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After surviving cancer, UFC’s Diego Rivas has new perspective on life and fighting career

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UFC Fight Night 82 photos

Diego Rivas wants to become a world champion in the UFC. And after surviving cancer, the undefeated UFC fighter is doing everything in his power to make that a reality.

Rivas, who’s considered one of the best prospects of South America, began his fighting career back in 2011 in his hometown of Temuco, a city in southern Chile. Over the course of three years, Rivas put together a professional record of 5-0 and even became a champion in a regional promotion in Chile. That’s when, in 2014, the featherweight fighter got the call to participate in the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. Rivas was eliminated in the opening round of the tournament, but redeemed himself with a victory over Rodolfo Rubio Perez in his UFC debut.

In his following bout, last February, Rivas scored the most impressive finish of his fighting career when he knocked out Noad Lahat with a flying knee at UFC Fight Night 82. That knockout victory joined Stephen’s Thompson finish over former champ Johnny Hendricks in Performance of the Night awards, and earned the Chilean fighter an extra $50,000.

But soon after the biggest win of his promising MMA career, the 25-year-old Rivas was told by doctors he had, at most, a month to live. He was diagnosed with cancer.

The news turned Rivas’ world upside down.

“It was a radical, 180-degree turn,” Rivas told MMA Fighting. “After coming off so much joy with a victory, so many projects in mind, I wanted to fight two more times that year, I was in a good situation since that fight had left me in a good position in the UFC. But, well, God doesn’t give us anything we can’t bear, and I had to deal with something very, very rough last year, and in the moment I was shaken.

“Being sincere with you, I thought about the worst. I thought I was never going to fight again, and I even thought I was going to die, because it was a very aggressive cancer, and I was given two weeks to a month to live because there were already cancerous cells in my blood stream. It was a very severe and serious cancer, and I’m not going to lie, at one point I was scared, very scared. But I was strong throughout all of this thanks to my family, thanks to all the people that love me, my training partners, and my friends that that were always with me, and because of them I was able to get through this and move forward.”

When Rivas heard the news, he was devastated and thought about the worst. But the worst for him wasn’t exactly dying.

“At the beginning, when I wasn’t sure how developed the cancer was, I thought about the worst,” Rivas said. “I thought that it had maybe branched, and I wasn’t sure how long I was going to live. But the worst for me wasn’t even that I was going to die, it was that I wasn’t going to be able to fight and do what makes me happy.”

After getting diagnosed, Rivas was transferred to an urgent surgery. Luckily, the operation was successful, leading into a one-month cycle of chemotherapy, then three months of recovery.

Today, Rivas thanks God he’s alive. He now has a profound admiration for people undergoing chemotherapy, which he says is one of the roughest experiences one can undergo.

“If I can say anything, it’s that chemotherapy is an experience that you will never imagine what it’s like until you experience it,” Rivas said. “Thank God I was very lucky that the chemotherapy that I did was one of the more mild ones, but even then, it left me weak. Now, I truly admire the people that have cancer and are battling everyday, and I just can’t understand how they can have strength to smile, walk, and live, because the reality is that people that have cancer and are subject to chemotherapy, that’s something completely wearying that destroys the human being physically and mentally. Those people that keep fighting, and give cancer a fight, are people I admire.”

These days, Rivas is back in training, almost fully recovered, and with a new outlook on life.

The experience surviving cancer has made Rivas more determined to achieve his dream of one day holding UFC gold. Rivas understands that to do that he needs to improve as a fighter, and that’s why he has decided to move to the United States and leave his hometown of Temuco. In the past, Rivas made a few trips to California to train and noticed significant improvements in his game, training in world-class gyms such as Kings MMA, Reign Training Center, 10th Planet, and others. Next month, in March, the Chilean fighter plans on flying to California in search of an MMA team that suits him.

Rivas says he’ll miss his dogs and family, but he’s determined to evolve as a fighter and make the move to the U.S.

“I truly believe that everything that happened to me last year, with me being sick, undergoing surgery, and not being able to fight, helped me a lot to clarify my objective as an athlete and a fighter,” Rivas said. “I think the desire of wanting to fight is now way greater than the one I had, and now I’m way more eager to return. I have the mentality of wanting to learn and become the best that I can be, of being a sponge in order to be able to absorb and acquire knowledge on wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, everything. I want to absorb as much as possible to be the best fighter.

“I think what this year has changed the most is my mentality as an athlete. Today, I have all my goals in front of me and I’m going to strive to make them happen. I know that if I work hard and I make sacrifices, I can achieve many things. I believe 2017 is going to be my year. I want to do many things and I have the desire to work for them.”

Rivas hopes to fight sometime in June or July, but this time, in a different weight class.

Due to the dramatic weight loss from chemotherapy, the former featherweight now plans to return as a bantamweight. Rivas knows he still has a long road ahead of him to reach his dream of becoming champion, but he aims to break in the top 15 by the end of the year, and then it’s onward to greater things.