LAS VEGAS — Jesse Taylor first heard about the UFC’s idea of doing a “redemption” season of The Ultimate Fighter from longtime training partner Tom Gallicchio.
In Taylor’s mind, that kind of thing was made for him.
“Man,” Taylor said he told Gallicchio, “that’s about me.”
Taylor was infamously ousted from his spot in The Ultimate Fighter 7 finals back in 2008 after an alcohol-fueled night in Las Vegas. Taylor broke a limousine window and harassed women in a casino. He got another shot in the UFC after that at the time and lost. Taylor was then released.
The incident made Taylor the poster boy for foolish antics on the UFC’s flagship reality series as well as the blueprint on how extremely talented athletes can made self-sabotaging decisions.
On Friday night, that whole storyline was turned on its ear. Taylor defeated Dhiego Lima by second-round submission with a rear-naked choke to win The Ultimate Fighter 25, the season entitled “Redemption.” Nine years later, “JT Money” made good, winning $290,000 and the TUF trophy he might have had back then if he didn’t majorly screw up.
“Maybe they’ll make a movie about it one day,” Taylor said at the post-fight press conference. “I saw this thing, it’s not about the money. Don’t get me wrong, it’s gonna change my life and my kids’ life. But it wasn't really about the money. It was about the story — about redemption. That’s what it was about. I wanted to show my kids, to be a good role model, ‘Hey you mess up in life, you fix it and you keep going.’ A lot of people mess up in life. I think I can relate with people in that sense. I’m a pretty regular guy, nothing too special about me. I just keep going. I think anyone can do it. Just gotta have a strong mind and keep going.”
Taylor, 34, was the very definition of a journeyman after his one UFC fight, a loss to CB Dollaway in 2008. He fought more than 40 times in many different countries, including Panama, Argentina, Russia and Bahrain. The California native found a good deal of success, but that call from the UFC never came.
“I would go on seven-, eight-fight win streaks, beating guys that ended up getting the call from the UFC,” Taylor said. “I’m like, what about old JT here? No call?”
Taylor hit some rough patches over the years, even struggling with homelessness over a few weeks span some years ago. But he never quit and that’s what he wanted to convey so much during the TUF season and this week.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Taylor said. “It was pretty foolish what I did, but I don’t regret a thing. It made the story of ‘JT Money.’ I messed up, but at the same time it made me pretty hungry to get back. And it kind of fueled that fire. Not a day goes by I don’t think about that. Who knows, if I won back then I might have been in and out and done with the UFC.”
The old “JT Money” might have burned through that six-figure pay day this weekend on The Strip. But Taylor said Friday night that he wants to put $50,000 toward a college fund for his two kids. A good portion of the rest of the money, he said, will go to his girlfriend, so she can help him make “sound investments.”
“I don’t want to burn through this money,” Taylor said. “I’m a little bit older and wiser now.”
Taylor is definitely not the 20-something who sent his career on the downturn nine years ago. But his MMA game is every bit as strong as it has always been. He showed that on the season and against Lima. Taylor still trains with longtime mentor Dan Henderson in California and also did some work with Matt Brown, his former TUF 7 castmate. Brown was in his corner Friday night.
All of this has Taylor thinking of less modest aspirations for the future.
“I think there’s a lot of sharks at 170, but I also think it’s kind of lacking some star power,” Taylor said. “And then I come out of nowhere to take it all. I want to make a run for this. Maybe a fight or two, but I want to get into contender status. I want to go get that belt.”
Can Taylor, now an 11-year veteran of MMA, make a play for the UFC welterweight title? It seemed like a long shot just a few months ago. But then again, so did the idea of Taylor coming back on The Ultimate Fighter and winning the whole thing.
“This chapter is closed,” Taylor said. “I want to make a run for it. I want to see how far I can take this ride.”