Vince Morales is a long way from Idaho, and a long way from the humble wrestling roots that led to where he stands now, on the cusp of his UFC debut.
The 28-year-old had a chance to compete in front of Dana White on the second season of the UFC president’s Contender Series, butended up losing via second-round submission to Domingo Pilarte after badly rocking Pilarte at the end of round one. That performance was promising enough to keep Morales on the UFC’s radar. On fight night, the broadcast focused on Morales’s relationship with his mother, who passed away from cancer when he was 16 years old and he recently spoke to MMA Fighting about how the strength she showed during her battle inspired him to push forward in his career.
“I’d just barely gotten started with wrestling when she started getting sick,” Morales said. “She was very supportive even though I didn’t win a match. Even though she never even saw me win a match.”
Morales’s mother, Sharlee Calvert, split from his father when Morales was very young, before he was even old enough to have memories of it. What he does recall is finding a way to distract himself from the situation by diving headfirst into athletics, specifically the sport of wrestling.
“Dealing with that stuff was rough,” Morales said. “Wrestling was kind of my outlet, I was actually living with my dad, we lived in the same town as my mom, but I had just moved in with my dad a year prior, then she started getting sick and we started going over a little bit more.
“It got to a point during wrestling where it was getting harder and harder to see her because it’s hard to see somebody so close to you that you care about, that’s always been the rock in the family, to be going through the chemo and get slowly broken down. But not once did that ever change her from being like, ‘I’m not gonna quit. I’m here to fight for you guys.’ And that was kind of her spirit throughout the whole thing. She battled it for a year and a half.”
“Growing up she was always like that,” he continued. “She was always trying to find some way to deal with the adversity of life and that just became the epitome of all that. There’s not much more of a harder fought battle than people’s battle with cancer.”
Fortunately for Morales, wrestling and MMA became not only his escape, but a way for him to form deeper connections with a new kind of family. His cousin Ricky Simon, a 14-1 fighter who is currently 2-0 in the UFC’s bantamweight division, stepped in at the last minute to corner him when he fought at Contender Series in July, and prior to that the two were able to train together for the first time in years.
Simon helped Morales to get back on the winning track at Bellator 205 in Boise, Idaho, where Morales defeated Justin Hugo by unanimous decision. He plans to make sparring with Simon a regular occurrence in the future.
“I think both of our styles, it’s good for both of us to be able to train with somebody like that,” Morales said. “Ricky right now, I think he’s probably one of the best up-and-coming guys, I think he’s the next big thing. Ricky’s a savage. So I’m trying to figure out a way that I can make it over there, get some work with him more often just cause aside from this last Bellator fight, I haven’t really trained with him since back when we were amateurs, unfortunately.
“So we kept in touch, we still talk about upcoming fights and all that, it’s just money. Never could figure out a good way to get over there for a long time to get something beneficial out of it.”
Morales also has a partner-in-crime in girlfriend Shino VanHoose, an atomweight fighter who has picked up wins in Invicta FC, Pancrase, and Jewels. He points to his relationship with VanHoose as another pillar that he can rely on when the going gets tough.
“It’s good,” Morales said. “She understands the fight camp grind, so if there’s any time where I need something or my body’s hurting a little bit more, she doesn’t make anything harder to deal with. She’s always understanding, it helps ease the process along.”
“I’ve heard other fighters in media or interviews say that those types of relationships never work, but we’ve had zero problems,” he continued. “If anything, I appreciate everything she does for me in regards to fight stuff. It’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off of somebody so close like that.”
And though Morales is well outside of his comfort zone and entering enemy territory against China’s Song, he can count a recent trip to the far east among his experiences. Morales and VanHoose went to visit her family in South Korea earlier this year and though he’ll be dealing with a vastly different circumstances when he competes in Beijing, he was at least able to have an experience with a culture that is alien compared to the United States.
Unsurprisingly, Morales managed to turn that trip into a family fighting affair as well.
“Just earlier this year was my first time flying international,” Morales said. “I had went with Shino to South Korea to visit her family. Her brothers are also Muay Thai fighters and MMA fighters so I actually got some solid training in South Korea, it was great.”
UFC Fight Night 141 takes place at Cadillac Arena in Beijing, China, with the prelims beginning at 3:15 a.m. ET and the main card at 6:30 a.m. ET. The entire card airs on UFC Fight Pass.