The 25-year-old bantamweight makes his second Octagon appearance this Saturday at UFC 227 following a successful short-notice debut against Merab Dvalishvili in April. That victory was not without controversy, as Simon won by late submission, but only after the bell had sounded to signal the end of the third round and officials convened and decided that Dvalishvili had been rendered unconscious by a guillotine choke.
Simon (13-1) has already put that fight behind him and is preparing to compete for the first time at the famed Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he fights Montel Jackson. It’s a big step up from his days coming up on the regional scene.
“I’m so excited,” Simon told MMA Fighting. “This will be like my 26th fight overall counting amateur and pro and it’s just been a tough road. Even fighting for one of the top regional promotions, I was still fighting in a tent, you know? I was defending my world title and I was in a tent. It’s just crazy what can change in such a short amount of time. I go to sleep thinking about making that walkout and I wake up thinking about making that walkout in front of that crowd.”
For a moment, it looked as if Simon’s UFC dreams were only getting further away. He landed a spot on season one of the Contender Series last year, but a split decision win over Donavon Frelow left both Simon and UFC officials unsatisfied. So it was back to the regional scene for the Washington-based fighter, and though he initially stewed over the rejection, he’s come to the realization that the fights he took after his stint on the Contender Series only better prepared him for when the UFC finally called.
“I am,” Simon answered, when asked if he was grateful now that he’s had a chance to look back on the past few months. “I was so salty too. I was throwing a little fit for the last year and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I see these guys in there,’ and this and that, but I guess in hindsight I got so much experience fighting a UFC veteran in Chico Camus, went 25 minutes with him and showed what I could do for 25 minutes, and even after that I didn’t get the call. I still thought, ‘What do I have to do?’ And then I got an awesome title defense against another prospect, a quick knockout, so I’m actually proud of how I came up.
“You see some guys that are part of certain teams, they get the call sooner at 6-0, something like that. I feel like the path I took was the tougher path, but it was the right one for me and I’m definitely ready and I belong here.”
In his two fights for Legacy Fighting Alliance, Simon captured a vacant 135-pound title with a unanimous decision nod over Camus, then made sure he was still firmly on the UFC’s radar with a fast finish of Vinicius Zani.
He went on to defeat Dvalishvili after accepting the fight on less than a month’s notice and now finds himself on the other side of a similar situation. Simon was originally supposed to fight Benito Lopez, an opponent who he has been chasing for years, but instead will fight Jackson after Lopez was forced to bow out with an injury.
Even before the news of Lopez’s UFC 227 withdrawal came out, Simon had said of their previous canceled matchups, “That’s a Benito thing.”
He’s focused completely on Saturday now and what it means to be on the same card as T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt, the two best fighters in his division. Dillashaw defends the bantamweight title against his rival in the UFC 227 main event, and the co-main sees Simon’s fellow Washington representative Demetrious Johnson going for a 12th consecutive successful defense of his flyweight championship.
Being in the presence of these elite fighters has been inspiring for Simon.
“I’ve been looking at both those guys for a while and I’m on the card with the guys who are fighting for the world title in my weight class, so it’s a great opportunity for me to show who I am,” said Simon. “To show I’m another 135er that belongs in there with them and I get to prove that in front of a bunch of people. It’s going to be awesome. It’s also good to be on the card with Demetrious Johnson. I’m from Washington, he’s from Washington, that’s also something that I’m super pumped about.”
Simon sees himself in sitting the top 15 at this time next year so long as he’s able to stay healthy and fight as much as possible. With the bantamweight title in L.A. this week, will Simon consider giving it a rub for good luck should he get the opportunity?
“It’s super weird because I never thought I was a superstitious person or anything like that, but when I’m in Hawaii, I train at the UFC gym in Waikele and they have a UFC belt there,” Simon said. “I won’t even touch it. I don’t know why. They tried to hand it to me once and I’m like, ‘I’m okay, I’m okay.’ I don’t want to touch it until it’s mine, and I really believe that’s gonna happen.”