Nohelin Hernandez is getting that UFC call a little earlier than expected.
Last week, the 25-year-old bantamweight was preparing to headline a Legacy Fighting Alliance show at the end of the month against Anthony Birchak, a veteran of four UFC fights. A win there would likely have propelled Hernandez to a spot in the Octagon.
Instead, he got a call last Saturday telling him that he’d be needed to fill in for Sean O’Malley against Marlon Vera in Las Vegas at UFC 239, one of the biggest MMA cards of the year. Hernandez was solely focused on Birchak and wasn’t even aware that the O’Malley and Vera were booked to fight or that Vera was suddenly in need of a new opponent after O’Malley received a provisional suspension from the Nevada State Athletic Commission while they investigate his recent drug test results.
But don’t think his tunnel vision has him unprepared for a brighter spotlight. Hernandez (10-2) has picked up wins in LFA, Bellator, and Tachi Palace Fights, and even if this opportunity had come up earlier, he would have jumped on it.
“I was ready,” Hernandez recently told MMA Fighting. “I’ve been UFC-ready, I believe I was UFC-ready two fights ago and the fact that this comes up, obviously I was going to take it and I have no regrets whatsoever of signing the contract and fighting now.
“International Fight Week against a super great opponent both inside and outside of fighting. I’m really excited and really happy to get this opportunity.”
Hernandez has already been making the most of his increased camera time, stealing the show at Friday’s ceremonial weigh-ins when he handed a rose to Octagon girl Brittney Palmer.
The move was tied to his “Suave” nickname and while that may have popped the crowd, it’s his in-cage performance that will matter most at the end of the day. Hernandez has the chance to pull off one of UFC 239’s biggest upsets if he can get past Vera, a budding contender who has finished his last three opponents.
Win or lose, Hernandez is expecting an exciting (and potentially lucrative) fight.
“I think this is the right opponent,” Hernandez said. “I feel like this is right up my alley, first off a tough fighter and second of all, he’s a notable name in the UFC. He’s stayed active, he’s been around for a long time. I think a win for me puts me in a great spot.”
“The bonus check, that’s nice. As a fighter you enjoy the art of fighting and you do it for the glory, this is why I do it, the glory and the life. Everything that comes with winning. Money isn’t something that I’m mentally focused on, but of course the winning aspect, the winning portion of the check would be nice too.”
A proud native of Gilroy, Calif., who trains with American Kickboxing Academy, Hernandez described the short-notice call-up as a “light at the end of the tunnel,” which is somewhat curious considering he’s only been a pro since 2016.
But when you consider that he’s already been competing at the highest levels of regional MMA and that he was waiting for a Contender Series opportunity that never came, it makes more sense that Hernandez felt some urgency to become part of the UFC roster. He’s only once taken a short-notice fight, and while that didn’t go his way, he’s predicting that his UFC debut on Saturday will have a better outcome.
“I’ve taken one short-notice fight before, it didn’t go my way,” Hernandez said of a January 2018 loss to Vincent Cachero. “At the same time I was coming off of the holidays. It was in January, December had just passed, November had just passed, I wasn’t training. When they had proposed that short-notice idea to me, it got sold that it was going to be on TV and people were going to be watching, and I got fooled on that. Even though I wasn’t training, I still took the fight and I felt not okay in the fight. I felt slow, I felt sluggish, but this time around honestly it’s crazy.
“But it’s not too crazy because I have been ready, I have been training, I’m in shape, I feel good, my mentality is there, I have all the right support system around me with my team, my parents, my coaches, and it’s just life. I feel like life is throwing this my way for me to grab and take hold and make it my moment.”