Much of the attention being paid to UFC 127's co-main event between Michael Bisping and Jorge Rivera has focused on the manufactured heat between the two. And maybe not all of it is phony. Bisping appears to be MMA's whipping boy that can actually fight. Rivera understands the Brit is a legitimate threat and an opponent that can do wonders for his career, but "El Conquistador" is having fun needling him on the way to the cage.
"I think Michael Bisping has a very good record," Rivera told me on MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan. "He's known worldwide. He's vocal. People know who he is. I think a fight with him will be a good, exciting fight and just like you said before, it'll definitely catapult me and put my name right up there."
That's where the praise stopped. Rivera continued, this time breaking down Bisping's game while underscoring his weaknesses: "What I see in him, he doesn't really have a lot of power in his strikes. I haven't seen him knock out too many guys in the UFC and he runs a lot when he gets hit. I feel like I have a good game plan on how to stop what he's good at and implement what I want to do and basically just do my thing."
If you're not used to seeing this from Jorge Rivera, you're not alone. This is a different Rivera entering UFC 127. This is a self-aware Rivera, one who recognizes he's had an up and career and isn't getting any younger. He's been in and out of the UFC since UFC 44 where he won his debut fight over David Loiseau. He knows he's had chances to make a big name for himself and fallen short. At UFC 46 he was triangled in the first round be Lee Murray. He was armbarred by Rich Franklin at UFC 50. Anderson Silva knocked him out at Cage Rage 11. His first appearance on Spike TV was met with a knock out at the hands of Chris Leben. Rivera's had an impressive career, but has missed key opportunities to move to to the next level.
It's been so up and down that Rivera has considered throwing in the towel. Numerous times, apparently. Rivera was candid in his assessment of how many times the two steps forward, one step back trajectory of his career nearly influenced him to quit prizefighting. "There have been many times. There have been many times. There's been more than one. There were a few times," Rivera noted.
"There was a time in 2002 where I got separated and divorced from my wife and I spent I don't know how many hours at the gym. That's where I spent most of time," Rivera said. "I wasn't really doing much with it. I had a big fight coming up against Travis Lutter and I was actually praying about it. 'If I don't win this fight, man, I'm done. I'm going to have to go back working concrete' or whatever because it just wasn't paying off for me. As much as I love the sport, as much as I love to compete, it just wasn't paying off for me. So I almost hung it up. But I won that fight and two months later I was in the UFC and since then things have been a lot happier for me."
The downsides to difficulty are obvious, but the upsides are real and actually matter, especially in a sport as difficult as MMMA. The tough times have been hard on Rivera's body, but they've actually been excellent for his attitude and mental preparation. "I think mentally I would say [I'm the toughest I've ever been]," Rivera observed. "Physically I'm getting a little bit older and I'm training a little bit smarter, so it is what it is. I think mentally, for sure [I'm the toughest]."
And mental toughness is just what Rivera needs to get over the hump. Knowing time is short and the opportunity is now, Rivera is adament to take advantage of the circumstances. The Boston-native is heading into this bout on a three-fight win streak, which includes his most-recent win over Nate Quarry, a TKO victory he earned last March. To capitalize on the fleeting moment at the tail end of his career, Rivera isn't just ratcheting up the fight promotion. He's also working closely with boxing trainer Peter Welch - whom Rivera trusts immensely - to make sure his striking game is a crisp and instinctual as possible.
"I enjoy where I'm at right now," Rivera said. "I haven't done any kickboxing with [Welch], but I think what he is good at he knows how to teach it better than anyone I've yet to meet. That's what I enjoy most from him. He doesn't claim to be an expert in this, that or the other, but what he is good at he knows how to teach very well."
Rivera says Welch's bread and butter is the boxing element in MMA something he can use to compliment his overall game: "I take that and I implement it into everything else that I do and I learn," Rivera contended. "Striking is a big part of my game. The better I get at it, the better the rest of my game gets and I know that the better of a competitor I'm going to become."
Is training with Welch and his other partners enough to get the job done? Certainly the odds are not in Rivera's favor. But in talking to him, there's an interesting tension going on in his voice. There's an undertone of serenity (even boredom) of a veteran who understands the process of promoting, training, fighting and doing it all over again. There's nothing really new about this UFC 127 experience.
Ther'es also a question about how many more of these opportunities like this Rivera is going to get. Layered on top of the zen-like veteran calm is an eager, almost sacrificial drive to achieve a goal; to leave nothing behind. Rivera is not new to the game, but is approaching the moment knowing he can't play the game forever. He's still prizefighting: willing to engage in the risks to reap the rewards.
If UFC 127 means anything to Rivera, it's that this time he won't let opportunity slip through his hands. He has the tools, ability, interest and support structure to seize the fighting day.
"I know my job, I know what I'm supposed to do, I know how to go about doing it. I want to be able to promote this fight, sell this fight and deliver a good fight," Rivera stated. "When you see me in that cage of February 27th, just know I'm going to be there. I'm going to lay my heart on the line. You're going to see all of me that night."