Old Warrior: Jorge Rivera Battles Through Loss and Injuries

Nick Palmisciano is the owner of Ranger Up apparel company and a sponsor of numerous MMA fighters. In April of this year, Palmisciano traveled to Nashville, Tenn. to support Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight, Army veteran, and Ranger Up-sponsored fighter Jorge Rivera at Fight Night 18. His story about the experience highlights what we at FIGHT! think are the best aspects of the convergence of mixed martial arts and military culture. We’re offering it now as part of Fightmagazine.com’s special coverage of Fight Night for the Troops, the first sanctioned MMA event held in an active combat zone. For more on the event, pick up the Nov. issue of FIGHT! Magazine from one of our many retailers across the U.S. and Canada.

(Rivera hangs with servicemen in Korea. Props to Ranger Up.)

by Nick Palmisciano

I would have tapped out.

I am a fighter, an Army Ranger, and an entrepreneur. I’ve overcome adversity and never thrown in the towel, but the three days I spent with Jorge Rivera at Ultimate Fight Night 18 were the most humbling moments of my life.

Nearing forty, Rivera was fighting before TapouT-covered-fan-filled stadiums. Rivera had recently lost his seventeen-year-old daughter, Janessa. I could imagine the hurt he must be feeling and I wondered what kind of man could balance that pain with the emotional and mental drain of a fight at this level.

Forty-seven minutes after I land in Nashville I am on my way up to Rivera’s room. As a sponsor, I do my best to stay out of the fighters’ way – it’s my job to support them, not to be the pain in the ass they need to placate – but Rivera insists that I hang out. I knock on the door and momentarily slip back into combat mode when a Talibani answers the door, only to find out it is actually Rivera before his pre-fight shaving ritual. He and his corners – Marc DellaGrotte, Tim Burrill, and Matt Phinney – are sitting in his room enjoying the post weigh-in bliss by watching the History Channel. Apparently it is extremely helpful to learn the inner workings of the Crab Nebula before a fight.

Rivera is a fountain of energy. He shakes my hand about fifteen times and says it’s an honor to meet me. He immediately shows me our logo on all his gear. In every case, as he discusses the shorts, banner, and shirt that will accompany him into the cage, he relays a personal story about the person made each item. He pauses and tears up a little when he tells me that the gentleman who made the banner paid for his daughter’s funeral.

Suddenly Rivera switches gears. “I ate too much,” he says, “I need to go work out. Wanna come? I could use the company.” As we walk we bump into a who’s who of MMA stars. Rivera tells everyone who will listen that I am a former soldier and they should be honored to meet me.
At this point I am thoroughly embarrassed for more reasons than I can write, but am nevertheless amazed by how sincere Rivera is – he is the UFC star here, and yet he places everyone else around him on a pedestal.

(Rivera stealing Kendall Grove. Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)

We finally arrive at the jiu-jitsu workout room and Rivera hops on the scale. He is 193 already. He weighed in an hour ago at 185.
Jacob “Stitch” Duran walks into the room and Rivera darts after him. After a brief introduction, Stitch asks him if he needs anything for tomorrow. His voice drops a little, “Yeah man. I need a little extra padding on these knuckles,“ he says, pointing to his hand.

“Something wrong there?” Stitch asks.

“Nah, nothing big – just got ‘em pulled apart a little and they’re sore, ya know?” Rivera whispers.

“Ok, whatever you say brother. I got you,” Stitch says with an omniscient smirk.

As Stitch leaves the room, Rivera tells me his hand is broken.

“Don’t tell anyone man. It’s been broken for a month and its really starting to get bad,” Rivera says to me, perhaps forgetting that he just met me an hour ago. Rivera hops onto the mat with Burrill and starts drilling breaking guard and returning to his feet – a skill he would use the following night.

Thirty minutes later we are walking out of the jits room and into the striking room, where a small crowd watches DellaGrotte train Arianny Celeste, Edith Larente, and Mike Goldberg in Thai boxing. While everyone else enjoys the spectacle of watching two genetically perfect women in spandex, Rivera catches Joe Silva, the UFC’s matchmaker. Once again Rivera introduces me in a flattering manner worthy of the Pope or the Dalai Lama, and then points out his corner, Matt Phinney, who is holding the pads for Goldberg.

“You see that kid, Joe? He just won the New England Golden Gloves tournament. First time out, too.” Rivera brags.

“Really,” Silva asks.

“Yeah man. He’s the real deal. Strong high school wrestler with amazing hands – and very respectful,“ Rivera continues, smiling, ”Not a problem child like me – he’s finishing college this year and he’s a smart dude – the kind of guy that would really make the UFC look good.”

“What’s his name,” Silva asks.

“Matt Phinney. I’ll send you an email. You definitely want to keep your eye on him, man,” Rivera says.

“Thanks Jorge. Will do. Good luck tomorrow,” Silva says as he heads out of the room.

His sparring session over, we head back to Rivera’s room. He jumps into to the shower with his straight razor and emerges clean shaven one and announces he is ready for battle. He begins pulling one of our new t-shirts over his head. Halfway through the motion, he flinches a little.

“You alright man?” I asked.

“Yeah, my shoulder’s all messed up. I’m having surgery on Friday.” Rivera responds.

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah man – it’s pretty bad – I have a hard time holding my hand up for too long,” he responds.

The next day, after a spirited “Masshole” night out with DellaGrotte, Phinney, and Burrill, I’m standing with a well-rested Rivera at the fighter’s brief. DellaGrotte has gotten wind that his fighter is hiding a hand injury.

“You need to stay off that hand as much as possible,” DellaGrotte says. “Step back and hit him with the high kick when he moves forward. Ya got me?”

“Absolutely,” Rivera answers.

“I’m serious man – every time you hit him with that bad hand you’ll feel weak and you don’t need to feel weak out there.” DellaGrotte adds, his Boston accent in full swing.

“I’m with you, “Rivera confirms.

After DellaGrotte leaves, I ask, “Is that change gonna mess you up man?”

He smirked. “I’m not doing that shit, Nick. I got knocked out the last time I did that. Trainers have short memories. Fighters don’t.”
I am in no position to argue with him, and I do remember the Terry Martin fight. Martin caught the kick and flattened him. Still…I learned more about Muay Thai in thirty minutes of watching DellaGrotte half-heartedly teach hot chicks how to kick pads than anyone else has been able to impart in my entire life. I worry Rivera is playing with fire.

Hours later, Rivera is standing opposite Nissen Osterneck while I sit next to his brother in the stands. The two fighters exchange a few quick shots and after blocking the first Osterneck shot, Rivera is taken down. His time with Burrill pays off and he is back on his feet quickly. Nevertheless, in short order Rivera is gassing – the emotional build-up has worn him down. Midway through the second round, I am expecting a rough end to a rough year for him.

But every time Osterneck puts Rivera in a bad place, and Rivera appears to be broken, he stands up one more time. He answers every shot with one of his own. He is out of gas and out of adrenaline, but he won’t be broken. “The Conquistador” keeps going on willpower alone.
The fight ends. Rivera took the second round with a monster right, but the other two are too close to call. I feel he won, but I also thought Matt Hammill beat Michael Bisping. Rivera asks the cut men who they thought won – they are split. The announcement finally comes. Rivera wins by split decision and almost collapses with raw emotion. Against all odds, he willed himself to this spot, and now the rush of feelings is completely overwhelming. There is nary a dry eye in the house.

After the fight, Phinney and Burrill find their way to our seats, but Rivera spends the entire show mingling with the fans – thanking them for their support. He refuses to leave anyone pictureless and by the time we leave the stadium, the only restaurant still open in all of Nashville is Hooters. So it’s now midnight at Hooters and Mr. Rivera is ingesting some much needed sliders when he receives a Facebook message on his phone. He is instantly thrilled.

“He forgave me,” Rivera tells me.

“Who?” I ask.

“I used to pick on this kid in high school – I was a real jerk, ya know? There was no reason for it – it wasn’t right. I was a bully. It’s bothered me for years. Last month I finally got a hold of him and I asked him for his forgiveness. He told me he had to think about it and I told him I understood. He just wrote me, Nick. He forgives me. I don’t deserve it, but he forgives me. This is a great night.”

There’s a lot of talk now about the next generation of MMA stars – these guys that have been training MMA since birth. Their jits is better, their striking is cleaner, blah, blah, blah. I was sitting across from an old man by fighter standards that had gone to battle broken – emotionally and physically – and had fought through to victory anyway. And while his peers in the next generation were focused on where the next party was going to be or how much more they could make on their next contract, Rivera was reaching out to another human being and making the world just a little better.

I’ve never been prouder to support a fighter.

(Props to Ranger Up.)

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