It’s not always ‘rainbows and unicorns’ on one’s path to the UFC. Often times, it’s the farthest thing from it. The battle to get to the UFC can sometimes be harder than the battles inside the UFC themselves.
One of the many owners of a road that was a bit longer than most thought it should have been being new UFC bantamweight, Ricky Simon.
At just age 25, Simon has been on the radars of many knowledgeable fans and analysts alike as one of the very best prospects in MMA. With a 13-1 record, an LFA championship and now a UFC win to his name, it’s hard to deny what people had been seeing.
But for one reason or another, there are sometimes prospects or fighters on the come up that don’t get noticed as much as others. Fast-tracking is a very real thing in the world of MMA and we’ve seen it time and time again with fighters that might talk a big game or have a flashy style that they put on display.
Sometimes those fighters are just the cover of the book with little detail past the first page. Other times it’s the opposite with a bland front side but a wealth of information on the inside.
Whether that’s how it should be or not, the roads that are traveled prior to finally being recognized aren’t very forgiving and Simon is a great example of that.
“My body was worn,” Simon told BJPenn.com’s Drake Riggs on the Writer and the Kid podcast, “It’s weird, I feel like I’m on vacation. Like I’m getting to the point where I’m like, ‘man I need a fight,’ I was basically in training camp for two years [waiting to get called up to the UFC]. It’s been a grind.”
Simon’s four-year professional career to this point has been go-go-go as is with many fighters trying to establish themselves on the regional scene. To be exact, Simon averages about 3-4 fights a year and already has two this year. The average for a UFC fighter is two.
As much of an independent sport as fighting is, it requires plenty of support. Whether it be from coaches, friends, family…whoever.
Simon gives much credit to all of his coaches and peers that have helped him out along the way and continue to get him where he is today. But the one that many won’t hear about often is a significant other, in Simon’s case, his girlfriend of eight years.
“She was the stat girl for my wrestling team in high school. She’s been there since the beginning.” Simon said, “She’s going to get smart and leave me soon *laughs*. She was there when I was like, ‘hey I think I’m going to try and fight,’ She was like, ‘well you were good at wrestling so you could try it,’ I told her it was just a hobby.
She’s been great since the beginning and has put up with a lot. Like back when I used to cut to ’55 then all the sudden I’m cutting to ’45 and that was a tough cut. Then I’m like…’I think I can make ’35,’ First time she saw me make 135, you know, I hadn’t seen her for like two days, my cut days. Then she sees me right before weigh-ins and she starts crying. She’s like, ‘I don’t like this,'”
Even though she didn’t like it she had to get used to it. Despite walking around at 160 pounds outside of camp, Simon’s home still remains in the bantamweight division of 135 pounds.
The originally planned hobby would quickly turn into more than that for the Vancouver, Washinton native. In a sense, MMA would end up choosing him but the competitive drive was still there anyway.
“I decided not to wrestle in college, I was getting fat and I was like, ‘man I need to compete in something,’ It was the first time in my life that I really wasn’t competing so it was really weird for me.
I thought it was going to be a hobby and all the sudden I’m 5-0, fighting for a title as an amateur, training three times a day and I’m like always tired. This isn’t a hobby anymore, man.”
It’s been so far so good with that 13-1 record that consists of seven wins by finish.
A common theme for fighters entering the UFC, especially ones that fit more into the label of prospects is that of short notice debuts. When fighting on such frequency as 3-4 times a year to continually build up your name to get to the ultimate goal, you aren’t always going to go in under the perfect circumstances. This was no different for Simon even if he was a recent defending LFA champion.
“I always hate like…everyone says it, ‘I don’t want to make excuses,’ then followed by the excuse, you know? I definitely wouldn’t have brought this up if I lost. I’ve had ongoing back issues throughout my fight career and then I threw my back out a few weeks before [the fight]. Went from one training camp to the other, I was training five five minute rounds for my LFA fights. And I was still in the cage when they told me, ‘hey you’re fighting in one month [for the UFC]’
I told the UFC we’re going to go to the doctor on Monday, they’re gonna clear me. The UFC is like, ‘Oh okay. We’re going to put you on the Contender Series in the Summer then,’. And I’m like, ‘oh nevermind, hey I’m good,’ So I just ignored it to make it to the show.”
Simon would win his debut last month at UFC Atlantic City when he pulled off a hail mary guillotine against Merab Dvalishvili in the fight of the night.
Three fights prior to his UFC debut, Simon took part in the first season of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. The opportunity he had been waiting for… A chance at finally getting into the UFC.
— FloCombat (@FloCombat) April 22, 2018
He would win a split decision over former WSOF flyweight title challenger, Donovan Frelow but White wouldn’t end up selecting him to come to the UFC. Thus further extending his road to the ultimate proving ground.
When he finally arrived there, he wasn’t going to squander it. After dropping the first two rounds to Dvalishvili, Simon would get hit with a takedown and end up sinking in a guillotine with a minute left in the final round.
Despite the controversy, Simon had no doubts that he was the rightful winner.
“I just knew that I’ve had that choke so many times, I knew to adjust, keep the squeeze, keep breathing and just figure out what I can do to know not to keep giving it up. I just kept a constant squeeze and I could feel him going in and out. I was confused during the whole leg thing. I thought it was a Tim Elliott vs [Joseph Benavidez] situation where he was tapping with his feet.
I think when I yelled at the ref I was asking him if he was tapping with his feet. I couldn’t tell. Then when I got off of him and saw his eyes roll back.”
Truly, UFC debuts don’t get a whole lot better. A win on TV plus a bonus is about everything you could ask for.
Though, like it is for many newcomers, they don’t always get their fights placed on the televised portions of cards which then starts the battle for exposure. Simon was supposed to be fight No. 2 of the entire card.
Instead, after some weight issues and injuries to other fighters, he ended up getting a slot as the second to last preliminary bout. Something that came as news to Simon as late as the ceremonial weigh-ins.
“The way I found out was we were getting lined up to be on the Fox weigh-ins. I was like, ‘something got jumbled here I wonder if they’re gonna bump me up,’ They hadn’t said anything so whatever, you know. All the sudden I’m far back in the line and I’m looking at everybody and I’m pretty far back like hey is there a mistake here? I think I’m second fight. They’re like, ‘oh no, you’re co-main on the prelims now,’ I looked at my coach Fabiano and I was like, ‘hell yeah,'”
All roads intertwine and eventually have their dead ends. But the start of a UFC career is more often than not far from the end. It is the beginning of a new road with a new place to reach, a new title to earn.
But with every road comes it’s roadblocks. For a fighter, that roadblock can be several things. A serious injury, weight issues, camp changes…another fighter.
Simon hasn’t really had any rivals throughout his career yet. But over time, he’s kind of started to gain one after several times that he and a specific potential opponent didn’t fight. That potential opponent being one he called out right after his first UFC win.
“Lil B [Benito Lopez] is acting like he’s calling me out all of the sudden. All of the sudden this fight was his idea. I’ll let him think that. Alright, Benito, yeah when the contract gets here I’ll sign it.
I have not received a contract. Benito is acting like he received a contract. You guys are hearing what I’m hearing. UFC wants us to fight on UFC 227, August 4 in LA at the Staples Center.”
Simon is referencing a tweet that Benito Lopez tweeted out on Sunday telling him to ‘sign the contract’.
Lopez, like Simon, fought on the Contender Series as well. The only difference being that Lopez was granted a UFC contract after his split decision win.
Now each is 1-0 in the UFC and eying one another once again and are ready to finally throw punches and kicks. It’s yet to be made official, but it’s just up to the UFC to get it booked and UFC 227 has yet to be filled out.
“That would be crazy. Benito’s from California. I love beatin’ guys up from California. I’ve done it a few times. So he’s next. We were supposed to fight a few times already and some way somehow or another he found a way to weasel out of the fight. So it’s time now that we both made it to the big show. There’s nowhere else to run. Maybe he was being strategic, maybe he was being smart. He was undefeated, like hey cool…but now we’re here. Let’s get paid. Let’s fight.”
The life of an MMA fighter is one of the most unique in all of sports. It’s not like football or basketball where you can go from college or even high school straight to the NFL or the NBA. An entire career can transpire before ever even making it to the top of the mountain in MMA. And that’s even if that peak ends up being reached.
Some of MMA’s very best have traveled road after road of trial and tribulation, having some of the best careers imaginable yet still not reach the address they’re trying to find.
In a world with no performance institutes and no glamour, fighters just have to grind and dedicate their lives to their sport until they can no longer be denied.
This article first appeared on BJPenn.com on 5/29/2018.