“I thought I would be the working stiff. I was doing mutual funds at one time. I thought I would be doing that for the rest of my life or I’d be pouring concrete for the rest of my life, retiring at 60 with a decrepit body that couldn’t do s***.”
Jorge Rivera lets out what has become a trademark chuckle as he says this, one in a series of such reactions that have filled our interview. They’re a reflex; an involuntary reaction that is at times self-deprecating, while conveying a genuine sense of sincerity at others. They’re as much “can you believe the stuff that I’m saying?” as they are “I know it sounds cliche, but its true.”
They’re genuine and honest, two words that describe Rivera as a man.
The 39-year-old UFC middleweight steps into the cage at UFC 133 this weekend against Constantinos Philippou, a late replacement for his personal oppositional Snuffleupagus, Alessio Sakara. The two just can’t seem to meet; they’ve tried three times now, and it never works out. One or both of them end up injured along the way to the cage, usually at the 11th hour, as was the case both here and when they were to meet at UFC 122 in Germany last November.
His bout with Philoppou will be his 14th — and perhaps final — fight under the UFC banner. Retirement is something Rivera has considered, but at this point, the caustic Massachusetts native hasn’t quite made up his mind about fighting beyond Saturday night.
“If I go in there, I have a great performance and I bang him out, you’ll hear me going, `Ah, I could do this forever,'” says Rivera, followed by another chuckle. “If it’s the exact opposite and I get my ass handed to me, than it’s just the obvious. I’m just living it day-to-day, seeing how it goes from one day to the next.”
Rivera is laid back and realistic in his approach. While some fighters have a hard time accepting the end is near — or that they’ve already passed the exit ramp and have gone too far — he’s not one of those guys. He’s brutally honest, both with his opinions and with himself, and that applies to his fighting future as well.
“I’m obviously getting older. You’ve got younger and faster and hunger guys coming in, and I want to live a life after this. This isn’t my life; it’s a part of my life. I’ve got kids and I’ve got a family that I want to be a part of for a long time, and I want to be coherent and be there for them, so I have to pick and choose wisely.”
The timing of his retirement talk shows that he’s serious.
Over a ten-year career that has seen him fight Rich Franklin, Anderson Silva and numerous other well-known names, Rivera’s profile has never been greater. He’s talking about hanging up his gloves and moving on to something else even though he’s at the height of his popularity; or maybe that’s the height of infamy.
Riveras’s profile exploded heading into his last fight, a meeting with Michael Bisping at UFC 127 in Australia. The build-up to the fight became a bigger story than the event itself, as Rivera teamed with his sponsors, Ranger Up, to release a series of videos taking aim at his British opponent.
Opinions varied on the viral sensations; some people saw them as humorous and ultimately harmless, while others felt they crossed many lines. The latter group including Bisping, and he and Rivera engaged in a war of words with rising tension through the weigh-in and into the cage in Australia.
During the opening round of the fight, which was featured as the co-main event of the evening, Bisping drilled Rivera with an illegal knee to the face, the intentionality of which has been debated as much as the humorousness of the pre-fight videos.
Rivera would soldier on in the fight, surviving the remainder of the round on shaky legs before Bisping finished things in the second. The Briton than demanded an apology from Rivera in the ring and spat at Matt Phinney, Rivera’s coach who had portrayed Bisping at points in the videos.
“No man, I wouldn’t change anything. I thought we went about that right,” said Rivera, reflecting on the bout and all the peripheries five months after the fact. “We promoted the fight, we got under his skin; that was the game plan and it worked. You mean how the outcome of the fight happened and what happened during the fight? I couldn’t control all that. So, whatever, it is what it is man, and that’s what’s that.
“I don’t mind getting my ass beat,” Rivera continued in a tone that conveys he’s genuine. “If I get beat up and I was talking a lot of smack and the guy did it to me legitimately, that’s what I get. That’s what I deserve. I would have shaken his hand. I would have apologized to him and told him I deserved that ass-whooping, but that’s not how it went down. I did have a problem with that. It left me a little bitter.”
It’s clear that the knee still stings, and Rivera is as certain today as he was the day after the fight that his opponent was not simply caught up in the moment and acting on instinct.
“I’ve seen the fight several times since and it’s very clear to me — and I may not be very objective because I’m the one getting kneed — to me it was very clear that it was intentional.”
As quickly as his emotions rise over the phone in discussing the controversy with Bisping, Rivera falls back into his normal, relaxed state. He’s over it, though he’ll never be completely over it.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s just another story from an unexpected career that has left Rivera with no regrets.
“I’ve enjoyed the whole thing. I’ve enjoyed it all — the highs, the lows, the goods, the bads. What I was doing before I started fighting — I was ****** up. This thing has been good to me. I’ve gotten to see the world. I’ve got to make some money. I’ve got to say I’m a professional athlete, and I fight for money. I’m no longer in bars or streets banging people out over pride or dumb ****; I do it for money. I’m able to hopefully open up a gym real soon and give what I’ve been given to others.”
While he can’t say for sure whether Saturday’s fight will be his last, Rivera does have a vision for the future he hopes to start on soon, fighting or not. He’s serious about his plans, even if he can’t get through sharing them without letting out a few more of his trademark chuckles along the way.
“There have been a lot of people who have been really, really good to me on this journey, and I just want to be able to be like that towards other people as well. I want to open up a gym real soon, so that the lessons I’ve learned, I can teach it to them and they can teach it to someone else, and make the world a better place one person at a time.
“As corny as that **** sounds, that’s how I want my life to be.”