The conversations were always better than the interviews. Sure, Jorge Rivera would always give you plenty of solid material to work with before his fights, but it was the off the record stuff about family, the fight game, his beloved Red Sox, and just about life that really showed who the man was.
It was the same way with his fights. Rivera, who retired tonight at the age of 39 following his second round TKO of Eric Schafer in Nashville, Tennessee, never won a world title, and his 8-7 Octagon record was just slightly over the .500 mark. But when you looked beyond the surface and at his fights, you saw a man who fought perhaps the best level of competition of any middleweight in recent years, one who always showed up to fight, win or lose, and one who was a shining example to everyone that where you start doesn’t have to dictate where you end.
In the process, Rivera, who had his struggles on the way up as a Puerto Rican kid in a predominantly white neighborhood in Massachusetts, eventually turned his life around through fighting and became a father, a respected pro athlete, and a business owner, one who will be opening up his gym, the Rivera Athletic Center, in Milford next month.
And for everyone who dealt with Rivera over the course of his career, his laugh, sense of humor, and no nonsense demeanor will be sorely missed on fight week and the days leading up to it. There was never an entourage to deal with, six layers of protection to avoid the media, and sometimes, he would still do interviews even while his children were grabbing at his legs while he hung curtains. For him, having the ability to tell his story was an important one, not for ego’s sake, but to let those struggling know that there was a way out.
“I’ve been fighting my whole life, and it actually was getting me into a lot of trouble before I turned it into something positive for me,” he said in 2006 before his fight with Chris Leben. “I love the competitiveness of what I do and learning the martial arts. I love the whole thing – the camaraderie I felt with my training partners, with other fighters, the whole nine. This saved my life, and I want to give back to the people that are finding themselves in the position I once was. There’s a way out of everything. Take a negative and make it a positive for you.”
A pro since 2001, Rivera (who once beat six-foot-eight former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia when both were amateurs), kicked off his career with a loss against Branden Lee Hinkle, and his penchant for fighting anyone and everyone probably began with that bout. 5-1 with a KO of Travis Lutter when he got the call to the UFC for the first time in 2003, Rivera made an immediate impression with his UFC 44 victory over hot prospect David Loiseau.
Over the next two years, Rivera would mix in UFC appearances against the likes of Rich Franklin, Lee Murray, Dennis Hallman, and Leben with local bouts and a stint in England, where he is best remembered for a Cage Rage bout against future middleweight champ Anderson Silva.
Yeah, he fought ‘em all.
“I fought Anderson, I fought Rich, I fought Lutter, Loiseau, Leben – you name them, I fought them, and I never turned down a fight,” he said in 2009. “When I first started fighting, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to say at the end of the day that I fought all these people. I can say that now, and I feel privileged and honored to say that. I’ve won some and I’ve lost some, but just to be able to say that I was good enough to compete with these guys at this level makes my day.”
In 2006, the mainstream world got introduced to the man dubbed “El Conquistador” through The Ultimate Fighter’s fourth season. He got eliminated by Patrick Cote on the show, but won his finale bout by TKO over Edwin Dewees, giving his career a new life. Unfortunately, in February of 2007, a knockout loss to Terry Martin broke his jaw and sidelined him until 2008.
When Rivera returned, he split two fights with Kendall Grove (KO1) and Martin Kampmann (Lsub1), but the most hurtful blow of his life would come just two months after the Kampmann bout, when his 17-year old daughter Janessa passed away on August 5, 2008. For anyone hearing that news, it was horrible, and tragic and any other adjective you can think of to describe the devastation of losing a child. To those who knew Rivera, it was even worse, but as he prepared to return to work eight months later to face Nissen Osterneck, he did what many wouldn’t – he talked openly about what happened, letting the world in to see his pain, which was still understandably raw.
“It’s something I struggle with every single day,” he said. “Some days are better than others. Some days it tears me down, and other days I use it to fuel me. But it’s not something I’ll ever get over, and it’s something I deal with on a daily basis. To be further honest with you, it’s something I deal with on an hourly basis. The wounds are still very fresh, and it hurts. It hurts just talking to you about it.”
“I’ve got three other children, and one of my biggest – I don’t know if it’s a regret, but I took a lot of time from my family to do what I do,” he continued. “And I think back and say I could have done this with her (Janessa), I could have done that with her. But at the same time I did what I did to put food on the table, so it’s a catch-22. But I don’t want to make the same mistakes with my other children that I made with my oldest one, and it’s a real, real war in my head. How do I balance the two? I’m getting older right now, and how do I be the best father that I can be? And that’s what’s most important to me in my life – to be a good husband, a good father to my children, and a good son to my parents. Everything else just falls in line.”
Rivera beat Nissen Osterneck that April 2009 night in Nashville, and it was one of the most emotional scenes you will ever see play out with the backdrop being a sporting event. It was real human drama, and while he never said it, you get the feeling that for Rivera, that was his championship fight, and he came through with flying colors.
The win boosted Rivera’s career yet again, and he went on to stop Rob Kimmons and Nate Quarry before dropping successive bouts to Michael Bisping and Costa Philippou. Tonight, he finished his career on a high note with his finish of Schafer, ending with a 19-9 slate. But again, it was never about the wins and losses when it came to Rivera. What mattered was the fight, but there was more to it too.
“A lot of things I do in my life, they’re for my father,” said Rivera of his dad, Jorge Rivera Sr. “My father’s been a great influence in my life. He was an orphan, his mother passed away in child labor, he was raised by an aunt, and he had a very, very rough upbringing. But he showed us through example what it is to be a man. He’s a great, great family man. As I grew up and had my own children, I’ve always wanted to emulate my father and make him extremely proud of who I am.”
He should be proud. Here’s to a career well-fought, Mr. Rivera. Watch as "El Conquistador" reflects on his career.