Escudero Bridging UFC-Mexico Gap

May 5, 2009
Drive and ambition comprise the will to win, and they are prerequisites for success in a fight. Efrain Escudero, the lightweight winner on season eight of “The Ultimate Fighter,” demonstrated those traits when he registered himself in kindergarten.

Born in the northwest Mexican state of Sonora, Escudero’s parents rose for work at 4 a.m. Perhaps curiosity or loneliness drove the young child to leave his home, walk into town and begin his education. A puzzled administrator listened to the boy explain that his mother was gone, and he wanted to go school. Luckily, the school official recognized Escudero and knew his mother.

“Nothing is given to you,” Escudero said. “Being born in Mexico, it was like me against all odds, you know?”

His family immigrated to the United States when he was 7 years old and settled in the Southwest. His parents, Oscar and Adelaida, were field workers, and despite learning the value of education early, Escudero traded in school for work in his early teens; his mother was disabled on the job, leaving the family without her income. Escudero’s tenure in the fields was short-lived, however, as a teacher refused to allow his educational journey to end there.

A Wrestler Discovered

Wrestling was behind his ambition in school.

Escudero won an Arizona state title in high school and earned All-American status at Pima Community College. He eventually landed a scholarship at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Unable to afford fight training, he walked out of a gym dejected before he noticed UFC veteran Drew Fickett.

“I told him I wanted to fight, but I didn’t have any money,” Escudero said.

Fickett then provided the opening he needed.

“You’re devoted,” Fickett said. “You can help me train for my fight [with Kurt Pellegrino at UFC 61].”

Suddenly a wrestling partner for “The Master,” Escudero slowly incorporated boxing and jiu-jitsu into his training. Fickett’s gamble on the college wrestler was repaid with loyalty when Escudero followed Fickett and left Arizona Combat Sports. Local promotion Rage in the Cage caught wind of Escudero’s talents and gave him an opportunity, too.

“I wanted to fight because I needed money [for school], so Drew just threw in anybody. He said, ‘He'll fight anybody,’” Escudero said.

Fickett seemed to sacrifice his protégé when Joe Cronin, a local draw with 15 fights under his belt, accepted the challenge to oppose Escudero in his second fight. Escudero’s worries were eased, as he took a unanimous decision. A winning streak ensued.

Fighting then turned surreal, as Escudero tried out for “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series. A phone interview further endeared him to producers, and he was selected. It was bittersweet, though. His father died shortly before his appearance on the show and was not around to see his son live out his dream.

“One of the things he told me before he passed away … I was gonna leave for this show, so he made me promise [to win],” Escudero said.

His father also told him to remain true to himself. Escudero’s character was tested when Shane Nelson and Junie Allen Browning taunted him in an attempt to bait him into a physical altercation at “The Ultimate Fighter” house.

Jim Stark/Splash News

Escudero looked up to
Julio Cesar Chavez.
Perhaps memories of his father -- a former boxer -- staying up until midnight to play with his sons despite having to wake up for another 12-hour work day at 4 a.m. stayed Escudero’s hand. Maybe it was the admiration for the passion of his father, who, even in poverty, found a way to keep the family happy. Either way, retaliation against Nelson and Browning would have squandered his chance at a UFC contract.

Ironically, Escudero defeated Nelson and Browning en route to the final at “The Ultimate Fighter 8” Finale. There, he outpointed the favored Phillipe Nover to win the competition.

“I had one thing in mind,” Escudero said, “and that was getting on the mic and dedicating the show to my dad.”

In San Luis Rio, Colo., Escudero (11-0) was honored with a key to the city. A sign at its entrance now signifies it as his hometown.

“I would say, for him, it’s the most dynamic change of any of my athletes,” said manager Jason Genet. “I went from having to pay his light bill to him, you know, making over six figures a year just through sponsorships.”

Despite all the accolades, education remains a priority. Pursuing his degree in criminal justice kept him busy when a rib injury forced him out of a bout with Jeremy Stephens in April. Escudero points out that, these days, people need a college education just to get a job interview. He wants a backup plan. The 23-year-old enjoys training and wants to fight, but he does not believe fighting should be viewed as a long-term job.

“That’s what a lot of fighters have today,” he said. “They want to keep fighting because that’s all they do; that’s all they know how to do.”

Finding an Identity

Aside from his father, Escudero only looked up to one fighter growing up -- Julio Cesar Chavez. “El Gran Campeon Mexicano” remains arguably the most celebrated Mexican boxer of all-time, and ESPN ranked him 24th on an all-time greatest boxers list in 2007.

“I wanna be remembered like him,” Escudero said. “These people respect him, because he represents not only himself but his country.”

He switches gears quickly and quotes Mexican revolutionary Emeliano Zapata: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

“I have that Mexican spirit,” Escudero said. “If you’re gonna fight me, you’re gonna come out and fight me. You better come in and knock me out, because I’m gonna keep coming at you until I’m completely out.”

That spirit made Chavez a beloved figure. Mixed martial arts in Mexico remains a fringe sport. Escudero has fought there and admits the fan base has a lot to learn. However, the sport has crept into border towns -- a staple for boxing promotion in the country. Escudero wants to see the Octagon in Mexico someday.

“I hope that one day we can do that,” Escudero said. “Like a Julio Cesar Chavez fight, you know, everybody was [glued] to the TV.”

He plans to do his part and hopes to open a gym in Mexico with fellow UFC fighter, friend and training partner Edgar Garcia. They come from the same town in Mexico and want to share their experiences and opportunities with their homeland.

“[There are] people out in Mexico that don’t ever quit,” Escudero said. “You just try to guide them the right way, and they’ll go ahead and do it.”

Escudero believes his tenure in the UFC can help him achieve his goals. He calls attention to Roger Huerta, another Mexican fighter in the UFC, who, despite his immense popularity, has to battle the fact that he was not born in Mexico -- a detriment in the eyes of hardcore Mexican combat sports fans. Escudero does not have that uphill battle to fight. He welcomes a fight with Huerta, though.

“I’m not scared of him,” Escudero said.

It is better
to die on your
feet than to
live on your knees.

-- Emeliano Zapata

A fight with Huerta was on the table, according to Genet, in a battle for the “El Matador” nickname, which Escudero carried prior to the UFC adopting him as “Hecho en Mexico.” Though they have nothing personal against Huerta, Escudero and company would not be upset if Huerta’s last UFC fight on his current contract pits the two lightweights against each other.

Escudero gives the UFC a marketable piece with which to play.

“It’s a big thing, obviously, [with] combat sports having a good history in Mexico,” Genet said. “We would hope that the UFC gives us the Roger Huerta treatment, but we’re also willing to work hard for it and earn it.”

Genet describes his client as “a young kid who is evolving.” In the contender-ridden UFC lightweight division, he believes room exists for his 155-pound fighter.

“We don't expect him to win them all,” he said, “but we expect him to be a fan favorite every time we go out.”

‘Living in America’

No stranger to hard work, Escudero sees it as the only way to go forward. It got him a green card in the U.S. after he had lived here illegally. He loves his place in the land of opportunity but still communicates with the country he left behind -- and the fans he has gained since -- through his personal Web site at

Reluctant to talk politics, he ultimately shares his views on the importance of work visas, which “would eliminate a lot more people jumping the fence … more Mexicans dying.” A legal route, he asserts, allows Mexicans working in America to live in Mexico rather than just sending money back home.

“All Mexicans that come across to America want a better future,” Escudero said.

Rumored for a bout against American Top Team’s Cole Miller at UFC 103, Escudero plans to spend his Cinco de Mayo relaxing. Perhaps better than any other, the day illustrates the divide between Americans, Mexican-Americans and Mexicans. Americans enjoy it. Mexican-Americans celebrate it fervently. And Mexicans either reluctantly participate or sit out altogether, choosing instead to prioritize Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16 -- a day not nearly as popular in America as Cinco de Mayo.

Wherever he lands, Escudero will probably enjoy the spoils of a marketable undefeated MMA fighter in the UFC: drinking free beers from his newest sponsor, Bud Light, and listening to music on speakers provided by another, MTX Audio.

“I will probably join [people celebrating],” he said, “because I’m living in America.”
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