Jimmie Rivera is a Tiger Schulmann disciple. | Photo: Dave Mandel
Tiger Schulmann has seen hundreds of kids come and go at his school, but there was one in particular on whom he kept a close eye. His name was Jimmie Rivera, and he first walked into a Team Tiger Schulmann gym at the age of 9. Rivera was never tall -- even today, he stands just 5-foot-4 -- but what he lacked in height, he made up for with strength and a tenacious work ethic. Rivera’s drive to improve has come to define the 22-year-old around the gym, and he attributes it to his mother.
“She worked three jobs to put food on the table and allow me to continue classes at the Tiger school,” he told Sherdog.com. “I owe everything to her.”
Growing up, life was not exactly easy for Rivera. He was raised without a father figure in his life, outside of his uncle, “who is now my biggest fan and comes to all of my competitions.” As one can imagine, it was a difficult situation for a young male, but Rivera’s life took a turn for the better when he began training under Schulmann. From him, he “learned the principles a father would teach you.”
One instance, in particular, stands out to Rivera during the early stages of Schulmann’s tutelage. It came at a North American Grappling Association tournament.
“Tiger told me to go out and face some kid who was well known for his grappling skills, and I told Tiger that I didn’t think it was a good idea because he was much better than me,” Rivera said. “Tiger then looked me in the eyes and said, ‘It sounds to me like you already lost the match. Now, go in there and kick his ass.”
Those words clearly made an impression because Rivera followed Schulmann’s orders. From that point forward, he was hooked. He wanted to learn every aspect of the sport and dedicated every waking minute to learning it.
It was around this time that Schulmann transitioned into mixed martial arts and formed a stable of young fighters under the same banner. Schulmann’s training center in Elmwood Park, N.J., served as a barracks where his fighters lived, trained and taught year-round. Most Team Tiger Schulmann fighters still take full advantage of living at the facility prior to fights.
“If fights are coming, they live there for two months to prepare for the fight, but Jimmie lives there year-round because he dies to train,” Schulmann said. “Any talent deficiencies he has he works through it; he’s a workhorse. I don’t have to push him. He’s there, and he wants to do it.”
As the cliché goes, iron sharpens iron, and Rivera has trained alongside some talented teammates who have succeeded in MMA, including former Bellator Fighting Championships welterweight titleholder Lyman Good, onetime Ring of Combat middleweight champion Uriah Hall and current UFC bantamweight Nick Pace.
Rivera ultimately pursued a career in professional MMA, but he went 7-0 as an amateur before doing so.
“MMA is going in the direction of students doing more amateur fights,” Schulmann said. “I don’t want to throw a guy in there without them knowing the whole game. The whole game is knowing how to box, kickbox, wrestle and know the submission game. You could have been a one-dimensional fighter 10 years ago and been pretty OK, but, nowadays, you need to know everything. You should see these 22-year-old kids that are going into the rings. Jimmie can kickbox with a pro, he can box with a pro and he can wrestle with a pro.”
Such preparation seems to have paid off, because Rivera hit the ground running. In a little more than two years, he has racked up an 8-1 professional record. He now competes comfortably at 135 pounds, where his explosive style and compact size work well in dominating opponents. Rivera built his reputation in the well-known New Jersey-based fight promotion Ring of combat. His work there caught the attention of Bellator, where he picked up two more wins.
In September 2010, King of the Cage brought in Rivera to challenge its 135-pound champion, Abel Cullum. There, at the MGM Grand Casino at Foxwoods in Mashantucket, Conn., he confronted two challenges: a reigning champion and a five-round fight. Going 25 minutes was not an issue.
“You can have all the talent in the world, but if you are out of shape, then it doesn’t matter,” Rivera said. “Tiger Schulmann trains endurance and stresses the importance of being in shape. If you don’t love to wake up in the morning and jump in the cage to train, then you are in the wrong business.”
Prior to their encounter, Cullum was 18-3, had held the KOTC championship for four years and had enjoyed a couple stints overseas, most notably in the 2009 Dream featherweight grand prix. He was not an easy opponent for Rivera; in fact, some viewed him as a tune-up for Cullum. Rivera erased those thoughts, as he went on to take a close split decision and, with it, the King of the Cage title. Five months later, he made a successful defense, as he captured a unanimous decision from the highly regarded Jared Papazian and tucked another five-round fight under his belt.
It proved a springboard for Rivera. When King of the Cage asked him to renew his contract, he declined. Instead, he tried out for and was chosen as part of the 32-member cast for Season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series, which premieres this Wednesday on Spike TV.
“My dream has always been to fight in the UFC,” Rivera said, “and I am working hard at that.”
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