The road to the Ultimate Fighting Championship has not been an easy one for unbeaten bantamweight prospect Joey Gomez, but the Marine’s persistence has finally paid off. Gomez makes his Octagon debut opposite Rob Font at UFC Fight Night “Dillashaw vs. Cruz” on Sunday at the TD Garden in Boston, and the 29-year-old has prepared to shine on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I know I’m ready and can compete with the best in the world,” Gomez told Sherdog.com. “I’ve been doing that for some time. As far as the regional scene, I’ve outgrown it 100 percent. Before this fight, I was the best 135-pounder in the U.S. that wasn’t signed to a major organization. Previously, I almost fought on a Bellator show and was contacted by [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby, but I didn’t have a passport.
“I’m tactically and technically proficient,” he added. “I can wrestle, roll and be a striker. I have the ability to knock somebody out with either hand. The UFC was my end goal, but I’m ready to fight full-time to where I can make a living for my family. I can’t justify the amount of training and time I take away from my family without doing this big time. It’s very difficult to make it to the next level, but I’m there.”
Gomez, who made his pro debut with a first-round knockout of John Santos at Combat Zone event in March 2013, first came across martial arts while deployed.
“I wrestled for three years in high school, and when I graduated, I joined the Marine Corps for eight years,” said Gomez, who fights out of the Team Triumph camp. “When I was in Iraq in 2006, I went by a mat room and I saw guys rolling and doing jiu-jitsu. It appealed to me. One of the guys showed me an armbar, a triangle and the rear-naked choke, and I wanted to learn as much as I could. After I came home, I was so young that I didn’t know how to deal with everything I’d been through. I needed an outlet.”
An online search led Gomez to a gym in Bluffton, South Carolina, where EliteXC and World Extreme Cagefighting veteran Muhsin Corbbrey started his mixed martial arts training.
“I’d gotten into a fair amount of fights in high school, and I wanted to try it for real,” Gomez said. “[Corbbrey] took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He asked me to come to a pro practice, and those guys beat me up so bad. It was then that I realized I didn’t have a clue what fighting was. The idea of becoming better and more efficient made me train there six days a week.”
Gomez later changed duty stations, moving to California, where he joined Team Quest for three years.
“When I first started out with Team Quest, I was starstruck,” he said. “You look around and see guys like Dan Henderson, Tarec Saffiedine and all kind of savage dudes. It was overwhelming at first. I was holding my own as an amateur with the pro guys in my weight class. With the bigger guys, there was a learning curve. The level of training that I got when I was so young is so beneficial to me now. I pretty much trained as a pro when I was still an amateur. I was cutting weight, training twice a day, had a nutritionist, all kinds of stuff.”
However, Gomez’s long and winding road to a pro MMA career was not done. He moved from California to New Hampshire, where he currently lives and trains at multiple gyms around New England.
“I moved because of a girl,” said Gomez, who has stopped all six of his opponents with first-round punches. “I met a girl while I was in the Marines, and she was from New Hampshire. I’d gotten out of the Marines and was training for my pro debut and broke my leg. I ended up having to rejoin the Marines to get the surgery I needed. I got deployed and moved her back to New Hampshire while I was deployed. Three months into my deployment, she told me she wanted to stay in New Hampshire, and I said I should at least give it a try.”
Even though he left one of the most respected camps in MMA, Gomez believes the move to New Hampshire has benefitted his career.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I was like 10-3 as an amateur and 9-0 in kickboxing, and I was such a big name coming from Team Quest. The guys at Team Quest had been grooming me for the UFC when I was 23. It was just a matter of time, but I couldn’t get a pro fight to save my life. It was extremely difficult to get a fight and make my pro debut given the caliber of training I’d had. Something like six different guys pulled out. My last amateur fight was in February 2011, and I didn’t make my pro debut until March 2013. The only reason I got pro fights was because I came someplace where people didn’t know me.”
After making his pro debut, Gomez notched a pair of wins in 2013 and posted three more victories on the Northeast regional circuit in 2014. In his most recent outing, Gomez took just 1:29 to knock out Kin Moy at a CES MMA event in March.
“Training and fighting in New England has been extremely different,” he said. “It’s like going from the major leagues to the minors. Don’t get me wrong. Things are still competitive and I get good training, but there’s not a one-stop shop where you get everything and there’s not the same level of folks in the gym. If you want good training in New England, you have to be willing to travel. I do my training at several different gyms all over New England. It’s difficult. It’s not been without struggles and frustration, but if you’re passionate, you’ll find a way.”
The 28-year-old Font comes into their bout riding a 10-fight winning streak. In his most recent outing, Font -- a Boston resident who trains out of Team Sityodtong -- recorded a first-round knockout of George Roop at UFC 175 in July 2014. Gomez feels his work ethic will help him make a successful transition to the Octagon.
“I absolutely feel like I’m getting better and better every day,” he said. “I want to constantly be learning, and that’s a big part of why I’m so successful. Hard work beats talent when talent refuses to work hard. I have a full-time job, so I’m up at 4 a.m., go train, work for eight hours and then go train again. When I feel like I plateau, I reach out for something different and try to stay hungry. That’s what is going to make the difference, I think.”