ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Henry Martinez walks into the Jackson-Wink MMA gym on a warm summer morning in late July, wearing the extra weight that accompanies parenthood and the type of smile reserved only for the times you get to catch up with old friends.
Martinez is nearly two years removed from his last UFC appearance, a brutal head kick knockout courtesy of Daron Cruickshank in December 2012. He’s a little heavier now than he was then, a little wiser and definitely a little happier than he was shortly after that fight, which resulted in his release from the Las Vegas-based promotion.
“I put on a little bit of a panza,” he admits with a grin. “I’m still trying to lose it.”
The New Mexico native has fought once since then, losing via second-round TKO to current Bellator talent Desmond Green at New England Fight Nights 7 in May 2013. Mostly, though, Martinez withdrew from his old life, keeping to himself while working to make ends meet and support his newborn daughter.
Eventually, the allure of fighting was too much too resist. Which is why, even after his Mustang broke down when he had barely made it out of Maine -- his temporary residence for much of the past year -- Martinez still made the nearly 2,500 mile bus ride back to Albuquerque, N.M.
“This is what calls to me,” Martinez said. “It might be a sad thing, but it really is. I’m just not very happy in anything else I do.”
To many, Martinez is best remembered as merely highlight-reel fodder for Cruickshank. As Martinez himself recollects, that was a time when he would take a fight in just about any physical condition in order to get a payday.
If everything had gone as planned, Martinez likes to believe he would have performed at an optimum level against Cruickshank in the Octagon at UFC 151 some three months earlier. Instead, the entire event was canceled, and Martinez’s fight was moved to December that same year.
No big deal, except that bad luck would strike early on his second round of preparations.
“Two weeks into the second camp ‘Cowboy’ [Donald Cerrone] blast-doubled a guy through the side of my knee,” Martinez said. “I tore my ACL and just kind of fibbed it all the way through.”
For someone of his status, pulling out of the fight was simply not an option.
“I needed the money; I hadn’t fought since June. It’s kind of hard when you don’t have full-time sponsors and you’re not making a lot of money,” he said. “It made it difficult because we found out about the pregnancy maybe two days before I got released.”
Martinez received his walking papers with a 1-2 mark in the Octagon. Missing weight in his final bout didn’t help his cause, but getting right on the scale becomes more of a chore with a serious injury. It wasn’t the first time he had fought through an ailment, either: In his Octagon debut at UFC 143, Martinez gutted out a hard-fought decision loss to Matt Riddle with six fractures in his foot.
After the loss to Cruickshank, Martinez moved to Maine to be with the mother of his child. Although he would occasionally make the 45-minute journey to Marcus Davis’ Team Irish gym in Portland, training opportunities were limited. Martinez instead elected to primarily occupy his mind and time by working various jobs.
On Aug. 31, Furia, which means “fury” in Spanish, was born. In one way, the hiatus was a blessing in disguise, as Martinez was able to witness many of his daughter’s first moments that he might have missed had he been traveling and fighting.
“I think it really presented a unique opportunity to watch her grow through the first year of life and be involved as a dad,” he said.
Eventually, the cage beckoned. Martinez made plans to move back to New Mexico with a new source of motivation.
“I’ve got my daughter to give me a little bit more incentive to drive and push, provide,” he said.
Although the trip began on a sour note, with Martinez having to tow his broken-down Mustang back to Maine before he could make it out of the state, there was at least one sign that he was making the right choice.
Now, Martinez will be the first to admit that, despite his brief UFC stint, he is no superstar. He remembers the surreal experience of being surrounded by names and faces he’d watched on TV. He remembers the atmosphere, the loud music --- and he remembers actually being recognized.
“Some people are trying to get autographs, and I’m like, ‘How the hell do you even know who I am yet? It’s my first fight,’” Martinez recalled.
Martinez apparently still has admirers. On the bus ride back to New Mexico, he caught one of the other passengers casting long glances in his direction. As it turned out, that passenger was a fan who happened to have a UFC 143 DVD -- where Martinez made his debut -- in his bag.
“With limited fights in the UFC, I didn’t think I’d be much of a recognizable face myself,” he said.
Martinez has no illusions regarding what might be next. A bad experience with a previous manager plus a lack of sponsorships led to him barely making a profit -- if any -- from his initial UFC run.
That doesn’t matter so much, at least for now. Martinez received a warm welcome upon walking through the Jackson-Wink doors. Even with a group of fighters in the midst of chasing their own dreams, most anyone who remembered Martinez greeted him with a warm handshake and hug.
Putting on the gloves and sparring again felt pretty good too. Eventually, Martinez plans on shedding the panza. Hopefully by then, the path will become clearer. For now, just getting back into old habits is good enough.
“I could walk away from it -- go find another job -- but the way I see it, it’d be like somebody that devoted their life to being a doctor. They get all this training and their schooling done, and they go become a janitor or something,” he said.
“It’s like: Why would you do that?”