Road to redemption: Inside the world's fastest growing sport and its athletes



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Mixed Martial Arts has always been seen as a rough and brutal sport. Fighters are often viewed as modern gladiators, willing to sacrifice their livelihood for the entertainment of the fans.

The story of the gladiator is never a story of an easy, leisurely life, but instead of grooling hard work, determination and perseverance. That's why we love the underdog story, seeing someone come from the bottom to achieve their dreams gives us hope.

As we get ready for Utah's very first UFC Pay-Per-View event on Saturday, which should be full of excitement and skilled violence, we look back at the week of interviews with the fighters and their storylines coming into the event. Just like the gladiator, it paints a picture of hard work, sacrifice, determination and overcoming adversity.

Looking at this electrifying card, though, every fighter has their story. We're going to look at four inspirational fighters and the adversity they've faced as they enter the UFC Octagon this weekend in Salt Lake City to continue in their pursuit to a path to glory

Jared Gordon

Coming from Queens, New York, Gordon hasn't had it easy, or the cleanest path, but it's not something that he hides. During media day interviews for UFC 278, when asked: "Big win here, what's the plan moving forward. Is it book again as quick as possible or take some time off, what's the plan?"

Gordon mentioned his dream of fighting at Madison Square Garden and all the memories he had surrounding the arena. He was not shy to mention his hard times, as he made it clear that drugs were something he did in his past.

"I used to shoot dope in the bathroom down the block from Madison Square Garden," Gordon said. A reporter asked if he'd ever leave that part of his story out, but Gordon remained firm: "No, I need to let everyone know that you can shoot dope and still get to the highest level of athletics."

Now that may not seem like the most positive message, but after struggling with addiction, Gordon has turned his life around and is competing at a high level. Yes, he used drugs, but he's still capable of reaching his dreams.

And although MMA is not his motivator to stay sober, Gordon's bigger message is about "helping other people." That, he said, is "the only thing that gives me fulfillment, is helping other people."

Luke Rockhold

Sometimes having the highest of highs will get a person to the lowest of lows. We've seen this happen before with other superstar athletes such as Michael Phelps, where a quick acceleration of money and fame leads to a quick downfall when it comes to an end. MMA is the epitome of a quick downfall as one accidental punch can change a career trajectory for good.

Rockhold is no stranger to this harsh reality. He faced adversity the second he entered the UFC and was paired with Vitor Belfort (a former light heavyweight champ) in his debut fight; he lost to a vicious wheel kick.

Rockhold could've called it quits, but decided to face adversity and went on a five-fight win streak, finishing all his opponents, and earning the middleweight title belt after his first debut loss. Unfortunately for Rockhold, his high didn't last long. Getting comfortable led him to lose his belt on his first title defense, which followed a spiral of alcohol abuse, "drinking way too much," and "going off the deep end."

Having this lack of dedication ended up costing Rockhold three out of his last four battles to place him to the sideline. After fighting his demons to get back to a constant fitness routine, in addition to seven months of a sober lifestyle, Rockhold is ready to show his championship pedigree in his pursuit to redemption with a win this weekend against the always dangerous Paulo Costa.

Jose Aldo

The Legend Jose Aldo, born in Manaus, Brasil — you don't even have to be a UFC fan to know this name. There's even a Brazilian film based on his life, Mais Forte que o Mundo, so why is he on the list? It's because Aldo has been a warrior his whole life. He grew up very poor and often went days with little to no food, but he still showed up to the gym to train.

Many times his gym partners would ask if he had eaten that day or the day before, and if not they would get him food for survival. That hard work paid off and he became the UFC featherweight champion; he still holds the record with seven successful title defenses.

He was on the top of the sport until a devastating battle with Conor McGregor, where McGregor masterfully got Aldo to fight with his emotions rather than his mind, and ended up catching Aldo in a record-setting, 13-second title fight.

The legend had fallen and it was a personal and tough loss for Aldo. After a career full of highs, a 24-1 record, Aldo saw more challenges in the octagon and added five more losses to his record in his next eight fights, which dropped his record to 28-6. Like a true warrior, though, Aldo never quit; instead, he went back to the drawing board and came up with a game plan of dropping to a lower weight class.

At the time, it was seen as crazy — Aldo already had difficulty making the 145-pound weight class, and usually fighters move up weight classes as their age increases. But Aldo wanted to reverse the trend and dropped down to 135 pounds. He faced adversity, yet again, as he lost a tough battle to Petr Yan for his first bout at the weight class.

Aldo did what he always does, though, and adjusted, got better and has since gone on a three-fight win streak against top level competitors. After a grueling journey back to the top of the sport, Aldo only has one more peak to climb with one only fight away from a title shot.

Leon 'Rocky' Edwards

His nickname, Rocky, should say it all. Leon Edwards has had anything but an easy path, both in his personal life and in getting to his deserved title shot this weekend.

Edwards was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where he was surrounded by crime, including his own father who was the leader of the area's gang. At 9 years old, Edwards moved to Birmingham, England, in hopes for a better life; however, when Edwards was 13, his father was murdered. This led Edwards to trouble with street fights, knife possession and drug dealing.

At 17, Edwards' mother signed him up for MMA to get him out of the streets, and he fell in love with it right away. He saw the vision that he could make a career out of it, and it ignited his work ethic and passion. Edwards realized the negative impact of the street life and saw his brother Fabian follow that same life, so he geared him toward MMA, and now Fabian is a 10-2 Bellator fighter.

In the ring, Edwards has, arguably, had the worst luck out of any fighter. After going on a massive eight-fight win streak, where he could almost feel the title fight in his grasp, it kept slipping away — four canceled bouts in a row and over a year of waiting for his next fight.

In March 2021, Edwards made his return to the ring to fight Belal Muhammad; and after looking dominate throughout the fight, toward the end of the second round there was an accidental eye poke, which caused a no contest decision. The result gutted Edwards, who felt cursed. But he continued to push through and scored a dominant victory in his next fight against veteran Nate Diaz.

After all those challenges and emotional ups and downs, Edwards is finally getting his long-awaited rematch against current champion Kamaru Usman. It's been over six years since they've shared the octagon together.

Tune in this weekend to see if Edwards finally gets his redemption after all these years of perseverance and hard work.

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