Some don't get the benefit of even a single father figure in their lifetime.
Mixed-martial artist Jimmie Rivera has at least two.
"My father wasn't around," Rivera, born and raised in New Jersey, explained. "My uncle was around."
For Danny Rivera, the effort to keep in touch with his older brother's son was a given. He sought out his nephew after Jimmie's mother, Francine Grieco, moved away after breaking up with Jimmie's father, Ernesto. Grieco was the one who started Jimmie in martial arts, enrolling him in classes to help him deal with a school bully. When Jimmie began competing, his uncle became a constant support.
With two decades of impact on Rivera through his martial arts school, trainer Daniel "Tiger" Schulmann has also been highly influential.
"His uncle and I were two of his main male role models," Schulmann explained. "I love this kid. He's very close to me."
"When you know where you come from, you can go anywhere," Danny said, speaking on the value of imparting a sense of heritage; Jimmie's mother is of Italian descent and his father is Puerto Rican. The Puerto Rican flag Rivera carries out to every one of his fights was a gift from his uncle.
"He really started teaching me about my heritage, where our family's from. I love my culture."UFC bantamweight fighter Jimmie Rivera
"One of the reasons I walk out with the Puerto Rican flag is that Puerto Rico's not always doing so great," Jimmie Rivera said of the territory, which is currently mired in an economic crisis. "Sometimes people need to relate to that there's going to be better days to come."
If the flag is a good luck charm, it's certainly working.
"He's got 20 straight wins without a loss," Schulmann noted.
Schulmann has around fifty gyms -- including the one in Ramsey, New Jersey, where Rivera started training at age 9 -- franchised over the East Coast. He first noticed a then-15-year-old Rivera because Schulmann's daughter, who was 14 and training for her black belt at the time, had a crush on the athlete who was already helping instruct other students. Once when Schulmann's daughter had to do 50 pushups in training, Rivera dropped alongside to do the pushups, as well.
The veteran martial arts instructor decided to challenge Rivera.
"I told him, 'If she does 50, you should be able to do a hundred more.' He just kept going and he did 150, which is pretty good for a 15-year-old. His arms were shaking at the end, but he did it."
The trust Rivera began to earn as a teenager from Schulmann didn't just result in a place on the Team Tiger competition team. Rivera, now 28, is head instructor and part-owner of his own Schulmann gym in Manhattan. All the top instructors train at the headquarters gym in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, but that's not all Rivera does there.
"He helps me instruct the fighters," Schulmann explained. "If I can't come in, he teaches the class at the headquarters. He's not just teaching the common people in the game, he's teaching others of a very high level."
Rivera is now ranked No. 3 in UFC's bantamweight division. He isn't willing to put his perfect UFC record on the line for anything less than a shot at the best -- either current champion Cody Garbrandt or former champions Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dilleshaw.
"I don't want to lose to a contender where he just got a lucky shot," Rivera said. "If this person is going to get you closer to a title, you should fight him. If this person's not, why fight him?"
There's a bit of a logjam for the bantamweight belt. Garbrandt was scheduled to fight Dilleshaw earlier this summer, but a back injury forced a delay. Meanwhile, Cruz, whom Garbrandt beat to take the title, has refused any non-title fight. He wants the winner of the Garbrandt-Dilleshaw bout, which is now scheduled for Nov. 4.
Rivera might have to wait, then, for the right fight. Schulmann doesn't believe Rivera should settle for less.
"He's earned his way," stated Schulmann. "He has five wins straight in the UFC. He deserves either the champion or No. 1 or No. 2."
It wouldn't be the first time Schulmann has reminded Rivera of his worth.
"When he was 15 or 16, I saw him at a grappling tournament," Schulmann recalled. "I asked, 'Who are you going to grapple?' Jimmie pointed the guy out, saying, 'He's from Brazil; he's really good.' I said, 'Jimmie, so are you. Just because he's from Brazil doesn't make him better than you. Go in there and beat him.' And he did."
While Schulmann was guiding Jimmie Rivera's fighting skills, Danny Rivera was contributing in other ways to his nephew's MMA career.
Danny would always brag about his own four children as they grew up, and he would also talk with his co-workers about his young nephew.
"I'd tell them, ‘Every competition, he always wins; he's El Terror everywhere he goes."
So Danny was ready when Jimmie reached out at the start of his MMA career.
"I was 18, doing my first amateur fight," Jimmie said. "I called him when he was on his way down to the fight. 'They're asking me my nickname.' He said, 'El Terror, that's your nickname.' So I told the announcer and that was it."
Besides providing a nickname, Danny also wanted his nephew to understand what representing Puerto Rico meant.
"He really started teaching me about my heritage, where our family's from," Jimmie said. "I love my culture."
Danny made sure Jimmie remained aware of his roots -- whether by playing salsa music and reggaeton, nagging about improving Spanish skills, telling stories of his experiences in Puerto Rico, teaching Jimmie the island style of playing dominoes or making sure there was plenty of Puerto Rican food and family around his nephew.
"He got my fight shorts made custom, with the Puerto Rican flag," Jimmie said.
Despite Jimmie Rivera's fighting success, a loss that didn't even officially count brought him to the lowest point of his career.
Fighting up a weight category to enter "The Ultimate Fighter" house in the 2011 edition of the reality TV show, Rivera lost in the second round to Dennis Bermudez.
"I teach all my fighters: One setback doesn't define your whole life. It's just a setback," Schulmann said.
Rivera had years to stew about his mistakes, blaming himself and resolving to train even harder, improve his grappling, push himself even more.
"I told him, 'You've got to start performing better, knocking people out,'" said Schulmann.
— Yenni Torres (@YenniTorres) July 23, 2017
Finally, Rivera got an opportunity as a replacement to face UFC veteran Marcus Brimage on July 18, 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland. He impressed, defeating Brimage by KO in the first round.
"The hardest thing was waiting, four or five years," Rivera said. "When I got the call, last minute, for Scotland, it was like a second chance, and I wasn't going to take it for granted."
Now that he's in the promotion, Rivera has specific goals he'd like to accomplish.
He wants to become a UFC champion.
There's also the aspiration to help bring a UFC event to Puerto Rico for the first time.
"UFC has been all over, why not go there?" Rivera said. "Let's go somewhere that's not too far and put on a show."
A Rivera fight on the island is a dream his uncle shares. "I would pay the ticket for every family member to be there," said Danny Rivera. "That would be incredible."
Something familiar they would hear at such an event is Puerto Rican singer Don Omar's "Conteo," which is Jimmie's longtime walkout song.
"It's Jimmie's song now," said Danny. "We can't play it in our family for anything else because we all just associate it with Jimmie going to get another win. We all get hyped."
As much as he's enjoying his unbeaten streak in UFC now, Jimmie Rivera is also looking beyond his fighting career. He'll keep teaching, but once he calls time on his octagon days, Rivera would like to start a family with his wife, Samantha. They married last November.
"I don't think [competitive fighters] should be fighting at 50," Schulmann said. "Get in, get out and stay healthy."
It's a lesson learned well by Rivera.
"A lot of people think fighting is going to pay all your bills and they're going to be able do it for the rest of your life," said Rivera. "Your body doesn't react the same as you get older. Injuries don't go away that fast. You need to have something to fall back on."
Rare is the athlete at the height of his physical powers who understands how quickly those powers can fade.
It's also unusual for a coach to refuse much credit for development of a top athlete.
"It's not my coaching; it's the guy -- he's terrific," Schulmann insisted of Rivera. "He can do it all. He can box, he can kickbox, wrestle, jiu-jitsu. He's equally good in every element. He's an MMA fighter who has the whole package."
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