SAN JOSE, Calif. – Some fighters just want to compete, no matter the reward waiting at the end of the night. Darren Uyenoyama isn’t one of them.
Before he made it to the UFC, Uyenoyama rejected offers for $300 paydays and left the regional MMA circuit to focus on grappling and day jobs at a pair of MMA equipment companies.
“What can I buy with 300 bucks? That wouldn’t even pay my phone bill,” he told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I wanted to do it, but I had to manage the risks.”
That’s why Uyenoyama, 33, didn’t fight for five years after his first pro bout, which took place in Japan in 2002. Instead, he helped other fighters get sponsorships with one of his employers, Fairtex, and competed on the grappling circuit, where he developed a reputation as a standout player.
“I was like that guy in the gym that once fought,” said Uyenoyama (8-3 MMA, 2-0 UFC), who meets Joseph Benavidez (17-3 MMA, 4-1 UFC) on the FX-televised prelims of UFC on FOX 7, which takes place Saturday at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.
He had aspirations to win the Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling World Championships and quit his job at Fairtex to train for the competition. Working at a kickboxing gym to make ends meet, his boss, fellow UFC fighter Chris Cariaso, announced he wanted to fight. So the two started training MMA.
Uyenoyama supported Cariaso’s burgeoning career while pursuing his dream of becoming a grappling champion. But when Cariaso turned down a short-notice fight, Uyenoyama felt confident enough in his MMA training to step up. After a long detour, he was back in MMA.
He soon put grappling on the back burner to focus full-time on the sport, which by then was exploding in popularity. The paydays were getting bigger, and the WEC, which had offered him $300, was building momentum under UFC parent company Zuffa.
Cariaso eventually found his way to Strikeforce, and later the WEC. Uyenoyama wanted to fight on a bigger stage, but initially, his layoff hurt him. He flew to New Jersey to try out for the 14th season of “The Ultimate Fighter” but was told he didn’t have enough fights.
“I was like, ‘Man, you guys could have told me that by email,’” he said.
Eventually, Cariaso made it to the UFC, and Uyenoyama rubbed shoulders with Zuffa matchmaker Sean Shelby. He told Shelby he would never say no if called to fight. But he was also signed to Japanese promotion Shooto, which prevented him from jumping into the octagon when he got a call to fight Raphael Assuncao at a UFC event in Brazil.
After some contractual jiu-jitsu, Uyenoyama freed himself from his contract. Right around then, Shelby called with another fight: against Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto.
Uyenoyama and Yamamoto faced off at UFC on FOX 1. In an upset, Uyenoyama outgrappled the Japanese star to earn a unanimous-decision win.
Uyenoyama no longer weighs the risks of a career in MMA. He’s an up-and-comer in the world’s biggest fight promotion.
Cariaso now fights by his side. The pair recently moved from the bantamweight division to the burgeoning flyweight class.
But despite his status as a bonafide threat in the 125-pound division, Uyenoyama isn’t racing toward the title, whose current owner, Demetrious Johnson, bested Benavidez by split decision this past year.
“I’m not looking for an easy-paved road to the title,” Uyenoyama said. “Titles are secondary. I think if I win all my fights, that just happens on its own. But I think if Joseph and the champ were to fight 10 times, I think he’d win half of them. He’s a great person. He was the first person to congratulate me after the ‘Kid’ Yamamoto fight. It’s going to be a fight.”
For now, that’s enough for Uyenoyama. More than becoming a big star or a champion, he’s looking to put those lean years behind him.
“It’s tough for me to come up with bills fighting once a year, twice a year,” he said. “I’d really like them to fight me more. I only have one teammate in the division, and everybody else is a potential opponent.”
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