Dominick Reyes wasn’t used to losing. He began 2020 with a 12-0 MMA record and the light heavyweight belt in his sights. But a series of setbacks left him doubting his future in the UFC and his love for the sport.
In February of last year, Reyes dropped a decision to Jon Jones — widely considered to be one of the best fighters in UFC history. Reyes got another chance at the title when Jones vacated the championship last summer to move up to heavyweight. But against Jan Blachowicz last September, the 31-year-old Californian suffered the first knockout loss of his career.
Tough times weren’t limited to the Octagon. While preparing to fight Blachowicz, Reyes said his father Jose became seriously ill with COVID-19. Doubts brought on by the grueling losses began to rattle Reyes even as he signed on for Saturday’s UFC Fight Night main event against Jiri Prochazka.
Reyes was going through the motions and envisioning a life after MMA. “I was like, I can’t wait for my career to be over. I didn’t feel like it was worth it,” Reyes told ESPN via Zoom interview.
Ultimately, Reyes soldiered on. His father recovered, and as he prepared to take on Prochazka, he turned a corner emotionally.
“It all started coming back to me. All of a sudden I’m learning again, I’m enjoying it again, I’m seeing improvements and having fun with it. That’s kind of when it came back,” Reyes said.
Considered an underdog going into the match against Prochazka (27-3-1), Reyes is nevertheless convinced it’s his opponent who needs to show improvement in order to mount a challenge. After all, Reyes’ explosive style has produced seven knockouts, two submissions and two performance-of-the-night bonuses in his 12 wins.
Reyes has proven he’s worthy of challenging for the title, although critics have sprung up in the wake of his two losses.
“I don’t need to prove anything, even to myself,” Reyes said. “I’ve already climbed the mountain and earned the respect of the world. All I need to do is touch the top. There’s no need to put all this extra stress on [myself.]”
Prochazka, 28 and from the Czech Republic, has terrorized opponents with 24 knockouts in 27 wins across various promotions. In Reyes’ view, however, Prochazka has yet to step into a fight with someone who can match his ability.
“He’s never faced anyone equally athletic to him, ever, that’s a fact,” Reyes said. “He’s gotten away with being the better fighter and athlete for a long time. But you’re fighting No. 3 in the world now, buddy. If you don’t tighten up, it’s going to be a long night for you — or a short night.”
Because of his consecutive losses, Reyes is aware that he is in a must-win situation. Another defeat could put more bouts between him and another title opportunity.
Earlier in Reyes’ career, the mere thought of a loss — much less three in a row — would have sent him into a spiral of doubt. Reyes credits his family and heritage for turning things around.
“If you’ve got Mexican blood in you, you’re tough, automatically,” Reyes said. “My heritage for me is just, handle your business. It’s a never-quit attitude. Things will happen, there’s always trouble, and you [have to] keep fighting.”
Reyes said he was fighting for “all the wrong reasons” — for others instead of himself, his family and a love of the sport — before facing Jones and Blachowicz. It made a tough situation even more so by adding what he considered unnecessary stress and pressure. Now, still within arm’s reach of the title, Reyes has learned from his past.
Famously, Reyes has many passions outside of the Octagon. When not in training, Reyes is just as likely to spend an afternoon gaming, dabbling in IT work (his former profession) or writing poetry. Nevertheless, he stressed that the two failed bids for the belt have made him regain full focus on his day job.
Now eager to show fans and the UFC community at large that he’s the best version of himself, Reyes appears to be a new, more mature man who has cleared his mind and soul of whatever ailed him. Reyes is far from done with the sport that has given him a shot at fame and notoriety.
“I learned the lessons that I needed to learn. I wasn’t ready to be champion. Now I feel really confident about what I’m doing,” Reyes said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to take an L to grow.”