Rising UFC star Josh Emmett talks being an underdog and feeling better with age

UFC fighter Josh Emmett trains in the octagon with his trainer Joey Rodriguez at on Feb. 14 at Urijah Faber's Ultimate Fitness. Emmett is preparing for his first UFC main event fight against Jeremy Stephens on Feb. 24 in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Ashley Hayes-Stone)

Sacramento may not yet be familiar with Josh Emmett, but fans of mixed martial arts are. Last December, Emmett shocked the world when he knocked jiujitsu black belt Ricardo Lamas out cold in the first round of an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout. Lamas was No. 3 in the world in the featherweight class, and is a household name in the UFC. Emmett was an unknown hailing from Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male operation who has waited years for his chance to take on the best in the world. Well, here it is. Next Saturday, Feb. 24, Emmett will step into the octagon with veteran Jeremy Stephens. If all goes well there, he may just get a shot at his dream of becoming the champ.

When you were a kid, did you ever think you would get paid to beat people up?

No, never. There was only two things I ever wanted to be when I was a little kid, and that was be a professional athlete or a police officer. I was thinking I was going to play in the NFL or the NBA. But as I started getting older I didn’t grow as much [laughs] so I knew that the NFL and the NBA were probably out of the picture.

Were you much of a fighter at all when you were younger?

No, not at all. Like I said, I was a small, small kid, so I wasn’t much of a fighter. I got into a few scuffles here or there but it was all basically just pushing or shoving in elementary school but it was nothing big.

So how did you make the jump to punching and kicking people for a living?

That’s the competitor in me. In high school, I was the only freshman at El Camino High School that made the varsity wrestling team and after that I wrestled at Sacramento City College and then I went to the four-year level at Menlo College. And the problem was that after wrestling, there was nothing really for me to do.

I had two choices: I could have trained for the olympics or I could get into mixed martial arts. I chose MMA because I’d always been a huge fan. I remember watching the UFC fights in high school—that’s way before it was mainstream and before the Ultimate Fighter was even on. At the time, I was watching those guys and telling myself: ‘Man, I could beat those people up,’ [laughs] and I was completely wrong.

UFC fighter Josh Emmett wraps his hands as he prepares to train at Urijah’s Faber’s Ultimate Fitness on Feb. 14. (Photo by Ashley Hayes-Stone)

How were you wrong?

It was a humbling situation when I first came into Urijah [Faber’s] gym in 2006. I was just taking regular classes then, but Urijah saw a lot of potential in me and he approached me a few months later and asked if I was interested in fighting. My first sparring day was humbling because these were these people who aren’t even in the UFC and they were getting the better of me. I thought to myself: ‘If I tried to fight one of those dudes in the UFC, I would have gotten killed.’

Well you haven’t been “killed” yet and your one loss came down to points. Does that make it sting worse than if you had been knocked out?

That one loss on my record, man, that was a tough pill to swallow because I felt like I won that fight. I lost a close split-decision to a guy in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

If he would have beat me up or knocked me out, I could accept that he was better than me—that night. But I clearly feel like I won two rounds and I could even make an argument for winning every single round.

But going back to my goal, my goal was always to fight in the UFC. It was UFC or nothing.

Did you ever see yourself sitting in the top-five fighters in the world at your weight class when you first started sparring?

I got into it because I wanted to be a world champion. Look, there are people that get into this because their goal is just to step foot into the octagon. And after they go 0-1, or 0-2 and get cut from the UFC, their big claim to fame is ‘I made it to the UFC.’

I’m not okay with that. I want to be the best fighter in the featherweight division on the planet. And I’m getting closer and closer to achieving that goal.

Well, that fight with Ricardo Lamas landed you a lot of attention and moved you up the rankings quite a bit—especially after that knockout. Did you think that fight was going to be as big of a deal as it was?

Sean Shelby, the matchmaker for the UFC, went through and asked every single person in the top-15 if they wanted that fight.

Every single person said no. It was a short notice fight and it was against a dangerous fighter.

So when I got presented with that opportunity, it was just something I couldn’t pass up. Some of my coaches didn’t want me to take it because they felt like there wasn’t enough time for me to cut that much weight and prepare for that kind of opponent. I mean, I’m always in good shape but I wasn’t in fight-shape. But I felt confident, so I took the fight.

And that’s the fight that everyone is seeing. That knockout punch …

Let me say, he had never been knocked out like that. The current and the former champion couldn’t even do that. Holloway and Aldo couldn’t do it and I went out there and starched him in the first round.

I missed weight on that by two and a half pounds, just because it was such a short notice. But I still lost like 30 pounds in three weeks and I was completely drained by the fight. I was miserable.

It looks like it was worth it though because it’s put you at No. 4 in the world. If you hadn’t have said yes you wouldn’t be there.

I wouldn’t be here. No. That’s the thing though, going back to that one loss on my record, the only positive thing I took from that is that it made me rethink things and reevaluate things. That’s why I decided to go [back to 145 pounds]. My goal all along was to fight at featherweight, but since I got into the UFC at 155 and I was doing well and winning, I decided to not try and change things. At 155, I was the shortest lightweight in that division. These guys are physically huge people. I was fighting guys that cut from 200 pounds. Strength-wise, I feel like I could hang with anyone but I’d be hitting people and they weren’t going down. I was taking unnecessary damage.

You’d already hurt your hand pretty bad, right?

Yeah. My first fight in the UFC I set a record—and not a good one—for the worst hand injury in UFC history.

What happened?

In the third round, John Tuck threw a wheel kick and I went to parry it and it must have hit my finger at the perfect angle and force and, basically, my bone ended up sticking out. Literally, my finger was just hanging on by the flesh.

Oh, wow.

Yeah, it was painful but I got that fight on a four-day notice. It was my ticket into the UFC so I had to say yes. I got a call and they asked me if I wanted to go to the Netherlands and I said, ‘Let’s do it,’ not knowing it was in four days. I hopped on a plane and flew across the world to beat a tough, tough veteran and had the worst hand injury in UFC history in my first outing.

But you still won.

That’s the other thing, I was the underdog and everyone was counting me out, but I wasn’t flying halfway across the world to lose. I was ready to endure anything to get a win and kick-start my UFC career.

Team Alpha Male boxing trainer Joey Rodriguez assists UFC fighter Josh Emmett in tying his boxing gloves at Urijah Faber’s Ultimate Fitness on Feb. 14. (Photo by Ashley Hayes-Stone)

You’ve been around for such a long time, does your age ever come into your mind as a ticking clock? Do you feel like you need to do this now?

Oh yeah. I’d see all of these people getting in when they were younger but I haven’t taken the damage that a lot of people at my age in the UFC have.

Like Jeremy Stephens, I’m going to fight him, he’s been in the UFC for almost 11 years. This will be his 28th UFC fight. He has over 40 pro fights—he’s younger than me. But he has some miles. He’s been in wars. I’ve never been beat-up like that. I’m usually the hammer in the fight.

So age, it plays a factor in my mind, but I feel great. I’m 32, and on March 4, I’ll be 33 and I feel the best I ever have. I feel like I’m in my prime right now. I’m just going to ride until the wheels fall off.

Do you think your age makes you hungrier for this than other fighters in the UFC?

I got into this game later than most. I think I had my first amateur fight when I was almost 27 years old. It was a tough road for me and I had to overcome so much adversity. There were a few times where I felt like giving up.

If I’m being honest, if I didn’t get into the UFC by the end of 2016, I was going to be done fighting. I was just going to get a job and contribute to society [laughs]. I would have given this up.

When you step into the octagon, what is going through your head? Are you thinking about all of your training?

It’s weird, when I fight, I really don’t feel like I’m fighting. It feels more like I’m on vacation. Especially now, fighting in the UFC, because they take such good care of you. It doesn’t even sink in until I’m walking out of the tunnel or sometimes 10 seconds before the fight and they lock the cage. The ref will ask, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m going to fight now’ [laughs].

Most people I meet are like, ‘How does he fight, he’s the nicest guy,’ but when I get in that octagon, I just have a switch I turn on. I’m not that nice of a guy in there. Every punch or strike, elbow, knee, kick has a bad intention. I’m looking to finish the fight no matter what.

I’m definitely not going to get beat up in front of my family, my friends, my wife and now it’s on such a big platform, I don’t want to get beat up in front of the world. I don’t want to be embarrassed in front of the world.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


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Luis Gael Jimenez
Luis Gael Jimenez
Luis Gael Jimenez is a contributor to the Sacramento News & Review and VOICES: River City. He has spent three semesters on the American River Current, where he currently serves as editor-in-chief.