UFC 244: Vicente Luque isn't the BMF, but he is the nicest

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Vicente Luque interacts with media during the UFC 244 Ultimate Media Day on Oct. 31, 2019 in New York City. (Getty Images)
Vicente Luque interacts with media during the UFC 244 Ultimate Media Day on Oct. 31, 2019 in New York City. (Getty Images)

If anyone keeps a list of the nicest people in MMA — heck, just the nicest people, period — Vicente Luque would be at or near the top of the list. If he’s not, it’s only because someone hasn’t met him.

The UFC welterweight is a one-of-a-kind spreader of joy, an engaging and charismatic guy who has not a bad word about anyone and whose idea of a good time is doing something to help somebody else. The fight game, though, is a cruel and difficult business, and it doesn’t matter how nice, or kind one is, or if you always remember to say please and thank you.

And for a time, it appeared that Luque was proving that while nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, they often finish as also-rans.

He was on the classic win-one, lose-one treadmill. He got until “The Ultimate Fighter,” with a 7-4-1 record, but had gone just 5-4-1 after winning his first two pro fights. He split his two bouts on TUF, which don’t count on his records since they’re technically exhibitions, and then lost his UFC debut to Michael Graves at the TUF Finale on July 12, 2015. If you count the 1-1 from the show, Luque was 7-7-1 in his career at that point and going nowhere fast.

Fast forward four-plus years and Luque will fight Stephen Thompson on the main card of UFC 244 on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, PPV) at Madison Square Garden in what stands in stark contrast to the BMF title fight between Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal in the main event. Thompson-Luque could be billed for the nicest guy in the sport title, and no one would argue.

But it’s also a battle of two guys who can fight.

Thompson has had a long pedigree of success, but Luque is something of a late bloomer. Since that loss to Graves, he’s gone 10-1. His only defeat in that span was in 2017 to Leon Edwards, which is part of Edwards’ still-active eight-fight winning streak.

Luque, who began fighting in Muay Thai as a 15-year-old, never got discouraged by the losses. He always believed he’d be good enough to get on a streak and move to the top of his division.

It was just that his career didn’t always have the best direction and no one advised him well on what fights he should, and more significantly, should not take.

“I started so young, and I was 17 and I didn’t plan things out,” he said. “I had two and three fights and I was accepting fights against guys who had 20, 30, 40 fights. You look back on it and you realize that wasn’t the right thing to do, that it’s hard to be ready for those kinds of opponents when you’re so young and so inexperienced. But I believe because I had so many of those tough fights when I was young, it pushed me to work harder. I was always a persistent guy and I learned from the losses I had.

“I think what happened at the beginning of my career has had a big impact upon me being the fighter that I am right now.”

When Luque lost to Graves, he was 24 years old and his dream was almost over before he’d gotten a chance to pursue it. When he graduated from high school, he was urged to give up fighting and go to college, but he dreamed of being a champion and he resisted.

But at 24, he was staring at the possibility of being unemployed. He was eliminated from TUF by Hayder Hassan, then was beaten by Graves in the finale.

He could have been cut at that moment and not complained, but he also knew he couldn’t afford to lose his next one. He fought Hassan in a rematch on Dec. 19, 2015, and it was the day the arrow changed to upward for Luque. He’s never looked back.

He choked Hassan out with an anaconda choke and enters his bout with Thompson on a six-fight winning streak as well as 10-1 in his last 11. Among them were impressive wins over Mike Perry, Belal Muhammad, Niko Price and Bryan Barberena.

The Hassan win, though, is what saved him.

“It definitely was [a turning point] in my career,” Luque said. “It was a big deal for me to enter the UFC with a loss. That was the worst situation in my mind, to finally get to the UFC and then lose it. But you can go one of two ways. You can surrender and say, ‘Well, at least I tried and I made it to the UFC,’ or you can work even harder. I knew I could do this; I knew it. So that loss made me go back and redraw everything.

“I looked at my goals and when I went into that fight with Hayder, I had a different mentality. I went in not thinking that I hoped I would win, but I went in believing I would win.”

He did, and he’s pretty much not stopped winning since. It’s led him to this fight with Thompson, which he sees as an opportunity to prove he belongs among the upper echelon of welterweights.

Thompson is ranked No. 9 at welterweight and is Luque’s first top-10 opponent.

“I was hoping the UFC would realize I am deserving of a top-10 test after my last fight,” Luque said. “This is a guy who has fought for the title and everyone knows how good he is and what he can do. So it’s a chance for me to prove I am on that level, too.”

It’s a long way from his humble beginnings to the main card of one of the UFC’s biggest shows, but anyone who knows Luque would say the same thing:

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

He’s just one of the nice guys who can really fight.

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