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He made it farther than most did who chase a dream. He played college football, where he was a two-time all-conference defensive back, and he got an invitation to a regional combine for the NFL.
He never quite made it, though, and that led him to turn to MMA, where his brother, Alex, once made it to the UFC.
Reyes himself made the UFC after a 5-0 amateur career and then going 6-0 on the regional circuit. He’s steadily progressed in the rankings and after victories over Volkan Oezdemir and Chris Weidman, he’s finally gotten to the top of the mountain in his new line of work.
On Saturday at the Toyota Center in Houston, Reyes will challenge the legendary Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title in the main event of UFC 247 (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV). He needs that one last step to reach the pinnacle, but he’s not been dealt an easy hand.
In fighting Jones, he’s facing the man widely regarded as the greatest mixed martial artist who ever lived.
Reyes, though, sneers at the many doubters who scoff at his chances, as well as the oddsmakers who have installed Jones as a significant favorite. At the MGM Grand Sports Book in Las Vegas, Jones is a -500 favorite, while bettors can get Reyes at +350.
Reyes' football background can help vs. Jones
Three traits from his football career, he believes, will help him to pull off the upset, even though in his mind, it won’t be much of an upset.
“He’s only as big as you make him,” Reyes told Yahoo Sports. “I’m the one fighting him. I don’t have to buy into it. It’s up to me to decide how I perceive someone. I don’t have to buy into what everybody’s saying: ‘Oh, he’s the greatest ever, blah, blah, blah.’ I truly believe he’s a great fighter, don’t get me wrong. I respect his skillset. When we fight, it’s just two dudes fighting. If you make it bigger than it is, it will be bigger than it is.”
The first trait from his football career that is the most transferrable to his MMA career is footwork. As a safety, footwork is paramount in making breaks and being able to change direction and cover ground.
In the fight game, footwork is crucial to a fighter’s ability to set up his shots.
As he drilled football for years, he developed a quick set of feet that have served him well in MMA. He has a wrestling background, but prefers to strike and part of the reason is because his good feet enable him to get into and out of range quickly and efficiently.
“To be able to truly understand footwork the way I do, and spatial awareness, it gave me a leg up on the competition,” he said.
It’s why he was able to make all-conference and why he was able to deal with speedy receivers. In the fight game, the elite fighters almost always will have great feet.
Reyes said he learned that early and never stopped working on his feet.
“In football, the footwork, especially for a safety, it was so critical because every little step matters,” he said. “Every step matters. When you are going up against a receiver who runs a 4.4, 4.3, it has to matter. When I switched to MMA, it was similar. It was a lot more similar than I had anticipated.”
The second football skill that Reyes developed that he’s found is applicable to MMA is being able to read what others are going to do.
As a fighter, if you can spot a tell or spot certain movements, it gives you a leg up. That, he said, is another area where he excelled before turning to fighting.
“People a lot of times think you watch the quarterback as a safety, but you don’t,” Reyes said. “You watch the line. You watch the movements of the entire group in front of you. I had to make a read off the line and then my eyes went to the quarterback and then they went to the receiver.
“My eyes are trained to react very fast. I go from one read to the next read to the next one. I was making reads just like a quarterback, just from the other side of the field. It’s kind of like that with fighting, where my eyes are trained already. My reactions are very sharp because of a lifetime of training my eyes and my central nervous system to work together.”
How Patrick Mahomes inspired Reyes
And the final thing he brings from football, he said, is the mentality of playing to the whistle, to compete as hard as possible on every play or, in a fight, in every second of every round.
He learned not to get discouraged if he made a mistake and give up because he was beaten. And as he watched Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes rally his team in the final six minutes of the Super Bowl to a come-from-behind win over the San Francisco 49ers, it hit him:
Mahomes didn’t let his interceptions or his bad throws bother him. As soon as they were over, he moved on to the next snap and tried his best on the next play. Reyes knows he may face tough times during his fight with Jones, but he needs to persevere.
“That attitude starts back in camp,” Reyes said. “You understand that not every day in camp is going to be a great day, whether you like it or not. You’ll make mistakes. But you have to show up the next day and work on being better. The thing you learn is, you don’t have to be great on Jan. 25; I have to be great on Feb. 8. So I apply those lessons into the fight itself.
“I might be bleeding. I might have been hurt, but if there is still time on the clock, keep fighting, keep executing and keep trying to find a way to get it done. As long as the fight’s not over and there’s still time on the clock, I believe I will be able to do something to win the fight.”
If he wins, it will be hailed as one of the great upsets ever, mostly due to Jones’ long reign.
To Reyes, though, he’s not bothered by those whose opinions don’t take into account everything he’s been through in his career and in his life to make it to the title fight.
“I don’t care what others might say or think or what they might predict,” he said. “That doesn’t impact me in the least. I know what I have to do and, just as importantly, I know I’m capable of doing it. So whatever people want to say or think, it’s fine. It’s irrelevant. They’ll see on Saturday.”
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