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Vancouver’s Ricky Simón gets his next big shot in UFC

Former Union wrestling star has carved out a career as MMA fighter

By , Columbian Staff Writer
Published:
11 Photos
Ricky Simón of Vancouver is pictured at Gracie Barra Portland on Jan. 24, 2019. Simón graduated from Union High School in 2010 and initially hoping to be a college wrestler, but he eventually stopped wrestling and and started MMA. Simón signed with the UFC last spring, and just recently signed another four-fight deal. Simón will fight the first of those four fights in Melbourne Australia on Feb. 9.
Ricky Simón of Vancouver is pictured at Gracie Barra Portland on Jan. 24, 2019. Simón graduated from Union High School in 2010 and initially hoping to be a college wrestler, but he eventually stopped wrestling and and started MMA. Simón signed with the UFC last spring, and just recently signed another four-fight deal. Simón will fight the first of those four fights in Melbourne Australia on Feb. 9. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

PORTLAND — Ricky Simón sat on the entrance steps to the octagon at Gracie Barra, a Brazilian jiu jitsu gym located behind a red door in a scantily-marked Southeast Portland warehouse lot, wrapping his hands and forearms with black gauze.

He was soaked. Moments after a grueling jiu jitsu class with some of the area’s top wrestlers and fighters, boxing trainer Andy Minsker walked over to help him lace up his gloves. Sweat coated Simón’s dry-fit shirt and dripped from his recently-groomed mullet (a fan favorite, he said).

The two stepped into the ring for the day’s final workout: a hitting session.

“This is the fun part,” Minsker said.

Simón smiled.

On that afternoon, each punch Simón, a 26-year old Vancouver resident and Union High School graduate, delivered — both thunderous and lightning-like — were an investment.

The payoff? His upcoming Feb. 9 fight in Melbourne, Australia against the 15th-ranked bantamweight fighter in the world, the first in a newly signed four-fight deal with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the largest mixed martial arts promotion in the world.

Growing up, Simón dreamed of wrestling in college. He would watch the Pride Fight Championships and Fight Night with his father and older brothers as a kid, but only as a means to be close to his family. He never saw himself as a fighter.

“Those guys were crazy,” he said.

But after an acrimonious end to a successful high school wrestling career drove him to walk away from the sport, he found himself at a competitive crossroads.

For talented fighters, there is hardly a conventional route to the UFC in the same way as, say, the NFL for standout football players. But professional fighting offers a more attainable prospect that wrestling does not: money.

Many of the top mixed martial arts fighters started in wrestling. In 2011, after a year off, Jake Smith, a friend and former high school teammate asked Simón to train with him. He needed a partner, and thought Simón might be good at it.

Simón knew he couldn’t sit still. The sport had him hooked. What he didn’t know, was how far it would take him.

“Every day I was in class (at Clark College) fidgeting like ‘man, I should be in boxing class, I should be in jiu jitsu class, I don’t want to lose ground, I don’t want anyone getting better than me,’ ” Simón said. “I love being in here, pushing with my teammates and I feel like that’s what I’m meant to do.”

A start in wrestling

The night Simón graduated from Union in Spring 2010, John Godinho gave him a cinder block, “like one that you buy at Home Depot,” he said, “because he built our foundation.”

Godinho took the Union wrestling job in 2008, the year the school opened, and when he did, he understood he would field a team the first year with just freshmen, sophomores and juniors. The outlook from a wins/loses standpoint, for the first couple years, was bleak.

But before the season, Godinho heard he was getting “probably the best sophomore out there.” His name was Ricky Simón. Once the season started, it became evident to Godinho that, in Simón, Union had not only a rare talent, but also a unique leader.

Midway through the season, he trusted his gut and made a significant change. Godinho elected Simón, a sophomore, captain.

“I had older captains that didn’t have the same persona Ricky had,” Godinho said. “People just follow Ricky.”

As the program continued to grow, improve and travel, Simón became as much of a coach as he did a competitor. He drove the team in rental cars to travel tournaments. He coached up his teammates, too.

He also delivered on the mat. Simón was district champion as a sophomore, then the following year placed seventh at state. As a senior, he won districts and regionals. When he got to the Mat Classic, ranked first in 3A wrestling at 140, he was sure he’d win state.

“That was my entire dream, my entire life,” Simón said.

He dropped to the loser’s bracket after Bonney Lake’s Nick Benson won in a 4-2 decision. It was there, he found Yelm’s Patrick Benson — the same wrestler Simón beat out for the regional title.

This time was different.

Simón’s leg was hurt early in the match. Soon enough, Godinho knew he had to make what even today, nine years later, he still calls the hardest coaching decision he’s ever made.

He called the match. Simón lost on injury default, and fell short of his dream of placing at state.

“I had to stop the match,” Godinho said. “He couldn’t walk, couldn’t defend himself, but he wasn’t going to quit. And then I just went in the stands weeping and crying. He wouldn’t have stopped.”

Simón was devastated. His spirit was shattered, and his body was broken physically. He got to the precipice of his dream — wrestling in college — and turned around.

“I was salty,” Simón said. “I took my ball and went home. I was like, ‘I’m not wrestling anymore.’ ”

He can’t give up

When Godinho watches Simón fight, he sees that same no-quit attitude that made him stand out as a wrestler.

“He was my warrior,” Godinho said. “You can see it in his fighting. He’s always had that ‘it’ factor.”

Throughout his fighting career, in the moments Simón weathers lots of hits, his mother, Christina, will turn to Godinho for support. During his lone loss in Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) bantamweight, which came via technical submission from a rear-naked choke to Brazilian national Anderson Dos Santos, Simón, showing the same resolve to quit he did in his final high school wrestling match, simply refused to go down.

As he was in the chokehold, Simón’s mother grabbed Godinho. She begged for him to do something. This time there was nothing Godinho could do.

“In UFC you’ve got to tap sometimes, but Rick won’t,” Godinho said. “I get nervous for his fights. I always got nervous when he wrestled, too because he was like a son to me. He was always there for me and I was always there for him.”

Simón says he doesn’t have it in him to give up. It’s in part what’s made him so great.

“Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but that’s who I am,” Simón said.

Godinho has never missed a fight, from Simón’s amateur days fighting at the Roseland Theater in Portland, to today. If it’s not too far away, he goes. If it is, he attends a watch party with Simón’s friends and family — “Ricky parties,” he calls them.

Since 2011, Simón worked his way up through the amateur ranks by leaping at any opportunity. He went 9-0 as an amateur MMA fighter, 1-0 as an amateur boxer and 1-0 as an amateur kick-boxer before officially going pro.

In LFA, a lower level MMA promotion that airs on AXS TV, he went 12-1. A splash, he said, that eventually resulted in Simón becoming the LFA bantamweight world champion on Dec. 15, 2017 after he beat Chico Camus in a fifth-round unanimous decision.

Still, making a living as an LFA fighter proved difficult. Over the years, Simón had worked various odd jobs to make a living: at HP as a temp testing printers, a front desk security job for MetroWatch for a couple years and then various construction jobs.

As he grew into his mid-20s, the prospect of making a living became pressing. The competitive edge persisted. But he weighed whether it was all worth it. Godinho said he floated the idea of becoming a police officer. Simón eventually wanted to settle down with his longtime girlfriend, Jade Bonnett.

These thoughts persisted in the lead-up to his LFA 36 bantamweight title belt defending fight against Vinicius Zani last March. The day of the fight, he told his mother that if he won and was not signed by UFC afterward, he would retire from fighting and choose a different career. It was make-it-or-break-it.

“It was getting so tough,” Simón said.

That night, he defended his belt with a 59-second knockout. It was the moment seven years in the making.

“It was insane,” Simón said. “I had just defended my world title with a crazy knockout, I was screaming into the camera, ‘sign me!’ That was it.”

His manager held up his phone up to him while still in the cage to show the texts he was getting from the folks with UFC.

Simón was signed on the spot. Not long after, he proposed to Bonnett. The couple are getting married in June.

Tight-knit family

Simón has lived in east Vancouver for most of his life. He attributes that to a tight-knit relationship with his family.

When Simón started fighting full time, he moved to Portland to be closer to his training sessions. But he found himself driving back to Vancouver to spend time with family at least every other day, and eventually moved back.

He’s the second-oldest of four brothers — Carlos Simón, Brandon Simón and Avi Simón. And they stick together. Often times he’ll have family members travel with him when he goes to fights.

Each of them, along with their father, have the same tattoo — “Simón,” emblazoned across their upper back. When Ricky Sim?n is on pay-per-view, there’s no mistaking where he comes from.

Last week, he wrapped up the boxing workout with Minsker early in the afternoon. On a typical day, he’d have another workout that evening. This day was different.

He squeezed his workouts in the morning so he could go see his younger siblings — one in fifth grade, the other in second — compete in a Clark County Youth Wrestling match at Washougal High School.

Now that Simón is at that point of his career, he’s enjoying every moment. In the back of his mind at all times is his upcoming fight in Australia.

His biggest focus? Pulling off a pay-per-view upset in the biggest fight of his career to date. And he’s certain he will.

“The fighting career is tough,” Simón said. “There’s no blueprint on how to really make it. It’s been a trying journey and I’m finally where I should be.”

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Columbian Staff Writer

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