For Joe Riggs, survival is everything in both MMA and life
"This is it," Joe Riggs emphatically declared of his reality series' debut (and potential exit) next Wednesday on Bellator MMA: Fight Master (Spike TV, 10 p.m. ET). "I told my wife I was going on the show and if I didn't win it, or something didn't come of it, I would retire. I'll be done."
Riggs, the most seasoned of the 32 hopefuls fighting their way onto the show for a shot at $100,000 and a Bellator tournament contract, is a man who knows his limits. At age 30, he's survived the death of a child, a bout with drug addiction and an up-and-down career that's spanned nearly 12 years and 54 professional bouts (39-14, 1 no contest), including eight fights in the UFC.
The Arizona native's descent into reality television was nearly a decade in the making. Riggs said he'd been offered a slot on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, which premiered on Spike TV in January 2005 and propelled both the network and the UFC to impressive heights. However, already slated to face Canadian hotshot Joe Doerksen at UFC 49 and weary of the show's ground rules that cut off all ties with the outside world and particularly his family, Riggs decided to stay the course. He stopped Doerksen with brutal elbows in the second round, cementing the reputation he'd earned on the regional circuit as a bruiser with crowd-pleasing knockout power. Still, it was a decision that has always haunted him.
"It had kind of bothered me," said Riggs, who amassed a 4-4 record in the UFC's welterweight and middleweight divisions before his release in December 2006. "I'd always wondered if I'd taken that path, what would have been different for me?"
The resilient Riggs has miraculously survived long enough in MMA to have another opportunity like that come around again. Riggs knew that Fight Master was both a second and last chance to resuscitate a flagging career, yet it still roused the same fears he'd had back in 2004. Riggs got cold feet the day before he was scheduled to leave for the six-week shoot in New Orleans last March and had to be talked into making his flight by a producer.
"It was the hardest thing I ever did," said Riggs. "You can't talk to your family. You can't talk to your wife. You can't see your kids and I'm a big family man."
Family is a sacred institution that Riggs has always coveted because it was something that was ripped away from him as a young boy. At age nine, the fighter's parents divorced and his French Canadian mother returned to Quebec City alone, leaving him and his two older brothers with their father.
"I vividly remember begging her to take me with her and her saying, 'No,' said Riggs. "She said she'd gotten married really young and needed to live her own life, that we needed to stay and develop a relationship with our father."
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Riggs eventually saw his mother again and keeps in contact with her today, but the wounds have never completely healed. He'll get emotional watching a film and not know why until he realizes he's reacting to a mother-son relationship playing out onscreen.
"I forgive her," said Riggs. "I'll always love my mom, but that's something you can't take back. I was abandoned. You just don't forget things like that."
Riggs' father, who worked as a higher-up for a local diesel company, was quick to pick up the pieces for his youngest son.
"I was angry and that's why my father put me into boxing," said Riggs. "It gave me an outlet for the anger, so I wouldn't be punching holes in walls and getting into trouble in school."
Riggs also excelled in wrestling for Cactus High School, competing as a heavyweight. At his heaviest, a 17-year-old Riggs weighed 310 pounds, the curse, he said, that came with his athletic genes.
"I remember having to cut weight to 275 pounds to wrestle [UFC heavyweight champion] Cain Velasquez at the regionals," said Riggs. "In the off-season, I'd blow up like a porpoise."
Riggs' passion was always for the sweet science, though. Boxing was something that he and his father shared. Riggs' father even insisted that his right-handed son's coach teach him to box southpaw.
"He was a Bruce Lee fan, so he wanted me to be a lead-hand-dominant fighter," Riggs said. "It took me years to develop my left straight. For a while, all of my knockouts were right hooks. It took time, but it came. Now my left hand hits harder than my right."
Learning to fight didn't take all of the anger away; it only harnessed it into a potent weapon. Riggs was an emotional and often hotheaded teenager (traits that would become his calling card later as a fighter), prone to altercations if someone looked at him the wrong way. On one such occasion, he stopped his jeep to pick a fight with two guys staring at him. The confrontation quickly escalated into a car chase; Riggs and his friend were pursued, with gunfire buzzing past them.
"One of the bullets lodged in the passenger's seat and hit my friend in the back," said Riggs. "One of the bullets burned my face, that's how close it came to me. That time [in my life] was a series of close calls that could have gone very wrong."
His saving grace was mixed martial arts, said Riggs. He had his first pro bout at 17 for the local Rage in the Cage promotion, earning $35 a pop for his first 10 fights -- the state's legal minimum for prizefighting, he said. With a penchant for knockouts, Riggs swiftly graduated to higher-profile promotions like King of the Cage, IFC, WEC, Superbrawl and Rumble on the Rock. In 2004, the 21-year-old Riggs touted a 19-4 record (one no contest) with 15 wins via punches. Soon after, the UFC came calling.
Life quickly unraveled from there. In 2006, Riggs' first son, Jonathan, died at home in his sleep. He was less than one month old.
"It was SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which means the doctors couldn't explain what had happened," said Riggs. "Having a child die is the worst thing that can happen to you. My wife used to sleepwalk to the crib and place a blanket down, then come back to the bed hysterically crying her eyes out."
Riggs sold their house and tried to move his wife, now suffering from post-partum depression, away from the tragedy.
"Nothing made the pain ease up until we got pregnant with Joey [about eighth months after Jonathan's death]," Riggs said. "As soon as the doctors said we could, we started trying. In our minds, it was the only thing that could help take the pain away." Joey was born in 2007.
Amidst the turmoil, Riggs had also been harboring a deep secret. In late 2005, he'd become addicted to painkillers after being prescribed them for a herniated disc. The death of his son only fueled his self-medication; he'd battle this demon for the next two years, simultaneously trying to keep his fight career on track.
"When I fought Diego Sanchez [at UFC Fight Night 7 in December 2006], I was fully drugged up out of my mind," recalled Riggs. "I took like five or six Percocet, and went out there and fought."
Losing to Sanchez signaled the end of Riggs' UFC run. He attempted a return to the WEC, where he'd previously won the promotion's middleweight title, but withdrew the night before his bout with Hiromitsu Miura (WEC 26 in March 2007).
"I lost control of my bowels -- I peed myself on the scales, which meant I needed immediate surgery," he said. "The doctor cut out the part of the [herniated] disc that was pushing on the nerves." Riggs would undergo a second microdiscetomy less than a year later.
Riggs climbed back into the cage only four months after his first surgery, but his drug abuse came to a head at the close of 2007, when his wife found him in bed, foaming at the mouth. She called an ambulance and threatened to leave him. Riggs entered a 35-day rehab program shortly after.
For the next four years, Riggs bounced around promotions and gyms. As he gained distance from the surgeries and drug addiction, his home life steadied and the family welcomed a second child, daughter Jadin, in 2010. He'd also built a 4-3 record in Strikeforce, but that wasn't enough to restore any traction to his stalling career. In January 2011, without a fight camp to anchor him, Riggs moved back up to middleweight and stopped training nearly altogether. He then dropped three straight bouts, the last one being a second-round knockout at the hands of Bryan Baker in his Bellator debut. Riggs had lost his way and was teetering on retirement.
Instead, he took a step back. He taught classes at local gyms and put himself through the police academy program at the community college in anticipation that the force would eventually begin hiring again. Fighting wasn't an easy thing for Riggs to completely shake off, though. In mid 2012, he approached John Crouch, co-owner of The MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz., hoping for an opportunity to train with a team that included UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson and UFC veterans Jamie Varner and Efrain Escudero.
Crouch, who also serves as the gym's head MMA coach and jiu-jitsu instructor, had justified doubts.
"I was concerned. He'd had some issues and his career hadn't been tended to as it should have been," said Crouch. "It's my responsibility to make sure the team runs well and I feel it's very important that the gym feel like a family. My skepticism was that he might not be ready for it, but he has embraced it wholeheartedly. He's really found himself again."
Crouch, who readily admits that Riggs' tenure in the sport far outweighs his own, said he's been surprised by the fighter's talent and dedication.
"I wasn't around when he was ripping guys up as a young kid," said Crouch. "I'd seen some of his later fights and he hadn't looked too good. All the situations you want to avoid as a fighter, he was involved in. I wasn't sure he was going to embrace the entire program -- the strength and conditioning, the jiu-jitsu. Those old school guys didn't necessarily do all that. Ben's in in the gym all day and to be successful these days, you have to be a gym rat. But Joe's in the gym every day as well."
When Fight Master producers invited him onto the show, Riggs was hesitant to leave his second family in Glendale for the uncertainty of reality television.
"I love this team," he said. "I'd given up on training and these guys helped me get the fire back. I've been undefeated since I joined this small group and I didn't want to leave."
It's understandable that Riggs, a fighter who's always searched for a support system in the sport, would be reluctant to walk away now that he's found such a valuable one. However, MMA is about taking chances and rolling the dice. Nothing's ever a sure thing, either. Riggs might be the most experienced contestant recruited for Fight Master, but he's also one of the most weathered. There could be a younger, faster and possibly hungrier competitor to face and a televised audience will be watching -- fail or fly -- come July 10.
For producers, Riggs is a valuable addition to the series either way.
"We feel like if Joe is able to beat the odds and make it deep into this tournament, that's a compelling story," said Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney via email. "And, if he's not, then a young fighter will have made his name beating a fighter who has beaten the likes of Nick Diaz, Phil Baroni and Chris Lytle."
It's an honest assessment of the role that Riggs will play on the series, whether his presence is short-lived or whether he survives all the way to the end. If his life experience is any indication, the latter is probably the better bet.
Survival happens to be something that Joe Riggs is very good at.