Jorge "El Conquistador" Rivera Rivera will fly to Afghanistan Sunday and spend nearly two weeks overseas visiting soldiers and putting on mixed martial arts demonstrations.
As Jorge "El Conquistador" Rivera crouches above his smaller co-worker and wraps his fingers around the man's throat, he pauses, and looks at the people gathered around him.
"That's the thing about mixed martial arts," Rivera explains. "You don't have to be an extremely gifted athlete. It's just knowing and understanding the movement of the human body and leverage."
Rivera's co-worker, Tom Hafers, quickly punctuates Rivera's lesson by using Rivera's weight against him, rolling the larger man onto his side and wrapping his legs around Rivera's arm, ready to snap the appendage at will.
Hafers and Rivera are both instructors at the United States Mixed Martial Arts training center in Bellingham. Rivera, an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter, will be leaving Sunday with other UFC athletes to visit American troops in Afghanistan.
Mixed martial arts, the hybrid fighting style composed of boxing, karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and other styles used in UFC bouts, has catapulted into America's sporting life in recent years, earning more than high-profile boxing matches and landing on the front-page of Sports Illustrated several weeks ago.
"I don't think there's anybody out there who doesn't know what it is," said Rivera, 35, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound fighter with a 14-6 record in 20 professional fights. "A couple of years ago, it was a different story. I would have to explain to people what I do."
Rivera will fly to Afghanistan Sunday and spend nearly two weeks overseas visiting soldiers and putting on mixed martial arts demonstrations before returning home to Milford for a Dana Farber fundraiser July 28.
Dave Martino, a Framingham Marine captain who has served in Iraq and will be returning next spring with his son, also a Marine, said Rivera and his UFC cohorts will be a welcome diversion for soldiers.
"I know some camps had comedians (when Martino was in Iraq) and I think all of that stuff is awesome," he said. "Anything, it doesn't matter. You're isolated from the news and what's going on. Anything that gives you a reminder of home is always huge."
Said Steve Mazzuchelli, 28, a Milford native who served as a Marine corporal in Iraq, "It shows an appreciation that was lost in the last four or five years as the war has dragged on. It shows some Americans still care."
Rivera's life story closely mirrors the ascent of the UFC, as the Milford native first became interested in the sport in 1994, two years after he finished a two-year stint in the U.S. Army.
Jason DeLucia, a UFC veteran who first trained Rivera in Woonsocket, R.I., said he knew from the start the Milford native had found his calling.
"You could just see right away he was younger than me and he was a very serious man," said DeLucia, 38, who now works as a shihan, or headmaster, for Kensho-Ryu training centers in Rhode Island. "If he wasn't doing this, he'd be in a lot of trouble."
Rivera trained for about a year before his first amateur match and wasted no time focusing on making a career of the fledgling sport which, evidenced by tremendous pay-per-view sales, has become one of the most popular sports in the country.
"When I first told my parents, they didn't take me very seriously," said Rivera. "But as the fights and purses got bigger, they realized it's not just about fighting. It's something I'm very serious about."
In spite of a broken jaw suffered in February, Rivera is quick to argue against the stereotype that mixed martial arts is about violence.
Hafers uses the clientele at the training center in Bellingham, which offers everything from yoga to mixed martial arts instruction, as proof, saying students range from young women to middle aged business executives to local cops looking for better methods of restraining people they arrest.
"The biggest misconception is that we train like that all the time," Rivera says, after the men finish their brief demonstration. "It's very controlled and easygoing."
Kenny "KenFlo" Florian, a 31-year-old UFC athlete born in Westwood and raised in Dover, will also be heading to Afghanistan and is excited to meet the men and women overseas.
"I'm a big supporter of the troops," said Florian, who boasts a career 9-3 record after a recent win. "Regardless of what you feel about the war, it's amazing what the men and women are doing. I get to give something back to people who are giving so much for us every day."
Florian said he always had an interest in martial arts and boxing as a kid, but it took a fall off a cliff for him to decide to pursue a professional career.
"I decided (after the fall) I wanted to dedicate myself to martial arts," he said. "It's something I'm really passionate about. After the fall, I decided I didn't want to have any regrets in life."
When he returns, Florian said his focus will be on his next fight, likely in November.
"I love everything about it," said the 5'5, 155-lb. Florian, who now lives in Somerville. "I love the competition. I love the lifestyle. I love going in and training against another well-trained, dedicated athlete."
Rivera, 35, has four children and a girlfriend and says he's not sure how much longer he will continue to fight in UFC bouts. One thing he is sure of, however, is that he doesn't regret a single minute spent training or fighting in UFC and amateur matches.
"I've been thinking about (when to retire) more and more," he said. "I never even had an interest in this growing up. But it pulled me in. It's a beautiful thing."
Matt Lynch can be reached at 508-634-7556 or email@example.com.