Editors' note: This feature story was published in February 2020, just prior to UFC 247, at which Dominick Reyes made his first bid for the light heavyweight championship, challenging Jon Jones.
IN THE SUMMER of 2017, at a cramped desk parked in a cluttered office, Dominick Reyes pulls up a video of one of the biggest MMA stars on the planet and starts to dream. Maybe that'll be him soon.
All around him is the detritus of academia. His office, for all intents and purposes, is an oversized storage room -- a repository for Oak Hills High School's extra printers and projectors and boxes bursting with spare wires that spring out from every crevice like overgrown weeds. He shares this U-shaped desk with his sidekick Nate Stokes -- the Ethel to his Lucy. They make up the IT support tag team at this high school in the High Desert of Southern California. The two sit no more than 3 feet away from each other for hours on end, mining crumbs out of keyboards and cracking password lockouts. On weight-cutting days, Reyes can smell his co-star's Del Taco while he shoves down lentils. It boasts all the glamour of steerage.
On the days they manage to burn through the tickets, all those Maydays sent by the Oak Hills staff for technological rescuing, Stokes will scoot to Reyes' end of the desk. They'll huddle by Reyes' computer to scour video clips, because for now Reyes is the resident IT professional with an MMA side hustle.
He nudges Stokes as they tune in to their film session. On July 29, 2017, Jon Jones, embattled of his own making and seeking redemption yet again, will make his return to the Octagon. He's been gone for over a year, sidelined by a suspension for a failed drug test, and now he's back, attempting to reclaim the light heavyweight belt from Daniel Cormier. The UFC's cameras shadow Jones for its all-access series, and Reyes, like most everyone, can't tear his eyes away from the perplexing, magnetic UFC superstar.
"Man, if I ever get the opportunity to fight him," Reyes tells Stokes, "I'm going to take him down."
NO ONE HAS ever taken Jon Jones down. He has taken himself down at times, but in a fight, no one has really even come that close. Not then and not now.
Two and a half years after Reyes and Stokes gazed at a screen on a cramped desk in a cluttered office, Reyes has become perhaps the UFC's unlikeliest badass. On Feb. 8 in Houston, he will take on the surest champion his sport has ever seen and try to seize his light heavyweight belt. The onetime IT guru (and currently the fourth-ranked light heavyweight challenger) will add his name to the long list of fighters who have tried -- and, to date, failed -- to dethrone Jones.
A world away from Jones' prodigious stardom, Reyes bounces slightly in the corner of a nondescript gym in Hesperia, California. The gym sits squarely in the middle of an earthy tan strip mall -- the color of the surrounding desert -- sandwiched between a post office and a vacant property with a yellow "Now Leasing!" sign plastered over the awning. The place is easy to miss.
He's perched on a medicine ball, all 6-foot-4 of him, which is an acrobatic feat considering his torso is roughly the length of the Joshua trees outside. He rests flush against the wall, every once in a while rubbing his thick black beard, and considers the distance between who he was and who he is. He's sitting in his own gym. As in: He owns this gym, which still feels exotic to say out loud, the way your tongue feels all wrong and jumbo-sized when you're learning and not yet quite nailing a foreign language.
In October, he dropped Chris Weidman with a left that, conservatively, had the same impact of a semi ramming into a Smart car (watch this fight on ESPN+). He finished Weidman a few seconds later with a fusillade of hammerfists, and that's when a dam in Reyes' life burst.
Just two years earlier, he had been an IT specialist at one of the local high schools; before that, he had worked manual labor for his dad's cabinetry business. Now he can do things like own a gym and move out of his parents' house for the first time as an adult -- he's just seven minutes down the road from them, "four if I'm breaking the law," he says -- and earn a spot in the headlining event in UFC 247 to challenge Jones for the light heavyweight belt.
"It's Jon Jones vs. this kid who's 12-0, who's only been training for six years," he says.
This kid. It's how most everyone -- MMA fans, outsiders, even Jones -- regards him, Reyes says. This kid is 30 but still snot-nosed in MMA years. This kid is inoffensive, if a little anonymous. This kid is good, if a lot presumptuous to think he can hang in the cage with Jones. This kid is here? Now? Ha! This kid's LinkedIn profile still lists his official profession as "UFC Athlete/Freelance Web Developer" and his most recent job title as "technology support specialist" for the Hesperia school district (2016-present). The twerp.
His digital résumé, alas, isn't up-to-date; he has since left the job at Oak Hills, but only after nearly two years of pulling Clark Kent-ish double duty. By day, he was the technology nerd who made sure the campus internet ran smoothly and installed new computers in classrooms. By night, he was the fighter trying to carve a place for himself in MMA, in King of the Cage and Legacy Fighting Alliance and eventually, finally, the UFC.
One day, Reyes hobbled onto campus -- "He could barely walk," Stokes remembers, shaking his head -- and rolled up his shorts an inch or two to show his friend his thighs. They glowed purple and flowered with bruises. The night before, Reyes' trainer had pelted his legs with blows from bamboo sticks. "Leg conditioning," Reyes explains. "Old-school s---."
Reyes enjoyed his job at the school. The very first task he took on was to fix the electronic sign in the front -- it was meant to welcome students and faculty to campus, but it hadn't functioned for nearly a year. He fixed it in three days and recalls wistfully the staff's appreciation for his handiwork.
"Everybody was losing their minds. 'Oh! You're the man!'" he says, making their reaction sound like something close to a UFC crowd driven to hysterics by Bruce Buffer. And ... new ... undisputed ... IT ... champion ...
"It was awesome," he says.
And in truth, the work was a relief. For three years before his Oak Hills gig, he would wake up before the sun, often by 5, to haul pantries and cabinets and "big-ass boxes" up flights of stairs for his father's business. He'd get home at 4:30 or 5, sometimes as late as 6, then drive to the gym at 7 to train until 9, come home and avoid going to sleep. He'd seek out friends to talk to or video games to play, anything to stretch the day out a little longer, because tomorrow would hold more of the same.
"Just trying not to start it all over again," he says.
So by all means, sign him up for the 6:30 a.m. start for high school (luxurious!) or the gunk he'd find lodged in a student's laptop that had, mysteriously, made it stop working (not back-breaking labor!). On slower days, after all, he could pore over all that MMA footage at his desk, which he devoured like it was nourishment.
"Man, there was this one time," Stokes says. "He knew this one guy put his guard down. And he called it. He said, 'Watch, I'm going to get him.'"
Reyes had been dissecting every clip he could find of Jordan Powell, an upcoming opponent, when he started to notice a trend. "See that?" he said to Stokes. "Every time this guy takes a hit, he shakes his head. If he does that in our fight, I promise you I'm going to kick him directly in the head."
When they fought on a Friday (not a school night!), Reyes landed a left 53 seconds in, Powell shook his head, back and forth like he was clearing cobwebs, and Reyes launched his left leg, which collided with Powell's jaw. Powell went rigid, unconscious before he hit the canvas.
Reyes signed his first UFC contract at that desk in his storage-room office too. It was a Wednesday, he thinks, and he scribbled his name on his lunch break. "The kids are coming in, like, 'Why are you still here, Mr. Reyes?'" he says, mimicking his former students as they tried to make sense of this bizarre calculus. He was a newly minted UFC fighter who ... lived at home? He kicked in people's jaws and then ... worked IT at his hometown high school? "Well, because I gotta make money," he told them. "I've got bills. I've got to work."
In all, Reyes spent six months in 2017 as both a high school staff member and a UFC fighter. It wasn't until he signed his second contract that Reyes felt secure enough to leave -- and even then, only thanks to an unexpected financial windfall. In his first UFC fight, he dispatched Joachim Christensen in 29 seconds, the performance of the night for which he earned bragging rights (the second-fastest finish ever for a 205-pounder making his UFC debut) and a plum bonus ($50,000).
The splashy entrance and the padded paycheck were welcome thirst quenchers -- finally, a taste of that UFC glory -- but not enough to slake the fear that this was all a mirage. Nothing more than the appearance of a dream come to fruition.
"MMA is fleeting, man," he says.
He knows plenty about the fleeting nature of hope.
BEFORE DOMINICK REYES was a fighter, he was a football player whose dreams had a knack for outgrowing the confines of his reality.
At Hesperia High, he played defensive back, and his coaches swear up and down he was the hardest hitter they ever saw. "He got one kid right under his chin," Art Rivera, one of those coaches, remembers. "Busted his chin open, chin strap broke." Lyle Hemphill, whom Reyes went on to play for in college, paints a gorier picture. "He was a violent, violent, violent tackler. He tried to kill people."
For a spell, he held a scholarship offer from Colorado State, but when the coaching staff was dismissed, so was his opportunity to play in Fort Collins. No other major college came sniffing.
He landed instead at Stony Brook, a 9-year-old Division I program in that hallowed football bastion of ... Long Island. He started for the better part of four seasons, and he still trots out the football grade he earned while there -- a 93% career average -- like a helicopter mom casually dropping her kid's sterling SAT score into conversation. Stony Brook coaches dissected every last aspect of every last play, then graded each of their players' performances. For his career, Reyes earned an A-minus. He still has those grades stashed somewhere at home.
"I'm not a black belt in BJJ [Brazilian jiu-jitsu] or any of these mixed martial arts," he says. "But I'm 100 percent a black belt in football."
So even if it was Long Island, even if it was Stony Brook, he felt sure he'd done enough to warrant a look in the 2013 NFL draft, to get a call as an undrafted free agent, at the very least. No look ever came on draft weekend; no call came in the days after.
"I was shocked," Hemphill says. He thought his former defensive back would make a compelling linebacker prospect in the pros, and he looks at the position now -- those taller, longer guys filling out the middle of NFL defenses -- and insists Reyes would have a clearer path to the league today.
Instead, Reyes moved back in with his parents in Hesperia and stayed in his bedroom for a week.
"I had to look myself in the mirror and say, 'You're not good enough. You will never be good enough.
"'You ain't s---.'"
His mother brought meals to his door and abided the darkness that had descended over him. He stayed indoors, existing in the prison he thought he deserved, until his mother began to poke.
Go see your brothers.
Go to the gym.
His oldest brother, Alex, owned an MMA gym one town over, so he went outside. He went to see his brother. He went to the gym. They grappled. Dominick Reyes had been a wrestler in junior high, and a formidable one at that. He broke his collarbone riding a motorbike in eighth grade, just before the start of wrestling season. He missed the entire regular season but healed in time for the finals tournament, then won the whole damn thing. His younger brother, Danny, smiles at the slice of family lore. "They have a rule now because of that," he's quick to point out. Regular-season participation is now required.
But this manner of grappling? It was alien. So was technically sound boxing. His practical knowledge ended at "throw hard," so Alex let him practice only a jab for an entire month while he mastered that particular skill.
"Dude, relax," he remembers Alex telling him. He showed Dominick movement and spacing, why all that was a part of the skill of throwing punches. Movement and spacing sounded like lullabies to Dominick, comfortable and familiar concepts he could slip into like a worn-in sweater. Those were football concepts.
"Forty-five degree angles?" Reyes says. "That's my s---!"
That year, the draft was in April, a Canadian football tryout in early May. By late May, he started dabbling in MMA training; by June, he was all-in; by December, he entered his first amateur fight. In all, he swears, he let go of football one month after the game let go of him. Sure, sometimes he'd watch a safety miss a tackle or glimpse an NFL salary, and the whisper of a what-if would cross his lips. But he was moving on, and more, he was happy doing so.
"You step in the Octagon and it's like the ground is made of a whole new material you never felt in your life," he says, waxing poetic about ... flooring. "That canvas feels so good. It's stretchy and soft and hard."
If he sounds like a convert and the mat his newfound savior, well, that's because he sees it that way too.
Even as his body rebelled from the rigors of lugging hundreds of pounds up hundreds of stairs in the morning, then the rigors of MMA training at night. Even as incredulous students wondered why a professional fighter, then a UFC fighter, would stick around. Even when the brother who introduced him to this sport abruptly quit right before Reyes' first title fight as a professional. "That was super f---ing damaging," he says.
Alex was Dominick's coach by then, the man in his corner. (To this day, Reyes has refused the notion of having another head coach. He has coaches. He has guys. But no one man. No more eggs in one basket and all that.) When his brother didn't get on the plane to Michigan City, Indiana -- a private family clash he remains guarded about -- Reyes felt unmoored.
Reyes knocked out Marcus Govan in 27 seconds that day.
Even now, even with all he has achieved and all that he is on the precipice of being able to achieve, that's the proudest he's ever been of himself. He told himself then what he tells himself now.
"You're going to be fine, kid," he says. "You got this."
Cruz breaks down how Reyes challenged Jones
Dominick Cruz displays on Unlocking Victory what Dominick Reyes did so effectively vs. Jon Jones and how he'll look to implement it against Jan Blachowicz.
JON JONES' PRESENCE -- the literal act of his showing up -- has, for more than a decade now, been a virtual guarantee of his victory. And as inevitable as Jones has been, Reyes has been just as implausible.
Behold a snapshot of equal and opposite forces: While Jones was logging the first of his 19 wins in the UFC, Reyes was embarking on a football career at a barely known college 2,800 miles from home. While Jones was collecting his first light heavyweight belt in the spring of 2011, the first of 14 he'd pluck like daisies from a meadow, Reyes was coming off a sophomore season in which he recorded 67 tackles, a Big South Conference high among defensive backs.
And on one day in 2013, two dreams began to converge. On April 27, Jones' quest for UFC distinction soldiered on after he beat Chael Sonnen for his fifth straight successful title defense. That same Saturday, the NFL draft concluded and no team ever called out Dominick Reyes' name.
UFC president Dana White has said he loves the challenge Reyes presents for the UFC's most dominant, reliable star. It's a "massive fight" and Reyes is "the real deal" and if Jones manages to topple Reyes -- this fighter not many know but everybody should -- then Jones is a "freak of nature." White has a job, to sell a fight and tell a story, and the oddsmakers in Las Vegas generally agree: This is one of White's more fantastical fairy tales. As of Feb. 5, Caesars deemed Jones a -450 favorite.
Reyes expects this. Understands it. And he insists two things can be true.
Is this the toughest challenge of his career? "Hands down. It's Jon Jones! He's the OG great champion."
Does it matter that Jones is the OG great champion and that no one has taken him down before and the odds are simply an accurate reflection of these fundamental truths? "Nah, man. It's tight. My people can make money now."
Reyes met Jones for the first time on a stage in Las Vegas in December, the two fulfilling their promotional duties for UFC 247. After their face-off, and with the light heavyweight belt over his right shoulder, Jones, provocateur extraordinaire, sidled closer to Reyes and muttered under his breath. Reyes can't remember exactly what Jones said, only that Jones looked angry and Reyes was surprised by the simmering boil of that anger.
Reyes hadn't chirped that much, he figured, not for hostility this hot. (After beating Weidman, and while still in the cage, Reyes called for a shot against Jones. "Hey, Jon, I don't want any party favors, man," he crowed. "I want that belt.") Reyes has since sussed out the root of the problem, he says: Jones was well and truly pissed because Reyes didn't look shaken. Because he thinks he can win. The twerp.
It strains credulity to suppose Reyes is the first or only challenger to believe he is the one who can do what hasn't been done before.
"Well, some people will just say that they think they can," Reyes says. "You can say whatever you want to say. ... But do you truly believe that you can win?" All those others, they might've believed, is his point. But he believes believes.
So yes, sure, of course, Reyes thinks Jones is the hardest trial of his career. But he also thinks he is Jones' hardest trial.
"He just doesn't know it yet," Reyes says.
FIVE MILES FROM his gym -- and civilization -- Reyes parks his black Ram Laramie, unremarkable save for "The Devastator" custom decals on the sides of the hood, off-road in the dirt. He leaves the windows rolled down, the better to hear Kanye West and Bryce Vine and Logic pumping through the stereo -- I used to think the fame and money was the motivation // until I toured the world and met the people face-to-face and // understood that the power was harnessed in that basement -- but sometime around his ninth sprint up a hill in the middle of the California desert, the music cuts out.
"F--- you, car!" he shouts. "I'll do it a cappella."
Reyes swears again, at no one in particular. He spirals. "I feel like if I think about it too much, I'll throw up," he says at one point, heaving. And when he sprints up for the 10th time and reaches the crest, he doesn't wait for his running buddy, who's now lagging a good 50 paces behind, to make it to the top too. He's too eager for all this to be done to be polite. Reyes about-faces, walks down the road, shadowboxing along the way. He used to shadowbox back at the football field at Oak Hills High too. The football team would take to the field for practice while their IT guy would quarantine himself off at the far end of the field, punching at the air. Daydreaming. Preparing.
Now he jabs at imaginary foes, or maybe an imaginary Jones, the man who drove him here today, and to the kind of madness it takes to voluntarily complete a death march via 30 minutes of hill sprints up a 30-degree, 100-meter incline.
Finally, mercifully, on his 15th trip upward, he reaches the apex and raises both arms in metaphorical victory. He paces in a tight circle, then stops to take in the full sweep of this patch of desert and the half-hour of torture it just housed. He raises his arms skyward again, and he looks for all the world like a tall, lithe Rocky, which, if we're being honest, is a little on the nose. But you can practically hear him say the words.
You're going to be fine, kid.