Ricky Simón Punches Up
An arm triangle, expertly applied, is among the most efficient submissions in combat sports. It entails—more or less—strangling an opponent between your arm and their own shoulder. Rather than cutting off one’s breathing, it blocks the blood circulation between the carotid arteries and the brain. The opponent can lose consciousness in as little as 7.2 seconds—not fast enough, apparently, for Ricky Simón.
In July 2022, the Vancouver, Washington–based UFC fighter arrived at UBS Arena in Long Island, New York, as the underdog. But midway through the second round of his latest mixed martial arts fight, Simón dropped the undefeated Jack Shore with a big right hand, then put his own spin on the old jiu-jitsu standby. He combined the arm triangle with something like a neck crank, changing his position, grabbing the far side of Shore’s head, and cinching it up even tighter. Six seconds later, Shore tapped. Simón earned a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus and his fifth straight win.
The Simón Choke, as his coach later dubbed it, moved the 30-year-old fighter to no. 10 in the UFC’s 135-pound bantamweight division, arguably the deepest in the sport.
The archetypal bantamweight is a wiry guy, all limbs and sinew. Not Simón. He’s built like a scale-model linebacker with the chin of a Funko Pop. As he finishes a training session at American Top Team Portland—an MMA gym tucked into the back of a Lents office park—he defends his claim that he’s the strongest bantamweight in the promotion. “It’s not that impressive,” he says, laughing. “I’m the strongest small guy.”
His division-mates seem impressed, or at least uninterested in testing the theory. For months, he’s been asking for fights with anyone ranked above him. It was Song Yadong—two spots ahead of him—who finally answered the call. The two will meet April 22. While Simón acknowledges the moving pieces, the elements outside of his control, his goal, as he told UFC.com, is “three fights in 2023 and I end the year as bantamweight world champion.”
You can be forgiven if Simón isn’t yet on your radar. The UFC isn’t exactly at the forefront of Portland’s sports coverage. If Dame Lillard’s heroics and Merritt Paulson’s investigations are at the top of the water-cooler power rankings, MMA sits somewhere around pickleball politics. And the culture of MMA—let’s say—doesn’t quite hew to the pieties we Portland libs hold dear. But a case can be made that our city is right there in the sport’s DNA.
Not everyone wants to spend their Saturday evening mainlining images of hematomas, dislocated shoulders, and broken orbital bones. Even boxing fans tend to turn up their noses at MMA, consider it a saccharine science compared to their more refined form of face-punching. Simón’s father, Alvaro, was an early fan, renting VHS tapes from Pride and the UFC. But Ricky? Not so much. “These guys were all bloodied up ... they were crazy,” Ricky says. “I didn’t actually enjoy watching the fights.” He just did it “to hang out with my dad and older brother.”
Alvaro came over from Mexico when he was a child. His family settled in Eastern Oregon, where Ricky was born. Alvaro worked on the docks of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, before eventually landing a job in Vancouver, Washington.
When Ricky started wrestling in elementary school, he began to see the appeal of the sport’s mixed martial arts angle. And, very quickly, so did the rest of the world. You didn’t have to rent a VHS tape to catch a fight anymore. They were broadcast every week on cable. “We watched every episode of The Ultimate Fighter,” Ricky recalls. The Spike TV reality competition helped mainstream the UFC—many would say it saved the promotion—and the very first season featured Portland-area fighters. Randy Couture was one of the coaches, Chris Leben and Nate Quarry were two of its stars.
While the family couldn’t afford a membership to Couture’s local gym in Gresham, they, too, wanted to make the same pilgrimage that had drawn fighters from all over the country and the world.
“My dad was like, ‘Let’s go to Team Quest!’”
Think back to Portland in the year 2000: Shaq and Kobe breaking our hearts. Sleater-Kinney breaking into the mainstream. Vera Katz steamrolling her way to a third term. But way out on SE 182nd, another dynasty was brewing, even if most of us paid no attention.
Randy Couture and Dan Henderson—a couple of teammates from the US National Wrestling Team—needed to make a little money while they continued their training. They opened a boutique fitness center, Performance Quest, in Gresham and used the space to get ready for fights. Henderson had jumped headfirst into the new sport of MMA, competing at stadium shows in Brazil and Japan. Couture saw it as a side hustle at first, but he was clearly a natural in the cage. Less so in running a business.
“We didn’t know what the heck we were doing,” Couture writes in Becoming the Natural. Soon a Bally opened up down the street, then a Gold’s Gym. “We decided we’d just auction off all the equipment and move the mats, although we weren’t sure where.”
Around the same time, Matt Lindland, a native of Oregon City, had returned from the Sydney Olympics, where he’d won the silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. He’d opened a used car dealership just down the road. He too needed to make some cash while he trained, and he was ready to make the full-time transition to MMA. Lindland invited Couture to bring the mats over to his dealership, roll them out in the back room.
Right there, Team Quest—one of the most influential gyms in the history of mixed martial arts—was born. “I don’t think our plan was ever to open a commercial gym, but to have a training space where we could prepare for fights,” Lindland says.
The UFC is big business these days. It’s the cash cow of entertainment giant Endeavor. It’s an ESPN staple. It has legitimate superstars and record-breaking gates, and sells millions of pay-per-views. But back in the ’90s and early ’00s, it was still something of an underground phenomenon, still banned in many states, still thought of as “human cockfighting,” as John McCain famously put it.
The wrestling world was actively hostile to the new sport. But the MMA promotions saw the Team Quest founders’ Olympic credibility as an asset. And soon, they would prove their CVs were as valuable in the cage as on the poster. They were racking up wins, belts, title defenses—and a cult following.
Chael Sonnen, whom Lindland had coached in high school, drove up from West Linn. Middleweight champ Evan Tanner slept in a trailer out back. Light heavyweight Ed Herman worked at Parr Lumber right up the street. Guys from the neighborhood, future stars in the UFC, started knocking on the door.
“When I came on the scene, I could count the number of teams on my hands,” says Loretta Hunt, a veteran MMA journalist. “Even though they were in a car lot ... for its time, it was groundbreaking.”
The “hardcores” know Team Quest as something like Bill Russell’s Celtics or the Showtime Lakers. “We had a Pride world champion in Dan Henderson,” says Sonnen. “A sitting heavyweight champion of the UFC in Randy Couture. The 185-pound champion in Evan Tanner. We had a no. 1–ranked guy in Matt Lindland.”
Fighters from all over the world—Tim Sylvia, James Thompson, Yushin Okami, Don Frye, Bas Rutten, B.J. Penn—started flying in to improve their wrestling, dirty boxing, and clinch fighting.
Simón just took a few kids’ classes, but having a guy like Randy Couture show him some moves—that made an impression on him. “I still have the shirt with all their signatures on it.”
Simón’s MMA career was anything but inevitable. He’d been an elite wrestler at Union High School, ranked no. 1 in the state, but injuries derailed any plans to wrestle at the next level. One day, out shopping, he stumbled across a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament at the Vancouver Mall. He signed up on the spot. His only BJJ experience to that point had been living room brawls with his brothers, trying out submissions they saw on The Ultimate Fighter. But Simón took third in the tournament, and he got the itch to compete more.
He was working the graveyard shift for a security company at the time. He’d get off work, train with a friend, then head to class at Clark College. Within a month, he was serving as the curtain jerker for an MMA fight at the mall. He impressed the small crowd, and the next time, he was the main event.
There’s still not much of a road map for an amateur MMA fighter. You take opportunities wherever you can get them. One of Simón’s early fights was at a local bar where even quarreling patrons could get on the card. He was supposed to compete at 145 pounds. The day before, they told him to stop cutting weight. His opponent had pulled out ... but they had someone at 170? Simón said sure.
Before long, Simón was taking pro fights, racking up wins on the regional scene, training with serious fighters. He had opportunities from respectable promotions, but he had his eyes on the best in the world. “I just felt like I was a UFC-caliber fighter,” he said. Finally, he got a shot on Dana White’s Contender Series—essentially a live audition.
In the weeks leading up to his appearance, Simón felt the pressure. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night, go on runs.” He won his fight—a split decision—but that wasn’t enough to get signed by the UFC. It was a real blow, to feel that close and end up right back where he started.
One night a few weeks later, Ricky got a call from Sonnen, the former Team Quest star. At this point, Sonnen was training with Simón at a new Portland gym, which later would become American Top Team. “How fast can you get downtown? I want you to meet somebody.”
Sonnen was hosting Rumble at the Roseland—his long-running amateur fight promotion at the downtown rock club. It was already 9:30, but Simón made his way across the Columbia and down to West Burnside to find Sonnen sitting with Ed Soares, the CEO of Legacy Fighting Alliance, one of the top UFC feeders. Sonnen saw Simón as a natural fighter—he was fast, he understood range and combinations, and he was fun to watch. Sonnen thought he deserved a shot.
“It was important to me,” he said, “on a personal level, that he at least had his chance to shine on a proper stage.”
If you’re new to the sport, you may not know what it would mean to have Chael Sonnen—the People’s Champ, the American Gangster—as a hype man. A classic wrestling-heel, he’s generally considered one of the all-time great shit-talkers on the mic, beloved even when he played the villain, and never afraid to engage in a little, let’s say, embellishment, for effect. (The “undefeated” 30–17 fighter was famous for having, in his words, “never lost a round.”)
“I told Ed what I just told you: this is the greatest fighter I’ve ever seen! I said, ‘I know Mike Tyson. I know Anderson Silva. I know Jon Jones. This, right here, this guy is the best fighter I’ve ever seen.’”
Soares, apparently, took Sonnen at his word. Or at least recognized his real belief in the kid. He offered Simón a contract, a televised showcase, and a shot at his promotion’s bantamweight belt.
Simón put on a bloody, suffocating clinic in his LFA debut, but there was no flashy finish. Simón won on the scorecards, and the UFC remained silent.
Three months later, it was time to defend his belt at the Morongo Casino outside of Palm Springs. Simón’s mom, Christina, drove him to the airport—as she does to this day—and he told her that this was it. If he didn’t get signed off this fight, he was taking off the gloves for good. He was making $2,500 to show, with a $2,500 win bonus—for a championship fight.
Simón had dropped out of college, was working on an old coach’s construction crew—the only job that allowed him flexibility to train. He was tired of being broke.
If the UFC wanted “crazy finishes,” Simón wasn’t going to waste any time. He got the TKO in less than a minute, with a barrage of fists and knees. By the time his hand was raised, Simón’s manager was flashing him a text from the UFC: he was in.
With a contract under his belt, Simón’s new motivation was to be ranked within his first year. While there are somewhere around 700 active fighters in the UFC, only the top 15 in each weight class can claim an official ranking. Having “a number by your name” is key to bigger fights, bigger paychecks, maybe a spot in the UFC video game.
Simón ended his UFC debut in dramatic fashion, with Merab Dvalishvili slipping out of consciousness to Simón’s guillotine choke right as the final bell rang. Simón grinded his way to two more wins and that sacred tier: he was no. 15 in the world.
But Hall of Famer Uriah Faber (now a coach and mentor to Song Yadong, Simón’s April opponent) was coming out of retirement, and the UFC decided Ricky would square up against the “California Kid” in Faber’s hometown of Sacramento. “People were screaming, going crazy,” Simón says. “It was a level I’d never experienced.”
Simón brought the fight right to him. But Faber slipped a jab and planted an overhand right straight to Simón’s temple. Simón hit the mat, Faber moved to ground-and-pound, and the ref jumped in. Forty-six seconds into his stint as a ranked fighter, Simón took his first UFC loss. “I don’t know if it’s just the fighter in me, but I still feel like nine times out of 10 I’d starch Uriah,” he says now. “But this is why I love the sport: Any night, you can get caught.”
Simón lost his next fight as well—a close decision—to Rob Font. On a two-fight skid, he had to admit that something wasn’t working. His strength and conditioning were as good as ever, and his grappling had come a long way. (In December 2021, under coach Fabiano Scherner—a world champion jiu-jitsu player—he would receive his black belt.) He decided to seek out further help with his striking. He turned to Colin Oyama, a highly decorated Muay Thai instructor out of Orange County, and started drilling with the same intensity and focus as he had with jiu-jitsu: three-hour practices, footwork drills, offensive drills, setups.
It seems to be working. He’s been on a tear—two decisions, two arm-triangle submissions, and a brutal right-hook knockout. “What’s my best route to win? Like, where does this guy not want to be?” he asks. “That’s where I’m gonna put him.”
Maybe we’ll never have another Team Quest, that much talent and success in one building. Even that legendary group couldn’t keep it together—it fell prey to the same things that hinder so many relationships: internal squabbling, new opportunities, personal tragedy. But Sonnen insists that our region is still a hotbed of MMA. “It’s just not under one roof,” he says.
Lindland is back at the old car lot on SE 182nd, raising up a new generation of Team Quest martial artists, and helping out established fighters that still remember the old MMA mecca.
Across town, at American Top Team, Tupac’s “Hit ’Em Up” blares as Coach Fabiano starts grappling practice on a cold December afternoon. The team begins their warm-up, jogging the perimeter of the mats, but Simón isn’t among them. “Only black belts,” the coach says, “are allowed to be late.”
Simón could be excused for his tardiness, whatever the color of his belt. He and his wife, Jade, just welcomed their first baby a few weeks prior. Several months earlier they bought a house. “Ever since I started fighting,” he says, “my goal was to buy a home and support my family.”
When Simón walks in, he’s sporting the manicured beginnings of a new mullet—his signature look. He shakes a few hands, all smiles, then runs through a circuit of his teammates. He fends off takedowns, fights through transitions, and finds his submissions. It looks exhausting.
Still, when practice ends, he sneaks in an extra sparring session with Dylan Fussell, American Top Team’s striking coach. But before they strap on the gloves, he offers to demonstrate his signature submission, the Simón Choke.
Up in the cage, Fussell—smiling, clearly proud of ATT’s star student—goes to his back. Simón gets to mount position, shows off the traditional arm triangle, then adjusts his grip. Fussell’s smile strains, his pupils start to drift, then Simón releases him. “It’s just so much tighter,” Fussell says, his smile returning. “So much quicker before you gotta tap, or pass out.”
MMA fighters have a long runway and a short window at the top. The spotlight moves on, and you’re played off the stage. After years of shopping mall tournaments and barroom scraps and could-have-beens, Simón knows what it means to get to the cusp and fall short. You can’t blame him for trying to shave a few seconds from his journey to a world championship.
His next fight will be his most significant to date. A chance to write his name in the books alongside the Team Quest legends. Across the Octagon, he’ll see his old foe Faber, coaching in Yadong’s corner. MMA fans in Portland will be holding their breath, crossing their fingers that, this time, the Simón Choke means a submission—not one more step back.