Fernando Padilla was going to be a fighter. No ifs, ands or buts about it, and whatever it took, even if it meant leaving family and friends in Chihuahua, Mexico, to train in the United States, he was going to do it.
Needless to say, a 19-year-old deciding to go to a new country to compete in a sport that wasn’t close to as big as boxing was in Mexico led to some skepticism. Even his father, Juan Carlos, had his doubts.
“He used to tell me, ‘Mijo, this is not for you; this is not going to be big,’” recalled Padilla, who built a 6-0 pro record on the Mexican circuit before arriving in California to take the next step in his career.
That next step was a big one, a March 2017 bout with Hawaiian prospect Dan Ige. In four months, Ige would be fighting on Dana White’s Contender Series and by early 2018, he was in the UFC.
Padilla lost a unanimous decision to Ige in San Diego, and he had to feel alone after his first defeat.
Then the phone rang.
“All my six fights over there that I won, well, 12, counting the amateur ones, my dad always told me at the end, ‘Hey Mijo, you have to work on this, you have to work on that.’ He's always been the best critic that I have. But I wasn't expecting him, after my first loss ever, to call me and tell me how proud he was.”
Padilla never forgot that moment.
Main Event Preview | UFC Fight Night: Song vs Simon
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Main Event Preview | UFC Fight Night: Song vs Simon
“That changed me,” he said. “It was like, wow, I didn’t just show him that this is what I want, but I made him change his opinion with the way that I am right now. And I've been living by myself here and passing through ups and downs so hard that I know he sees a different man in me. He's really proud and I just want to keep making him proud.”
You know he is. Padilla, training with Colin Oyama and his team of killers, won eight of his next 11 fights, including a 2017 submission of UFC vet Darrick Minner. In May of 2021, he knocked out Cameron Graves on Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight, and he got signed to the UFC.
He’s been waiting ever since, as visa issues kept him from the Octagon. Yet, more mature than most, the 26-year-old patiently stayed in shape and kept sharp until the phone rang.
“Times of God are perfect and I’m just enjoying the ride and I'm glad it is happening how it's happening now,” he said. “I think it is the best thing that could happen to me. I can't believe I was a kid watching ‘Lookin’ for a Fight’ in Chihuahua on my computer and then out of nowhere I'm the one who Dana's talking to. And then two years later we are here. Obviously, it's been full of up and downs, but patience is a gift that I have and I've been really patient, so now it's just time to go and do my job.”
The first day at work is on Saturday at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, with veteran Julian Erosa leading orientation. Erosa is not known for being kind to prospects, as his wins over Sean Woodson, Charles Jourdain, Steven Peterson and Hakeem Dawodu prove. But the lanky featherweight is known for being willing to jump into a fight at the slightest provocation, and that’s just fine with Padilla.
“Honestly, it's a great fight,” he said. “I respect everything that Julian has been doing and he's a veteran in the UFC, for sure. He's been through it all and this is a guy who's going to bring a fight to me and I love that. That's what I've been waiting for.”
Already, you can tell that Padilla has the Mexican fighting spirit running through him, and in a year in which Alexa Grasso, Brandon Moreno and Yair Rodriguez are all wearing gold for a nation with one of the most fight-rich cultures around, that’s a good sign for “El Valiente” that the time is finally right for him to join his compatriots in the Octagon.
“This gives me two different feelings, for sure,” said Padilla. “First of all is the feeling of what Brandon (Moreno) said. It’s what I keep in my heart and in my head more than anything right now, and that’s si se puede - this is possible. As Mexicans, as human beings, this as possible. And obviously, that burns inside of me and makes me want to get there. And the second feeling is like Drake: ‘How will you feel if you see someone that is not you doing it?’ So I want to be there. I love what they're doing and they are there, they fulfilled this. Now I want to be the next one, now I want to be the one in line, now I want to be the one fighting and representing Mexico, too, and show the world who I am and what Mexico is made of.”
The wait is over.
UFC Fight Night: Song vs Simon took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas on April 29, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!