The Mixed Martial Arts World demands resilience for survival, whether that means taking a hit on the mat or recovering from a tough loss.

Former Yakima MMA star Julian “Juicy J” Erosa understands as well as anyone how drastically the trajectory of a fighting career can change in 15 minutes or less. The 31-year-old featherweight recognized the importance of believing in his abilities throughout the course of a 10-year pro career, regardless of the results.

“I’ve always been really scrappy,” Erosa said in a phone interview from his home in Las Vegas. “I’ve always been one of those guys that just no matter where the fight’s going, you’ll never see me give up.”

That persistence paid off when he burst onto the scene in 2015 by reaching the semifinals as the last American standing in Ultimate Fighter 22. A brutal first-round knockout on a left hook from Artem Lobov abruptly ended Erosa’s run.

Fellow Yakima Valley fighter Gustavo Lopez said he always knew Erosa belonged in the UFC, despite some bad luck with matchups and a 1-4 record after another knockout in May 2019. When a Canadian fighter’s Visa issues, possibly caused by COVID-19, handed Erosa an unexpected opportunity to return to the UFC in June, he took full advantage and even his own encounter with the virus couldn’t derail his momentum.

“I’m really stoked about Julian,” Lopez said. “He just works hard. He’s always been ready.”

From skate parks to cages

Fighting began as just a part of life for Erosa, an avid skateboarder who would also snowboard at White Pass in the winter.

He developed an interest in MMA through watching World Extreme Cagefighting — the predecessor to UFC — with his dad before the sport developed the huge following it has today. Shortly after graduating from Eisenhower in 2006, Erosa began asking around about local MMA gyms.

“I’d gotten into a handful of fights and kind of enjoyed it but didn’t want to get in trouble for doing it,” Erosa said. “(MMA) was definitely intriguing.”

Naturally, that led him to Yakima MMA and Rich Guerin, the legendary coach who trained fighters such as former world champion Miesha Tate and UFC standout Bryan Caraway. Erosa fell in love with the sport as he quickly rose through its ranks, posting a 10-0 amateur record before turning pro in 2010 and winning nine straight fights, including the CageSport Featherweight Championship in April 2012.

A week before his fifth amateur fight, Erosa lost his biggest fan when his dad died of brain cancer. The tragedy gave Erosa even more motivation to keep training and competing.

He credits his father for instilling a strong work ethic. That same mindset and an old-school style led to a strong connection with Guerin, who died at 49 years old last October.

While training with Guerin, Erosa met several fellow fighters including Lopez, a Wapato native who would come back to the gym periodically during a successful wrestling career at YVC and Menlo College in California. The two share a relentless drive to succeed and pride themselves on elite conditioning, which Erosa said remains his biggest strength.

The lanky 6-foot-1 fighter’s first big break came in 2015, shortly after he avenged his first pro loss by submitting Drew Brokenshire with a third-round D’Arce choke to capture the Cagesport Featherweight title. An invite to the reality show Ultimate Fighter 22 on Fox Sports 1 gave Erosa a chance to compete in front of a national audience.

He quickly became a fan favorite and entered the semifinals as the last American standing after three straight wins. When he suffered the first knockout of his career against an opponent nicknamed “The Russian Hammer,” Erosa said the devastation he felt changed his perspective.

“Once you get past that first stage of just taking that loss in you kind of have that nothing-to-lose type feeling,” said Erosa, who holds a 24-8 pro record. “After what happened, it really took a little bit of the weight off my shoulders.”

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UFC resurgence

Erosa decided to move to Las Vegas in 2017 with strong support from his wife, Alaina, a 2010 Naches Valley graduate.

Connections built through Yakima MMA helped Erosa thrive in the center of the MMA world, where he said fighters tend to train all over and bounce from gym to gym. He trains primarily at Xtreme Couture and Planet Las Vegas.

Despite earning a UFC win in the Ultimate Fighter finale, Erosa got released by the organization and went back to Cagesport, winning three of four Lightweight Championship title fights. After returning to the UFC in November 2018, Erosa lost three matches in six months and got cut again, leaving his future chances at the top level in doubt.

But he never considered another career and stayed ready, as illustrated by a first-round submission of AJ Bryant at Cagesport 60 in February. After COVID-19 shut down the Washington-based organization, the UFC contacted Erosa in June to ask if he’d be willing to fight an unbeaten 28-year-old — four days later.

Erosa jumped at the opportunity and showed no rust while going toe-to-toe with Sean Woodson for two grueling rounds. Finally, 2:44 into the third round, Erosa put Woodson on the ground and submitted him with a D’Arce Choke to pull off the upset and earn the UFC Fight Night Performance of the Night.

“After that last fight, doing so well and being able to finish a guy that was up and coming, it was such a relief to just show what I do in the gym every day,” Erosa said. “If I would have lost that fight and if Sean would have beat me like he was supposed to beat me and I didn’t look good at all, then I would have never seen the UFC Octagon again.”

More adversity would follow that success, starting with a cut that developed a serious infection one week after the fight. Doctors put Erosa on strong antibiotics that delayed his return to training.

He’d barely gotten back into to the gym when he began feeling mild flu-like symptoms. A month after the virus indirectly aided his return to the UFC, Erosa and his wife both tested positive for COVID-19, forcing them into two weeks of quarantine.

Although he avoided a severe case and recovered at home, Erosa said his muscles still felt week long after he started training again in late August. That led him to turn down two opportunities to fight at UFC events in Abu Dhabi and he wasn’t feeling 100% until about two weeks ago.

Full speed ahead

Newfound prosperity won’t bring complacency for Erosa, who still fondly remembers when he paid to fight other amateurs and said even now he occasionally drives for Uber to make extra money.

He trains 10-15 times a week, primarily under the tutelage of Casey Halstead. Erosa’s hoping his next fight will come soon after the UFC returns to Las Vegas in November and Lopez is confident his friend will have staying power this time around.

“He works hard and he’s a very humble person,” Lopez said. “Since the beginning when we were amateurs we just loved to train, loved to get better.”

Both take similar pride in coming from Yakima, where Erosa said he saw in others the benefits of applying himself and what would happen if he didn’t. Following the impressive win over Woodson, Erosa’s confident his next fight in the UFC won’t be his last and he still can’t imagine a career without some sort of connection to MMA.

“With something like fighting it’s just kind of like other things in life, even just a regular job,” Erosa said. “You’ve got to learn to love it. “For me, win, lose or draw, I love doing this and if I stop loving to do this then I think it’s going to be the time that I stop fighting and retire.”

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe