It was July of 1997. While some of us were were eagerly anticipating the August release of Goldeneye 64 and September’s Final Fantasy VII, Aaron Riley was anticipating his first professional fight. At the tender age of 16, Aaron Riley stepped into the ring at Hook n Shoot: When Worlds Collide, winning once by heel hook and then fighting later in the night only to lose via kneebar. Martial arts had always been the focal point of Aaron’s life and now he was living it, coming up through the ranks old school MMA style, eventually hitting up Pride and knocking out Omigawa in between UFC visits and an IFL stint. To put it into terms set in my opening sentence: Aaron Riley was a busy dude: he was on his 17th fight by the time Perfect Dark came out.
Now almost fourteen years later Aaron Riley and I sat down to discuss his time at the Jackson camp, his opponent for UFC 135 Tony Ferguson and what it was like growing up in MMA.
So I was looking through your Twitter, can you explain this “Van Damme kick” you showed Jon Bones Jones?
Haha I always horse around with Jon in the gym and it was just a kick playing around but I told him if he used it in the fight he has to give me props. There is a really, really small percentage chance of that but hahaha if he does I’m going to be all over him.
Can you describe it? Haha it’s an old school like hook kick and it knocks your opponent down then you stomp him again. It was so funny because we were goofing off with it in the gym and he got real serious trying to do it and all of a sudden it became this big challenge to him and he was all like “no, no, I can do this” and it was really funny so it was more of a joke than anything.
How is the Jackson camp doing right now collectively? It seems busier than ever and I know Tim Kennedy is heading out there soon… Oh it’s awesome yeah Tim is awesome. He’s a funny dude man, unfortunately I will be shipping out as soon as he ships in to work with Brian (Stann). We have a lot of superstars here right now. We have everyone, it’s a full house. It seems like everyone on the roster is here right now. Clay and Cub are back around, Melvin, Carlos is getting ready, me and Jon are getting ready for Denver. Everything is going down.
Who are your sparring partners right now in preparation for Tony Ferguson? You know I work with a lot of guys, from the up and comers to the stars. Of course I work with a lot of 55’rs like Melvin or Clay. Isaac Vallie-Flagg is a buddy of mine who I stay with when I’m out here and he recently just got signed to Strikeforce. He was an up and comer but now he’s breaking through and he’s a real solid competitor, but I’m working with all kinds of guys that may have been in the gym for a long time but just aren’t that well known yet but you will know pretty soon.
So you were 17 when you started pro fighting… Actually 16
Sixteen! That’s insane! What was it like as a sixteen year old back in 1996-97 with the sport coming up tying to have to explain to your parents and the people around you what you were doing? Well the cool thing was that my parents always knew because I was always crazy about martial arts anyways, and so this tournament comes out, the UFC tournament and I had these visions of it being Bloodsport. So I just saw what happened and I wanted to be the striker that comes in and beats all these grapples. The funny thing is that I was doing Judo at the time and I borrowed a tape from my Judo coach and he said “Oh the Judo guy won the tournament”. So I thought awesome, my style won. But then I turn it on to see that no Judo but Jiu Jitsu won and it was the Gracies who I had read an article about six or eight months prior to the UFC starting and I thought “man, these guys are really arrogant and I don’t like how they come off”. Now I was like twelve at the time, so you know they were all saying their style was the best and back when I was young I was all into the style thing. So I’m thinking, oh I can beat those guys. So from that moment on I was just knew I wanted to get in that tournament one day. Basically I was trying to educate everybody around me because everybody just thought it was a fight and I was saying no, it’s the ultimate proving ground for martial arts. It started out as the ultimate proving ground but now it has evolved into a huge chance for an individual athlete.
Yeah that’s the best part about watching the old shows, the true style vs style matchup was so pure. Yeah haha, now everybody is just a mixed martial artist they kind of do everything or they should be able to.
What is that like for someone like you, you have been in this sport for so many years and have truly grown up in it, what is it like to witness this evolution? Sometimes it’s tough because I have to make sure I’m keeping up. The game has changed a lot and there are a lot of new techniques. I’ve also just learned a lot overall about the athleticism part of it. Lots of innovations and innovating people out there with new school training techniques. Everybody out there now has strength and conditioning coaches and they have dietitians at the UFC level. Some of the other B level shows are definitely getting a hold of that stuff too. The athleticism has shot through the roof and with more money involved that will attract more athletes and more people which will make it a tougher talent pool. But it’s great because the popularity and exposure has been through the roof.
You can see the generation gaps now with the difference between the guys who start at 13 or 14 and go pro at 18 now as opposed to back 10-15 years ago. You can see the difference of training MMA through their respective careers rather than 1 art then the next and so on. Yeah exactly, the funny thing is, Greg Jackson and I were just talking about this. It’s funny because those guys get to see the mistakes that the old school guys made and they get to learn from that and so the old school vets were kind of the guinea pigs and now people look at it like ‘well this was a bad idea here and there so I’m gonna do this and that’ so yeah, the new guys really have an opportunity to build off of us.
That’s interesting and I say it a lot: the sport is so young still. Coming from someone like you who has fought in the gymnasiums in Texas against Yves Edwards with open fists to Pride rules and all over the country no holds barred to now the unified rules, how do you like how the sport as evolved? Do you think the rules are moving in the correct direction? Eh, I think they are. The only thing I wish they allowed that would alleviate a lot of stalling is knees to the head on the ground. Now I don’t think that will ever be allowed in the UFC again but that would really cut down on a lot of stalling and all this jazz about someone getting caught in a front headlock and then they put their hand on the ground now their opponent can’t knee them.It would get rid of a lot of stalling. That’s the one rule I wish we would change but at the same time people see other people getting kneed in the head and I’m not even talking soccer kicks…but people will see that and politicians will get in an uproar again so it probably won’t happen.
Coming from the Jackson’s camp, it seems like you guys were getting a bad rap, even though it isn’t deserved when you look at the solid numbers, for laying and praying and stalling. Do you see that as a normal gameplan or is that the uneducated fans spouting their mouths off? It’s just people looking for something to complain about. Off the top of my head, Melvin has a bunch of knockouts, Stann just KO’d Jorge Santiago, Carlos had the flying knee and that’s just recent. Jon Jones always does…Sometimes whenever it dies down and it gets quiet and the fans need something to jump on, I don’t know. Sometimes too, Dana says something and the people gravitate towards that, because he did say something before and Dana is opinionated and maybe he felt like that at the moment and a bunch of people rallied behind it. Of course we are all trying to win fights and do you really think that we aren’t going out there trying to win fight of the night, knockout of the night or submission of the night? No. They key is to win and win impressively. Coach doesn’t have classes on how to be boring and stall out the fight.
You have fought TUF vets before and you are facing another in Tony Ferguson, what are your thoughts on The Ultimate Fighter as someone who had 38 fights before you got to the UFC? Well the thing is they get through the show and then when they actually get to the UFC, since those fights are considered exhibitions, if they make it to the show and beat two or three fighters then OK they belong. But if they don’t they get weeded out. I think it’s a faster track than it used to be with the show but you have to prove to people you belong or you won’t be sticking around.
How amazing is it to see the UFC on Fox promos during football games? Man it’s great to see the sport grow in such a relatively short amount of time. It’s going to mean bigger things and more money for everyone allowed. I’m so proud to be part of the fastest growing sport in the world. I remember when I was younger thinking about the fights and if they were ever on TV I would watch it 24 hours a day. Now there are so many fights there is no way. I’ve seen enough MMA at this stage anyway, but man MMA was so hard to find trying to get bootleg videos and stuff. You know fights from Brazil. Watching UFC was like waiting for Christmas because it only came around every three or four months. I used to just wait for it to come around. So funny.
Yeah I still have my crappy Pancrase bootlegs that have been dubbed about ten times. Those tapes were so terrible.
You have fought with just about everyone, Pride, IFL, Hook n Shoot-who do you look back on most fondly? They were all great and so much fun in Texas. Hook n Shoot, that’s where I grew up so that was awesome. Fighting in Japan and Pride was really a rush because that was something I had always wanted to do and somehow all of the pieces fell together and in typical Japanese style they called me two weeks before the fight and asked me if I would come over. I was like “uh OK, I’m twenty pounds overweight but I will start cutting now haha” then to go over there and get the knockout over a Japanese opponent (Omigawa), that was such a rush. All of the fights in all of the different shows it was so much fun I loved all of it.
You’ve spoken a lot about the Nick Diaz debacle, how do you feel about him still getting to fight and it being BJ Penn? It’s really unfortunate how that worked out because I was excited to see that, I really wanted to see that fight, Diaz and GSP. But I hate it when the UFC rewards unprofessional behavior so I thought it was cool to see them finally take a stand. Yeah maybe you could say they still backed down a little because he still got a fight but at any rate it’s a tough situation. It wasn’t that big of a deal to me but I liked how they finally took a stand against people being unprofessional. On TUF for example, it’s always about oh the guy who is the most outlandish and ridiculous gets the most TV time and gets the biggest fight after the show is over. It’s unfortunate.
As a teammate of Jon Jones what do you think about Rampage’s accusation that Jon sent spies into his camp? Completely fabricated to create more buzz around the fight. Jon the other day was just saying about how (Rampage) was crazy and he didn’t understand where he got that information from. Yeah Jon isn’t doing it. Said to create buzz.
You guys are together under the same roof once again: Yves Edwards vs Aaron Riley III. Will it happen? Hahaha Joe Silva knows the history there so it’s up to him. It just is if our career happens to cross paths again.
Would you be down? Possibly. It could be built up really well if they used footage from the past.There is a way it could be approached and I’m not saying main event or anything but they could use old footage and it could be something people would be interested in.
Yeah, that’s impossible to find. That would be so cool. Yeah it’s rare and pretty old, Jeff Osbourne made it and I could try my best to hook you up with a copy. It’s a pretty cool documentary and it’s a great look at that time. That’s its charm though haha.