Long-time MMA fans can count on on their fingers the number of still-relevant fighters with a career that dates back to 2001. Joe Riggs is among a small, exclusive group alongside the likes of Vitor Belfort, Dan Henderson, Nick Diaz and the Nogueira brothers that, at the very least, can still win fights.
His is a career that predates Zuffa. One that, early on, took place away from the eyes of a commission. One that started when Jon Jones was in middle school. One that has hit some of the highest highs achievable by a mixed martial artist.
One that, 14 years deep, is just now getting started.
Just days ahead of one of the most important fights of his career, Riggs opened up to Bleacher Report on the time he has spent punching people in the face while locked in the cage. "I started boxing at 10 years old, started wrestling a few months after that," he continued, "I started fighting when I was in high school."
While his official record says his MMA debut took place in 2001, like so many others, he was fighting off the grid far earlier. Both under conditions and at an age that almost certainly wouldn't be allowed today. "My first fight was when I was 17," he reflected. "My dad had to sign a waiver for me...I knocked out a guy who was 30."
He described the conditions of MMA in the 1990s, where he would do the fighting equivalent of handing in a resume on Wednesday, then fighting the following Friday. Conditions ranged from cages in barns to unenclosed mats on the floors of bars.
Eventually, completely legal opportunities began opening up. At age 19, he became a true mainstay of the Rage in the Cage, fighting 12 times for the promotion within a two-year span. By 2003, he began traveling the country, working his way onto cards promoted by Rumble on the Rock, WEC and IFC.
By 2004, he stepped foot into the UFC's Octagon for the first time, kicking off what would be a relatively short, but incredibly memorable, stint with the promotion by elbowing Joe Doerksen into submission. It was a very fast two years that was best known for his missing weight in a title fight against Matt Hughes and the far-more-infamous hospital brawl with Nick Diaz.
Eventually, though, the plans the UFC had for him and the plans he had for himself no longer lined up, and he asked for a release from the promotion. "They wanted me to fight Anderson Silva," who was signed by the promotion around the time Riggs re-debuted at middleweight in a losing effort against Mike Swick.
I was like a stepping stone for the belt. After I lost that title shot, they just used me as a measuring stick. I had always wanted to fight Jake Shields and someone was offering me the opportunity to fight him. We got into an argument and I was being a dumb kid...I fought in Canada one time and the fight with Shields fell through.
For five years, Riggs journeyed between promotions and bounced between weight classes, all the while fighting on and off with Strikeforce. Eventually, though, a contract dispute lead to an ugly breakup, and he was back precisely where he started. Fighting in small shows across Arizona.
By 2010 he was, more or less, flying completely solo in his MMA career, leading to his first losing streak ever: "I fought Jordan Mein...and I signed with Bellator and fought Bryan Baker literally without training at all." By his next fight, though, a gym was rising to serious prominence: "Two years ago, I started training with MMA Lab and I haven't lost since. My skills were there, I just wasn't in shape."
When he started with the Lab, he began rolling with some of the best: "I went there, Ben Henderson was there and his work ethic is second to none. I tried and I failed to do everything that he did. I tried training as hard as he did, my training is modeled after him." While his body was getting honed by Henderson, his mind was being sharpened by head coach John Crouch.
With a strong crew around him, Riggs rattled off one of the longest winning streaks of his career. That caught the eye of one of the promotions he bounced in and out of, Bellator, who had a unique offer for him. "I talked with [Bellator Matchmaker] Sam Caplan who asked if I would be interested in Fight Master," he said. "I said yes."
He won his way to the finals and faces off with Mike Bronzoulis in the finale. On the line is a check for $100,000, a guaranteed spot in one of Bellator's tournaments and the clear path to the title that comes with it.
It's a new beginning for Riggs, and it only took 14 years.
Steven Rondina is a Featured Columnist III for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.