A couple of beers and a high school sweetheart.
Sounds like the title of a John Mellencamp song. Not a bad recipe for a Friday night, either.
The two things, especially taken together, are deeply American. They're certainly part of Jose Alday's America.
Two beers got Alday deported. His high school sweetheart got him back.
Somewhere in the middle, fate had its say. While living back in his native Mexico, exiled from loved ones and the life he knew, Alday pursued a calling that wasn't available before.
Alday has a new Friday night formula now, one no less American in its components and long on honor and bootstraps. Everyone can join the party this Friday when he fights Gustavo Lopez in a bantamweight main event for the Combate Americas MMA promotion.
"I started MMA, and just a few months later, I had my first amateur fight in 2012," Alday recalled. "I knew that's what I wanted to do, and maybe it was my way back to the United States—get a visa or something. … I got a lot of stress out in the gym. Being in the gym is therapeutic. It gave me stability. I started, and seven years later I'm fighting for a title."
Alday was born and raised near Hermosillo, the capital city of the Mexican state of Sonora. Sonorans are no stranger to the narco violence woven into everyday lives of Mexicans. The U.S. Department of State advises Americans to reconsider any travel to the region.
There aren't a lot of job opportunities in those parts, especially if you want to stay on the right side of things. Alday was a nine-year-old schoolboy when his parents moved the family to Tucson, Arizona, in search of prosperity and stability.
"I was pretty young, so I picked up on the language and culture pretty quickly," Alday said. "They brought us over because the small town we were from, there's not a lot of opportunities. So here in Tucson, we started doing landscaping, and that's what we've been doing."
They obtained a visa, and when it expired they simply stayed. It worked out well for about a decade.
Alday's time in the States didn't end with a bang. It was an everyday, decidedly American thing, something the average red-blooded male wouldn't think twice about.
In the rugged Southwest, guys like to busy themselves by filling the seats of some hulking all-terrain beast and heading into the wilderness to tear up the landscape. Sometimes, they get into other things while they're at it.
Alday's other thing was almost an afterthought.
"We went off-roading, which is something a lot of people do out there," Alday recalled. "Once in a while, the cops check back there. People shoot guns back there and drink. I'd had two beers. The cop comes, asks for IDs, and that was pretty much it. I said the truth—that I was from Mexico—and that was all she wrote."
Alday remembered and liked Sonora, but when he landed back there, he didn't really know anybody. He had been abruptly separated from his family and his girlfriend, Brianna. He had no idea what to do with himself.
As one might expect, he wasn't happy with the situation. With a darker kind of life never far away, Alday had the presence of mind to seek an outlet.
"I felt a little bit of anger," he said. "I just drank two beers. I had a lot of emotion. I had to get it out of my body. I'd go to the gym to help me mentally and feel better and do something with my life."
MMA is a funny thing. So is life. The deeper the adversity, the easier MMA comes sometimes, the less metaphorical the notion of fighting for one's life. In life itself as in a fight, things can take funny turns. There's no telling what might arise from something else, what groundwork the present and past are laying for the future.
For Alday, the deportation set the table for MMA. It actually made the logistics easier. He had more time and more freedom of movement now that he didn't have to look over his shoulder.
"When you're illegal, no one understands the pressure you feel," Alday said. "I'd drive a car and see a cop, and my heartbeat would go up. So I was scared. Driving 30 to 40 minutes to the gym, I just didn't do it."
Alday put his nose to the grindstone and channeled everything into training. He was good. One thing led to another, and he eventually turned pro.
MMA can indeed help fighters get to the U.S. According to Combate officials, visas for fighters are not uncommon. But for Alday, a different door opened.
His relationship with Brianna never wavered throughout the ordeal, and they eventually married. His return to Arizona wasn't the cause but a happy byproduct of the event. They wed in Mexico in 2013. Three long years of waiting followed, but ultimately he returned to the States, thanks to his high school sweetheart.
Either way, MMA is now his job, and he wouldn't have the skills for that job had it not been for his time in Mexico. Obviously no one ever wishes for deportation or anything like it. It takes a big effort to see opportunity in such a thing. Alday made the most of the silver lining.
He and Brianna now have a two-year-old son, Sebastian. (The rest of his family now enjoy full legal status as well.) Alday now has a solid 10-3 record, with a well-rounded skill set that leans toward submissions. As he prepared for his fight Friday, which also happens to mark his 27th birthday, Alday fully understood the unknowable impact of the little things, and a person's own small but real ability to harness them.
"People say good guys finish last, but I don't think that," Alday said. "If someone goes through what I went through, it's way different, but you're never going to be in a bad place if you're a good person. Hard work has to pay off. It has to."