Veteran Canadian bantamweight Ivan (Pride of El Salvador) Menjivar marvels at the training and opportunities new MMA fighters get these days.
Menjivar (23-8) learned his craft the hard way — by getting in the cage.
The 29-year-old from Montreal had fought 27 times by the time 25-year-old John (Prince) Albert made his pro debut in 2007. The two face off Wednesday on a televised UFC card in Omaha headlined by welterweights Jake (The Juggernaut) Ellenberger and Diego (The Dream) Sanchez.
Albert (7-1) entered the UFC after an appearance on Season 14 of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality TV show.
Menjivar welcomes the different routes fighters now have to make the UFC.
But he says the hard thing is staying there.
"It's fun to see guys with good attitudes. Sometimes they have charisma on TV," he said in an interview. "But it's really hard to be a professional fighter, a professional athlete. That's another story."
Still he says today's MMA newcomers have far more resources available to them than he did when he started.
Menjivar's debut came 11 years ago. He earned $500 for outlasting David Guigui at a card in Sherbrooke, Que.
It was an old-school fight, with the first round slated to last 10 minutes. It only lasted 7:54, however, as Menjivar won by TKO.
Menjivar, 18 at the time, recalls both men were exhausted.
"I got him in a good position and I just told him 'Please tap, I'm too tired.' I gave him a punch and he tapped."
Menjivar returned to the locker-room and "everything came out."
The two eventually began to train together.
"We'd punch each other for fun," Menjivar recalled fondly. "He was a good athlete."
Menjivar went on to fight on a variety of Canadian circuits — his 2002 loss to Georges St-Pierre came in the current UFC welterweight champion's pro debut — before appearing in Pancrase, K-1, IFL, WEC and now the UFC where he is 2-0 since the sport's No. 1 organization opened its doors to lighter weight classes.
"Sometimes I'm a little modest," Menjivar acknowledged. "Sometimes I forget I'm a UFC fighter.
"I don't go out too much but sometimes people see me in the street and say 'You're Ivan. You're fighting for the UFC.' It's fun to see people recognize you because you do something you love. So I'm happy about that."
Menjivar appreciates it all the more because of the sacrifices he has made to get here. He didn't fight between November 2006 and June 2010 as he rehabbed a knee injury and looked after a growing family.
Today, he has a four-year-old girl and two-year-old boy.
Leaving the family to train wasn't easy when he returned to action.
"You train because you need it. When your little girl tells you 'Papa, don't go to jiu-jitsu today.' But you have to go to jiu-jitsu," Menjivar said. "It's a lot of dedication. It's more personal, yes, but I do it at the same time for my kids, for my family. It's not easy but it's fun to do it.
"After, when my kids grow older, maybe they're going to be happy to say 'My dad fought for the UFC when he was young.'"
More recently he juggled training and fighting with a job in security at the Montreal airport. But he and more than dozen others were laid off last fall when the contract went to a new company. Menjivar had spent five years at the job.
Upset at losing his job, Menjivar channelled his focus on his next fight. He looked for the positives — time to train properly and rest his body, plus more time with his family.
"It's a good thing," he concluded. "I prepared well, I'm healthy. It's perfect, I'm really happy with my training. So I'm ready."
Losing the job didn't help pay the bills, however.
"It's not easy," he said with a sigh. "I went into my savings. It's not easy, but life is like that."
Menjivar speaks highly of Albert, a former electrician who lost to eventual winner John Dodson on "The Ultimate Fighter." Albert followed that up with a first-round stoppage of fellow cast member Dustin Pague on the show's live finale card in December.
"He's young, he's strong, he's talented," said Menjivar.
Just five foot six, Menjivar is a dangerous 135-pound package in his own right. Just ask Charlie Valencia, felled by a vicious elbow strike at UFC 129 in Toronto last April.
"He made a little mistake and I just took advantage," Menjivar said. "I didn't feel I had knocked him out. I just gave him my elbow and he just fell. Sometimes it's like that."
Menjivar came to Canada with his family from El Salvador when he was 11. His older brother took him to a martial arts school, only to quit after six months. Menjivar never stopped and credits the sport for helping him avoid trouble growing up.
He has worked as a massage therapist as well as in security. After fighting, he wants to open his own business but he's not quite ready to divulge his plans just yet.