Brett Okamoto of ESPN.com authored an article today covering the last few years of Bellator 43 welterweight tournament finalist Jay Hieron's professional life. From his scheduled fight with Paul Daley in Affliction falling apart right up to the end of his frustrating Strikeforce run, Hieron has seemingly been held back by a string of bad luck, promotional misuse, and frankly, some bad decisions. He feels like it's all coming together now in Bellator though:
"But I believe the man upstairs has a bigger path for me. He’s just making me take the long road. I’m a fighter that’s been through everything negative you can go through in a career and I’m still here."
The story of redemption in the face of adversity is nice, sure. But the narrative of Jay Hieron goes back much, much further than that. Personally and professionally, Hieron has faced an uphill battle since his childhood in Freeport, NY. Did you know his last name isn't even Hieron? It's Hieronymous. He shortened it because he didn't want ring announcers calling him "hairy mouse", which is the common mispronunciation. This is just one of the many things I learned about Jay way back in late 2007 when he helped pen a five-part story on the Xtreme Couture blog about his life. It's called The Life and Times of Jay Hieron. And it's worth a few minutes of your time.
He pulls no punches in these stories. Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood, Jay took up boxing briefly, then eventually wrestling as a means of defending himself. He almost gave up on wrestling at 16 after falling in with a "bad crowd", but his coach wrangled him back in. He struggled through senior year, and didn't have the grades to get into university right away. The plan was to go to a junior college in Iowa and focus on nothing but wrestling. Homesickness dragged him back to NY and Nassau Community College after one semester though. And back into trouble. Part two picks up there:
Even though wrestling was going well for me, I was getting into problems in the off season. I was getting into sh*t whenever wrestling didn’t occupy my time. I was hanging out in the streets all night on Pearsall Avenue back in Freeport. Getting into fights, smoking weed, just basically up to no good. I was driving back and forth to Brooklyn, 3, 4 times a day buying weed. I would buy it, sell most of it and smoke the rest.
Despite this, Hieron won a junior college national championship at 158 lbs the next season, and moved onto Hofstra University:
I did well for myself going there. Junior year of college, which was my first year at Hofstra, I went to Nationals and lost to the guy who won it by a couple points.
Senior year I was ranked #3 in the country at 158lbs going into the season. I knew this was my season. I was going to go out and win the NCAA D-I championship. I could feel it. My workouts were incredible. My determination was incredible. There would be no stopping me.
But it all fell apart soon afterward for Jay:
Hofstra started a new rule my senior year. The school said if you failed any drug tests you’re out for the season. I ended up failing a drug test for smoking weed a couple weeks before the start of the season. It blew my mind. This was my last year or wrestling. I was trying to do everything I could to see if I could get back on the team and get my suspension cut to a half season. Hofstra wasn’t having any of it.
And it didn't take long to spiral completely out of control:
Coach Ryan told me that even though I couldn’t wrestle, I could keep going to school on my scholarship. I only had a 15 credits needed to graduate, but I wasn’t really interested in that. I was really depressed. I suppressed all of my competitive drive. I took all of my wrestling gear and threw it out. I decided it was time to start making money.
I was done making sacrifices for wrestling and all I could think about was making money. That’s when I really started selling drugs. I had been messing around picking up some weed from Brooklyn but now I was serious. I put all my attention and effort into selling drugs.
The rest of part 2 describes his double life as a drug dealer and the facade he put on for his family. After two years making big money and living the high life, Hieron started feeling the need to get out of the game and invest in a legitimate business. The police took care of that for him though. He was arrested and all that money went toward lawyer fees:
I had a good lawyer who had represented me after I got in a couple of street fights in high school. He told me to relax, that he’d call the cops and find out what’s going on. He called me back and said they had me on an A-2 felony. I said what’s that? He told me the worst is an A-1 felony. I had an A-2 which carried 3-years to life. Mandatory 3 years with life parole.
His mom put up her house to bail him out, and a long string of court hearings ended with Hieron getting the best news possible for him at the time:
I waited for the verdict. My future was up to the judge and God blessed me that day. The judge ended up giving me 5 years of probation and no time behind bars.
Part two ends with how Phil Baroni got him into the MMA game. The other parts of the series discuss how he flirted with violating his probation by moving to Las Vegas to fight, losing vision in his eye in a fight and fearing permanent injury (sound familiar?), his time in the UFC and IFL, joining up with Xtreme Couture, his father's passing, and much more. This is one of the most detailed and honest portraits of a fighter you'll ever come across, and I encourage you to read all of it. It'll be tough not to have some level of emotional investment while watching his Bellator 43 matchup with Rick Hawn if you do.