Ninjas were legendary warriors whose stories have grown taller and taller as time marches on. They were traditionally known as shinobi. The shinobi officially appeared in the 15th century, but their predecessors could’ve existed as early as the 12th century. They were spies, mercenaries and assassins.
Assassins, also known as hashshashin, and formally known as Nizaris, predate the ninjas by at least 1,000 years. It’s quite possible that the stories of the Persian warriors and assassinations migrated to Japan. Either way, the assassin and ninja ways are similar: get in and get out, hopefully while taking no damage.
They liked to make their kills in public, swift and lethal, to send a message to their enemies that no one was safe, no matter where they were or how many soldiers guarded them. They became adept at studying their prey, assimilating, and striking without warning. While it was a violent end, it was also a way to wage war with the barest minimum of bloodshed.
The assassin and the ninja were known to operate individually during a mission, but to be a part of a tribe, legendarily loyal to their leader and their compatriots.
Matt Lopez is a modern-day assassin in the cage. The 9-1 fighter has only made it to the third round in three of his fights. The rest ended in the first round, with his hand raised. His first loss? It came to the very tough Rani Yahya when Lopez was making his UFC debut.
“Anyone who says that fighting in the UFC is the same as the other promotions, well, I don’t believe it,” Lopez told Combat Press. “The adrenaline dump is real, the jitters — it’s hard to prepare for.”
But prepare, Lopez did. His next fight went far better. He withstood and then conquered the very real and violent onslaught of UFC vet and fan-favorite Mitch Gagnon.
“Most MMA fighters play things close to the vest,” said Lopez. “They don’t want to admit weakness or shortcomings. But if you can self-actualize [and] realize things that aren’t going well, then you can gain insight and learn.
“Training with and next to Justin Gaethje for that fight made all the difference. For one, he really helped me prepare for my second fight mentally. Before, I would walk to the cage with my headphones in, tuning out the crowd.”
It’s no surprise that Lopez adopted this routine. He almost always seems to be fighting a guy in the guy’s hometown. Enemy territory.
“Justin told me to take the headphones out, to look around, take in all the cheers as well as the boos. It actually calmed me,” explained Lopez. “I changed my walkout song to ‘Lunatic Fringe,’ not because I lost. I’m not superstitious like that, but I think whatever gets your juices going should be your song. ‘Lunatic Fringe’ is in Vision Quest, the old-school wrestler movie. It’s the song that plays during the big scene, and it just really — anyone who’s seen the movie can tell you — it’s perfect.”
Lopez knows wrestling. His family moved from a tiny little Arizona town to Tucson so that he could wrestle for one of the best high school teams in the state, if not the country. He was the only wrestler in the Sunnyside High program to win four state championships.
Wrestling is in his blood, but he isn’t just a practitioner. Lopez is also a coach. He taught wrestling at Reign MMA, the gym Mark Muñoz owned in Southern California. Even after Muñoz closed the gym, Lopez continued to indulge his passion.
“I saw some kids go from elementary school to graduation,” he said. “I loved coaching those kids — 75 little guys under 14. They were like my kids. I was so invested in them — their trials and tribulations, as well as their triumphs.
“The hardest thing I ever had to do was tell them I was moving away to train. There were 7- [and] 8-year-olds with tears in their eyes. It touched me that I meant something to them. Even now it gets to me. And even the parents — I had moms and dads crying.”
Lopez’s voice cracked as he talked about his departure. He left a part of himself behind.
“One kid wrote to me the other day and told me that I was still the best coach he’s had,” said Lopez. “And that’s your job as a coach, to know that maybe tomorrow, or maybe in five or six years, that the lesson you taught them, that life lesson, that it made a difference and an impact. I know I always acknowledge what my coaches taught me. It sticks with you.”
Lopez visited the Grudge Training Center in Colorado in September 2016 to train with the aforementioned Gaethje, one of his childhood friends. He was there for about two weeks before he came home to his girlfriend. In mid-October they packed up and moved to Bailey, Colo. with the attitude that they had nothing to lose.
Why move from a virtual hotbed of MMA to Colorado? Nope, it’s not what you might be thinking. It was because of Gaethje.
“He’s crazy,” Lopez said. “He’s a nutcase. I wish people could know his perspective on the fight game and his attitude and approach to life. It’s… just crazy. His thought process is so different from most people in MMA right now. He welcomes the moment that someone can knock him down or knock him off that pedestal. Most fighters, that’s their biggest fear — getting knocked out or getting subbed in a fight.
“Being near him and his mindset has changed me, and moving to Colorado has been one of the best moves I’ve ever made. His attitude, sparring with the best 155[-pound]er. He’s living in the now, which is magnificent.”
Lopez fought Gagnon at the beginning of December. He actually moved in the middle of his fight camp for his second UFC bout. Talk about a different mindset! Lopez operates out of challenge and faith, as opposed to fear. It paid off.
“When I walked out of the cage, I told Justin that I was surprised I didn’t get one 30-27 score,” said Lopez. “He looked at me and said, ‘They almost stopped the fight in the first round, Matt.’ I had no idea that he rocked me. I didn’t remember it at all.
“But I still thought he would be tougher than he was. It felt like, like once he knew I wasn’t going to quit, when he didn’t get the finish in the first round, it felt like he didn’t want to be in there, in a hard fight. It’s just the feeling that I got. Like he thought, ‘Dammit, what do I have to do to get him to quit?’ and then when I didn’t quit, he wilted.
“I think it happens a lot to other fighters. You’re watching a fight and a guy is winning on the cards. He is just beating the other guy up, but the other guy won’t stop coming forward. The guy who hasn’t been able to finish seems to focus on the fact that he can’t finish, when he ought to be focusing on ‘I’m winning this fight.’ It’s the mindset of ‘Can I win?’ versus ‘I am winning.’ That’s my mindset: ‘I am winning.’ You add to that mindset, but you can’t teach it.”
Lopez’s fight with Gagnon took place in Canada. Now, he will fight in Brazil at UFC 212 on June 3. His next test is another veteran, the 28-10 Johnny Eduardo. Eduardo is currently ranked 10th in the bantamweight division, making this Lopez’s biggest fight. Eduardo is a rising star who has won three of his last four UFC fights. Remember Manny Gamburyan? Eduardo knocked him out in November.
Of course, Lopez is heading into enemy territory, too. He faces Eduardo on the latter’s home turf in Rio de Janeiro.
“I wouldn’t say I love it,” Lopez admitted. “Of course I’d rather fight him in the USA, but it’s a familiar position. In the [Resurrection Fighting Alliance], I fought guys in their hometowns and won the crowds over. Everywhere you go, there will be boos and cheers. But this won’t be an advantage for him.
“He is a veteran. If you’re on the fence about watching this fight, take a look at my record and look at his last couple of fights. I am no stranger to excitement. Whether I’m getting knocked down and then coming back to take the win or beating his ass — and I hope it’s the latter, either way — this fight is going to be good. The faster he wants to give it up, the faster I will take it.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t want to be in the ‘Fight of The Night.’ I don’t want to be in there for 15 minutes. I’ve shown I can and that I will do what needs to be done, but I’d rather get in and get out.”
Like an assassin.