Mac Engel

UFC fighter from Mineral Wells on verge of superstar status with main event win Saturday

James Vick, a graduate of Mineral Wells High School, is the main card this Saturday in the UFC’s Fight Night 135.
James Vick, a graduate of Mineral Wells High School, is the main card this Saturday in the UFC’s Fight Night 135. Oren Hodak

What James Vick and his five older siblings often ate growing up came via a fishing pole, a shotgun, food stamps, or they stole it.

“We were dirt poor,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily an easy life, but it wasn’t a bad life.”

Vick grew up in Olney, a town of roughly 4,000 situated 100 miles northwest of Fort Worth. He moved around quite a bit, eventually graduating from Mineral Wells High School. He was a basketball player, not a boxer, or a fighter, but he has thrown punches his entire life.

He was kicked out of a junior college and never graduated from college. He traded good-paying jobs for ones that paid minimum wage. He was arrested.

Vick is now 31. On Saturday night, the kid who once had nothing and used his fists - often more times than he should - has his shot at the life he wants as the main event at UFC Fight Night 135 inside Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb. The fight will be on FS1.

He won’t be fighting for his life in UFC, but he will be for a better one. Even if you don’t like or care about the Ultimate Fighting Championship as a sport, you have to love Vick’s story.

“I’m not delusional: This is my one and only Main Event, or it’s one of many,” said Vick (13-1-0), who will be fighting Justin Gaethje (18-2-0). “My future rides on this fight on Saturday night. This is super stardom for me, or I’m back to the drawing board.”

Win this fight and Vick, ranked No. 10 in the Lightweight Division, one spot ahead of Nate Diaz, inches closer to the top of the sport’s toughest division currently headlined by Conor McGregor, Tony Ferguson, and Dustin Poirier. Gaethje is No. 7.

NOT GOING BACK TO OLNEY

As a senior at Mineral Wells, Vick was tall enough to be a pretty good basketball player, even if he didn’t necessarily love it.

What he did love was fighting. He just had no clue how to do it. Or where to do it, outside of a back alley. Fighting was fun, and, “I just love doing man stuff,” he said.

In 2005, he watched the first season of the UFC’s reality TV show, “The Ultimate Fighter” and he he had found his calling: an octagon where guys beat the living crud out of the other.

“The first time I got into the ring, I just loved it,” he said. “I had never felt so alive in my life. I saw a goal and I knew what I wanted to do. I told my family, ‘I’m going to be a fighter,’ and they looked at me like I was stupid. After that, it took me a year and a half just to find a gym.”

He needed cash to make the drive to join an MMA gym in Fort Worth rather than to simply workout at a boxing gym in Mineral Wells. What he needed more than cash, though, was time.

Not long after he left Ranger College, Vick worked in the West Texas oil fields making over $1,000 per week. He had the money, but he did not have enough time to train. So he quit the oil fields, and took a job working at a local Target making just above minimum wage.

“They thought I was just some guy who always talked about my dreams and they looked at me like I was crazy,” he said.

He bounced around other jobs, including working at bars, and then at a strip club as a bouncer. While working as a bouncer, a patron help set him up to make a run at the TV show that changed Vick’s life.

In 2012, he was picked as one of 32 lightweight contenders by UFC to join the first live season of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

The show he watched as a high school senior he would now be joining.

TOWERING HEIGHTS

Vick immediately stood out on the show. At 6-foot-3, he is a vertical giant in his weight class. This version of the show was the most-watched in the history of the program, and the UFC had a potential star with a long reach.

The problem was those long arms make him a difficult opponent, and often even harder for him to find willing fighters.

He did not have as much experience as his cast members. And it didn’t matter. The Octagon was Vick’s home, and he knew how not to lose, but how to defeat an opponent.

The “Texecutioner” doesn’t lose.

Only in the last two years has he had the money, time and backing to make fighting, and training, his profession. He splits his time training in Fort Worth, and in Maryland.

The way UFC fighting works, especially in the crowded weight class where Vick resides, he simply can’t lose. There are too many good fighters fighting and grappling to move up, all praying, lobbying and bullying for their one shot at a title. Their shot at a life better than the one they came from.

It’s the same shot that Vick’s been fighting for since he was a high school senior.

“My goal is to be the world champion in the next year or two, and then move up a weight division,” he said. “Every fighter has a delusional sense of confidence, that they can’t be beat. And I just have always had the belief that I was going to be a champion.”

Not too bad for a Target clerk.

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