It was bad news for Brady Hiestand, but he took it courageously when he was informed that he was no longer in the Top Ten for youngest fighters on the current UFC roster.
He had grown old before our eyes…at 23.
“I was loving that spot,” Hiestand laughed. “There's 12 other people ahead of me? That's crazy.”
Well, Brady, with the addition of 20-year-old Tereza Bleda, there’s 13 now ahead of him.
The youth movement currently underway is a sign of the growth in MMA, where the elite always skewed towards the late-20s to mid-30s, a product of a sport that was still gaining traction among the younger crowd – and the parents who weren’t too sure about letting their kids compete in something that was mysterious at best and terrifying at worst.
Yet as the years went by after the launch of the UFC in 1993, parents got knowledgeable about MMA, and their kids followed. One of those kids was Hiestand, who knew from the time he was approaching his mid-teens that this sport was it for him.
“I had been doing jiu-jitsu for a little bit, and honestly, I just never really got into school,” said the Spokane native. “I wasn't a big fan of school; I didn't really fit in in classroom settings. I wanted to be moving and I always felt at peace when I was at the gym and training. It just felt right, so I think ever since then, I knew that's what I wanted to do with my life.”
By 18, Hiestand was a professional fighter, and in 2021, with a 5-1 record in his back pocket, he entered the house for The Ultimate Fighter 29. And was expected to be removed from the competition just as soon as it started. Not that he cared what anyone thought.
“If you look at TUF, I was written off for every fight,” said Hiestand. “I don't even know what people were saying outside the show, but inside the house. I went into the show at 21, so I was the youngest guy. I fought the three guys with the deepest records - Josh Rettinghouse, Vince Murdock and Ricky (Turcios) - and they're all almost ten years older than me, and I feel like I won every fight. So just because some people say I might not have sized up well against these guys or they might doubt me doesn't mean anything because I'm used to it.”
Hiestand officially won the first two fights against Rettinghouse and Murdock, and while he lost the TUF 29 final in August of 2021 to Turcios via split decision in a rousing three-rounder reminiscent of the first TUF final between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, he made an impression and proved that he belonged in the big show. Unfortunately, his body had other plans for a quick return.
“When I was on the show, I actually tore my ACL,” Hiestand admits. “Then partially tore my meniscus and MCL. So I had to get surgery, and this whole time, I was out, recovering from surgery and just trying to get my knee right so I could get back there and fight.”
This Saturday, Hiestand makes his long-awaited return against Fernie Garcia. He’s taken a mature approach to the entire wait, and I wonder if this 23-year-old is really 40 on the inside.
“I'll take it as a compliment,” he laughs. “I think martial arts definitely did help me. You look up to all these guys that are legends of the sport like GSP and Anderson Silva, and you're like, I want to be like that dude one day, especially when you're younger, and you're like, how do I do that? And then you start hearing about the training routines and all this stuff they have to do. So to make your dream a reality, you have to start adopting those habits, and that's made me seem like the 40-year-old I am today.”
Recovering from a knee injury can’t be easy on a 40-year-old body, though, right?
“I might seem like I'm 40, but I've still got the genes of a 23-year-old, so I recover pretty good,” laughs Hiestand, who has clearly settled into life in the spotlight. This isn’t someone with that deer in the headlights look when the cameras come on. And when the Octagon door closes, Hiestand already proved that he steps up on fight night. They’re all good signs, ones that often separate the haves from the have nots at the top level of the game.
“Where you come from in your life is the biggest key if you can minimize distractions,” he said. “If you have something bad happen in your day, your practice isn't as good, so that goes into a fight, too. So you've just gotta make sure that your at-home life is set up and if it's not, being able to stay mentally sound and work your way through it.”
It must be that Pacific Northwest weather that has Hiestand more mature than most as he navigates the shark-infested waters known as the UFC bantamweight division.
“Good weather and a good mother,” he laughs.
So how has mom adjusted to seeing her baby boy trading punches in an eight-sided cage?
“She didn't like it at first, but she thought it would be better than me doing the alternative,” Hiestand said. “I grew up with a dad who was addicted to alcohol and was into some trouble and stuff like that. So she thought this was a good alternative to doing that stuff.”
And now, you can hear her when Hiestand is in the Octagon.
“During the Ricky fight, in the background you hear a lot of screaming and a lot of people yelling ‘Brady,’” Hiestand said. “Those are the two women in my life that are very loud and proud - Julianna Pena and my mom. So if you listen really closely, you can hear both of them screaming in the background.”
After 15 months away, I get the impression that Hiestand missed those screams – not just from his mom and his longtime teammate – but from everyone.
“The hardest part is watching my teammates and the other people on TUF going out there and making names for themselves,” he said. “I love seeing them do well, like Bryan Battle and Andre Petroski, but I would love to be right there with them, building my name. It was a setback, but I'm young, so I'll still have the time to make the biggest name for myself and create a legacy I want to leave behind.”