Richmond — For more than a week, Justin Jaynes has started every single morning in the exact same way.
He wakes up euphoric. Then he panics. He reaches up, feels the 2-inch cut above his right eyebrow. It’s real — all 12 stitches. He breathes a sigh of relief.
It’s an exhausting way to begin the day, but he’ll take it. For more than a decade — and as recently as two weeks ago — Jaynes would awake from his Las Vegas bedroom to find that his dream of winning a fight in the UFC was just that: a dream.
He was broke. Debt collectors continued to fill his inbox, his son back home in Michigan growing older by the day. His mother, Julie Cox, who’d given every ounce of financial support she could muster, begged her 30-year-old son to come home on a number of occasions.
“I knew he wouldn’t,” Cox said. “He says, ‘Mom, I just can’t do that.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, Justin, do what you’ve got to do.’”
He’d gotten close to reaching the world’s biggest fighting promotion, but every time he’d try to grab that brass ring, the rug was pulled out from under him. Untimely losses, freak injuries, and the like.
When his manager called him on June 17 to ask him if he’d be able to make weight for a fight three days away, he didn’t dare get his hopes up.
“This is something he’d asked me a half-dozen times,” Jaynes said.
This time was different. One of Matt Frevola’s cornermen tested positive for COVID-19 in the days leading up to a lightweight prelims fight on “UFC on ESPN 11” with Frank Camacho.
“He said, ‘All right, you’re fighting Frank Camacho on Saturday. Congratulations,’" Jaynes said. "It took about two, three hours to set in.’”
The next few days are a blur, as are the moments directly after legendary UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer belted his name in the center of the octagon.
The bout lasted just 41 seconds. Jaynes landed blow after blow on Camacho, his right fist eventually buckling the UFC veteran at the knees, signifying to referee Herb Dean that enough damage had been done.
The kid from Richmond had just pulled off the second-fastest finish in UFC debut history.
“I wish there was another word for proud,” Cox said.
A week later, this past Saturday, Jaynes was back in his hometown, surrounded by friends and family at Richmond’s Hamlin Pub, recounting a time before he was able to be proud of his struggle. The word of the night was “surreal.”
“I’m still waiting for someone to come up and punch me in the face and say, ‘This is just a dream,’” said Adam Sendrowski, Jaynes’ childhood best friend. “From almost bankruptcy, to everything … it’s been a rough background.”
Jaynes’ truck was stolen in 2013 while he was in Hawaii taking his first loss as a pro. He had another car stolen from his driveway overnight years later, which was driven to Colorado, wrecked and stripped. His motorcycle was stolen while he was at work, a situation that his father, Donald Jaynes, remedied by buying a car for $1,000 and driving it straight to him.
“These are lows, man. I make $20,000 a year at the gym. I don’t have any money lying around to go buy a car,” Jaynes said. “There were times where I didn’t have money for bills. I call my mom, I’m embarrassed, 30 years old, calling my mom.
“But they never questioned me. They just believed in me, believed in the process, and here I am now. I just made $80,000 in 41 seconds.”
The support from Donald, Julie and her husband, David Cox, was crucial. Still, it took a deeper army to keep Jaynes afloat until he got his shot, most notably from Jeremiah Self, the owner of an Oklahoma-based farm machinery business.
Self met Jaynes in September 2013, after his wife set up a training session at the gym Xtreme Couture. Self told Jaynes he wanted to sponsor him, to help him out with the financial side of things so Jaynes could focus on the fighting aspect.
Jaynes chased for years with nothing to show for it. With Self asking when he might consider hanging it up, he could no longer take the handouts.
“(Self) said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You come to Oklahoma, I’ll put you to work, and I’ll pay you,’” Jaynes said. “He flew me out there, he took care of me.
“Teamwork makes the dream work, and if it wasn’t for these guys, if it wasn’t for my family, if it wasn’t for my sponsors, if it wasn’t for the people who believed in me, I would have broke years ago.”
That includes the coaches who’d push him to train, even when he didn’t have a fight coming up, and it especially includes his 11-year-old son, Ben.
Ben would get to live with him during the summers, but Jaynes would otherwise only get to come home to see him once every two months. When he thought there was nothing left in the tank, Jaynes thought about how falling short would appear to his son.
“How’s it look, like, ‘Oh, your dad moved to Vegas with nothing to show for it?’ For all he would know, I just partied my butt off for 10 years,” Jaynes said. “When I was at that breaking point, I would just say, ‘What would Ben think?’ That was my personal motivation.
“It’s very emotional for me. For the rest of his life, he’s going to see my name in the record books for fastest UFC debut (victory).”
That night at Hamlin Pub, the smile couldn’t be removed from Jaynes’ face. He was happy to have accomplished his dream, sure, but now back home in Richmond, the way his eyes greeted everyone that approached him said that he was even happier to uphold his end of the bargain with those who’d sworn he’d make it someday.
Shortly before the 12 o’clock hour turned Saturday into Sunday, he stepped outside to escape the noise — and presumably, the frequent rounds of shots headed his way — to talk more intimately with friends and family.
One of Jaynes’ high school classmates approached him near the front door: “At least somebody made something out of this place, man.”
Jaynes laughed. He’d gotten a lot of comments like this. And in the back of his mind, he knew something that nobody else did: In a few hours, he’d wake up on Sunday morning, touch his forehead, and have to convince himself all over again that any of it was true in the first place.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.