The Gomez family has its share of international athletic experience, but it was new to second-oldest child Ulysses Gomez in 2007, when the son of a furniture store owner and used-car salesman purchased his ticket to Turkey.
A former soccer player like his star brother, Gomez had built himself into a well-rounded fighter after he began training in 2001. He was successful in grappling tournaments before he tried Pankration, a fighting form with ancient roots that combined boxing and wrestling.
So there he was, in the 2007 FILA World Wrestling Championships, representing Team USA in Pankration.
"Somebody asked me how I thought I would do," Gomez told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
). "I said I would either lose my first match or smash everybody. I was either out of my league, or they wouldn't be on my level."
Gomez found out soon enough. With a strong performance, he won a gold medal, and he was then ready for his mixed-martial-arts career.
After winning Tachi Palace Fights' flyweight (125-pound) belt, the 27-year-old Gomez makes his debut next week in the Bellator Fighting Championships bantamweight tournament, the next step in a career that has seen him go 6-1 using skills developed during his years of grappling, boxing and Pankration.
Following the athletic example set by older brother Herculez, who played for the United States in the World Cup this summer and has become a professional soccer star in Mexico, Gomez has blazed his own path in MMA, which he hopes can continue with his Bellator opportunity.
"People say, 'This is the biggest fight of your career,' but I hope not," Gomez said. "I see it as the first step of many, hopefully taking me on to even more things after I'm done fighting. But for now, I want to keep improving and winning."
A gifted family
Gomez was born in California to a family with a Mexican heritage. His parents owned a furniture store in Los Angeles before moving the family to Las Vegas when he was about 11 and finding work in dealing used cars.
His two brothers and two sisters all came in quick succession, and Gomez jokes about his family options based on his ethnicity.
"Being Hispanic, there are three things people do: fighting, soccer and construction," Gomez joked. "Well, I don't like soccer, and I don't like yard work."
But another family member took to soccer. Herculez Gomez, 13 months older than Ulysses, became a star in the sport and eventually became a scoring champion in the top Mexican league. Even six months before the World Cup began, he was barely on the U.S. team's radar, but he performed well leading up to the picking of the teams.
An exhibition game near the final roster cuts fell on Ulysses Gomez' birthday, which was a good sign. Herculez always scored on his birthday, he said.
The tradition continued, and Herculez Gomez' goal helped him make the American roster for the world's biggest sporting event.
"There's something I noticed about him playing," Ulysses Gomez said. "I watched him play for his (Major League Soccer) team once in Denver, and before the game you could see his mood change. It was real subtle, but he got real serious, and I could see it. I never felt like that when I played soccer.
"But that's how I feel when I fight, like I'm a little nervous. But about an hour before, I get real serious and very focused. That's how I know it's for me."
Years of training
By 2001, Gomez was ready. Aug. 1, in fact.
"A day that forever changed my life," he said.
He had been renting UFC tapes and enjoying MMA. He had always told friends he felt he could be successful there, as well. So one day, he simply picked up the phone, called a gym and found a home.
Within months, Gomez started his career in grappling tournaments that continued for years with great success – to the point that tournaments would specifically request him. At his height, he was appearing nearly two dozen times per year.
Then he tried boxing, and then Pankration, with wins in both. Following the World Wrestling Championships in 2007, he returned home a champion having represented the country. Palace Fighting Championships, the successful California-based promotion that's groomed dozens of notables, called and said the promotion wanted him for an event.
Looking for a new challenge, he accepted. He made his professional MMA debut in March 2008 and won his first two fights before taking on Rambaa Somdet in November 2008.
"Everything that can go wrong went wrong," Gomez said. "I was heavy at the weigh-in, and I had to cut 12 pounds that day. I was in the hospital, and they put IVs in, and they said, 'You shouldn't fight.' I said, 'Man, I'm fighting.'
"I remember him dropping me in the first round, and we made it all the way to a decision, and he won; he really did. We were talking afterward, and I said, 'I can't believe he dropped me.' My guys said, 'Which time? He dropped you four times.' I only remembered once.
"That showed me I could compete when I'm not even 100 percent."
Gomez (6-1 MMA, 0-0 BFC) then won four consecutive fights to earn his upcoming Bellator opportunity, where he meets Travis Reddinger (14-2 MMA, 0-0 BFC) in an opening-round fight of the eight-man tourney. But he's hoping his career can continue with the experience he gained in multiple fighting techniques in multiple countries over the years.
He doesn't want to live up to his nickname, "Useless," which he was called by other children in school who couldn't pronounce his name. Gomez facetiously adopted the nickname for his fighting career.
"You have to have some fun with things, not be too serious all the time," he said. "That's how you stay loose."