Bubba Jenkins hadn't been back in Virginia Beach for nearly a year prior to January.
No problem. You'll still recognize him.
Jenkins, a former Cox High wrestler now in the second year of his mixed-martial-arts career, still is often colorful, occasionally controversial and always candid. He's also inching closer to his goal of a career in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The national-championship celebration two years ago in which he pretended to shoot his ankle bands out of the sky and brought down a chorus of boos? "It's still the illest and most awesome celebration - the fans say this, this is what I've been told - in NCAA history," said Jenkins, who at the time wrestled for Arizona State.
Despite being a relative newcomer to mixed martial arts, he's spoken out about his belief that performance-enhancing drugs have led to a rash of injuries in the sport.
He's already acquired a pair of unique nicknames, "The Highlight Kid" and "The Unicorn Slayer."
"It's a funny, awesome nickname, but I don't like to call myself that," said Jenkins, who returned to Virginia Beach last month to visit family. "It's not like a cool, 'Yo, I'm the Unicorn Slayer.' It's not like I can boast that. It's like, 'Bro, you realize unicorns are fake right? Yeah, but if you see one, I would slay it.' "
Jenkins, who turned 25 in January, believes he's a couple of fights away from his UFC debut. His coach, Ricardo Liborio, is hopeful it's three or four with the last one coming against an MMA veteran who has fought at a high level.
Those three or four fights, however, could take some time to find.
Jenkins is currently seeking the second fight in a six-fight contract with Resurrection Fighting Alliance, a deal he can break only to sign a more lucrative pact with UFC.
Liborio said he hopes it takes a year, which would put Jenkins on a relatively traditional fighting schedule.
But Jenkins, now living in Florida and training with the American Top Team mixed martial arts academy in Coconut Grove, hasn't fought since last June. That layoff included taping the 16th season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series, rehabilitation from a fractured jaw and a number of fights that have fallen through.
He's tentatively scheduled to fight in April. That's after a tentative date in March fell through, and a couple of fighters backed out after last June's fight, according to Jenkins and his agent, Malki Kawa.
"We've had a few fights set and had guys back out after they've watched (his previous fights)," Kawa said.
Jenkins has won all three of his professional fights in the first round in a total of 5 minutes, 19 seconds. For now, he's serving as the wrestling coach in this year's season of "The Ultimate Fighter," working alongside champion Jon "Bones" Jones on a show that is broadcast on FX Tuesday at 10 p.m.
"With his ability and skills, he could go and win a couple of UFC fights right now," said Liborio, a co-owner and head coach with American Top Team. "But the goal isn't to win two fights, it's to win a championship. You're not going up there to win two fights, you're going up to stay."
Fighters who are new to the sport don't want to match up with a national-championship wrestler like Jenkins.
Jenkins, meanwhile, is still improving his striking and submission defense. Liborio wants him to get acclimated to the atmosphere of MMA fighting. He's strategically avoiding MMA veterans who could ding his reputation.
The result is relatively few fights that make sense for both sides, especially considering a fighter's peak usually happens sometime between the ages of 30 and 35.
"YouTube is damning me," Jenkins said. "It's hard to find people under 10 fights that want to fight a national champ. Any more (experience) and I might as well step up. I need to prove myself first. We want to map it up the right way. You don't want to go out there and try to be a tough guy right away."
Jenkins' pedigree and personality combine to give him impressive potential.
While he's unproven, Jenkins hopes the success of former wrestlers helps him make the leap to UFC sooner than most. Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez wrestled at Arizona State and was a two-time NCAA place-winner. Two of the UFC's other champions have significant wrestling backgrounds. Randy Couture, one of the biggest names in the sport's history before he retired, was a two-time national champion.
During the taping of the reality show, Jenkins sparred with Jones in the middle of a living room, light-heartedly pretending to be actors in a badly dubbed kung fu movie.
He wears clothing manufactured by long-time high school friend Collin Dozier, who sells T-shirts at local wrestling events. Appearances by Jenkins increase sales considerably.
"I do a lot better when Bubba is there," Dozier said.
Liborio said the biggest challenge to Jenkins' success could be balancing popularity and professional fighting.
He praised Jenkins' work ethic, but noted his phone is constantly buzzing.
During his trip home, Jenkins celebrated his birthday at a local nightclub and did a pair of volunteer speaking engagements. He spoke to wrestlers at the Virginia Challenge Middle School tournament. He spoke at a banquet for the Virginia Beach Mustangs youth football team.
After a workout at Hybrid Academy of Martial Arts and a pair of interviews, he had to cancel a meeting with a couple friends.
With a few more fights, and maybe a year's time, Jenkins is only going to get tougher to pin down.
"He's in the middle of the way there," Liborio said. "The difference is he's not an ordinary person. He's a natural fighter who has a lot of composure. There are guys that, as talented as they are, they struggle to perform under pressure. He performs even better. He has amazing skills, amazing talent. He's going to make a statement."
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