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A former street kid from Chicago, Emmanuel “El Punisher” Rivera is now the executive director of The Come Up Foundation. A professional MMA fighter and dance instructor, he has practiced mixed martial arts for 13 years and says, along with the right mentors, it helped turn his life around. >>>
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Emmanuel “El Punisher” Rivera, a former street kid from Chicago, is now the executive director of The Come Up Foundation in Oklahoma City.
A former professional MMA fighter and dance instructor, Rivera has practiced martial arts for 13 years, and says it helped turn his life around. He’s now giving back to disadvantaged youth to keep them off the streets and on the right path.
Proficient in striking, Rivera’s health challenges put a hold on his career as a professional MMA fighter but sparked a new passion to “pay forward” the valuable lessons he learned. Rivera continues to train fighters, and to learn new lessons in life and business while he teaches and mentors The Come Up Kids.
As a proud first-generation Mexican-American, Rivera prefers to say he’s an American of Mexican descent. Rivera works with disadvantaged youth across Oklahoma, partnering with other nonprofits and churches with plans to expand into schools. He works daily to grow the program to create a culture of mentorship in the martial arts community.
“My challenge to local gyms is to participate by matching athletes with youth through The Come Up, to become complete martial artists by giving back.”
Rivera says kids need to be addicted to martial arts disciplines and healthy living instead of cellphones and game consoles. He says martial arts is a lifestyle.
A small business owner and MMA and color commentator, Rivera spent his early childhood roaming the streets of Chicago, but credits his single Mom with moving him to Henryetta, Oklahoma.
He still found trouble and moved out on his own at 16 and left for Las Vegas at 18, where he ran around with the wrong people. “I very well could have lost my life or ended up in prison. I knew I needed to return to Oklahoma, because my mom had taught me to do the right thing.”
Rivera learned boxing from his uncles in the yard of his family home in Henryetta. He practiced relentlessly, sparring with cousins and anyone willing to go a few rounds. He started fighting in public in Toughman competitions in his early twenties. After he won three straight tournaments, he turned his focus to mixed martial arts.
Rivera quickly learned that martial arts is about more than fighting – it helps with stress relief, mental balance, overcoming unhealthy habits and more.
But it wasn’t always easy.
Rivera’s training partner and best friend lost his life due to an overdose. His death changed Rivera even more, and he committed himself to be healthy, successful and to win.
And win is exactly what he did. He had a promising career. He had 15 amateur and 8 professional fights in the cage (and one professional boxing bout), losing only four times.
Now, winning in life is the message he hopes to spread to youth.
The Come Up Kids are asked to “Commit and Oblige Myself Even Under Pressure” to be honest, hard-working, respectful, smart and strong. It’s a personal contract recited during training sessions.
Rivera says he was lucky to meet the right people who influenced his life.
At 21, Rivera got a job at the Sports Animal radio station, where he worked for nine years as a behind-the-scenes technician. He became a personal trainer to the likes of the legendary Bob Barry, Jr.
He’s proud of his long association with Sports Animal. While he has moved on to be in business for himself, he can still be heard offering commentary on a Saturday noon show with Matt Meyer.
Rivera also found a side job to teach ballroom dancing. His parents had been Salsa dance champions in Chicago, so he knew how to dance. He taught in public schools and developed a passion for youth. The founders of Life Change Ballroom Dancing, where he worked, are now benefactors and serve on The Come Up Advisory Board.
He saw changes in young people teaching dance and has heard back from many students who are now adults, including some who went on to become professional dancers.
“I want to impact kids like me, so they don’t make the mistakes I made. I want to give them the same opportunities I have had.”
Rivera is already seeing lives turn around through The Come Up Foundation.
Rivera also owns a small nutrition shop, but says his greatest achievements are his two children; Mila, age 2, and Cooper, age 10.
“I love being a Dad, living for them instead of myself. It’s changing me.”
Rivera’s Come Up Kids are important to him, too. He’s also a mentor for the Young Latino Professionals. And he has a message to Oklahoma City:
“Watch out, because we are ‘The Come Up Kids,’ and we are OKC’s leaders of the future.”