ENGLEWOOD — Before Brandon Royval got his chance at a UFC belt, he almost ran out of gas.
Royval walked into the 1stBank Center in Broomfield in November 2019 with a torn shoulder and broken foot. Between his job working overnight at a juvenile detention center and his training, he was hurt, hardly sleeping and one defeat away from quitting on his dream.
“I was desperately trying to get to the UFC, staying up all night to work, practicing as much as I could,” Royval recalled. “I knew I was so close. I remember walking in there, thinking, ‘If I don’t win this fight, this is the end of my career. I can’t do this any longer, and I just need to move on with my life.’
“Then I went out there and smoked the dude in like 20 seconds. The dream was back on.”
Royval submitted his opponent with an arm bar 23 seconds into that bout for the Legacy Fighting Alliance title. About three months later, he got the call he’d been waiting for his whole life: He was headed to the UFC.
He’s been on a tear ever since, and on Dec. 16 in Las Vegas, Royval will fight for the UFC flyweight championship in a rematch with Alexandre Pantoja. With a victory, Royval would become the first Denver-born fighter to win a UFC belt and only the third Colorado-born fighter to do so, joining Shane Carwin and Ben Henderson.
Royval, 31, has been training for this moment for more than half his life at Factory X in Englewood, which is ground zero for many of Colorado’s top professional MMA fighters. Royval is one of 15 UFC fighters who train at the gym, and he sees his title chance against Pantoja as “a collection of my life’s work.”
“It’s everything I’ve poured my heart into,” Royval said. “I have a very good opportunity in front of me on Dec. 16, and a lot of momentum behind me. … I’m going to be the city’s first born-and-raised champion in the UFC to bring the belt back to Denver. That means the world to me.”
As a 15-year-old, Royval biked 13 miles each way to Factory X, often pedaling home in the dark. Now a longtime captain of the gym’s fight team, he hasn’t forgotten his humble roots.
Each Wednesday, Royval goes to the Denver Dream Center to mentor at-risk youth. There, he hangs out with kids, playing hoops and video games, giving boxing pointers, listening to their stories of trouble and triumph. Outside of the center, he shows up at their sporting events.
That drive to give back is rooted in his years working at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, where he realized he wanted to focus his off-mat efforts on prevention.
“There’s so much potential in these kids, but from my time at Lookout I’ve seen a lot of these kids get out of jail and go right back in,” Royval said. “Or get out of jail and get killed. Have an overdose. I’ve lost a lot of kids that I worked with in there in so many different ways. I wanted to help stop that cycle.”
The Boss’ Ethos
Royval’s desire to make his rise about more than fighting is emblematic of Factory X as a whole, where owner/CEO Marc Montoya has been building his local MMA empire since 2008.
Montoya started Factory X in a small room in the back of a CrossFit studio. The gym has since grown into a 10,000-square-foot facility off Santa Fe Boulevard, complete with ample mat space, an octagon, its own barber shop and dozens of belts hanging from the center beam. The only title belt missing? One from the UFC.
It’s been a remarkable evolution for a college-baseball-player-turned-MMA-coach who now spends more than 40 weeks a year on the road. On Saturday, he was back in Las Vegas as Factory X had two fighters on the UFC main card in bantamweight Chris Gutierrez and light heavyweight Anthony Smith.
“Some guys say they found fighting,” said Montoya, who worked briefly for the Rocky Mountain News and then in commercial lighting sales before finding his calling. “But I totally disagree. Fighting found us.
“Most of these guys in here come from rough backgrounds. I can relate well, because I did too. They have mainly dad issues. Same. So there’s a lot of relatability there, and we can talk the same talk. It’s a big reason why we’ve all been successful together.”
Under Montoya, Factory X has become one of the top MMA gyms in Colorado.
“My No. 1 job is to make these guys champions in life first, and then champions in the cage second,” Montoya said. “I truly mean that. Because the cage is going to have hard peaks and valleys, but as a coach, I’m after ripples. … If you ripple down and ripple up, we can rebound from that better than the peaks and valleys. A lot of times our fighters’ lives are a reflection of that.”
The Journeyman’s resolve
Perhaps no man epitomizes the roller-coaster of professional fighting as much as one of the gym’s veterans — 35-year-old light heavyweight Dustin Jacoby.
The Fort Morgan native was a star quarterback in high school in Illinois and then at Quincy, where he’s in the university’s Hall of Fame. But his true prowess proved to be in the cage, where he made his professional debut at age 21 after a few months of training. He was in the UFC less than a year later, but wasn’t quite ready for the big show — he lost two fights and got cut.
“My motto is ‘short-term memory, bulletproof confidence,'” Jacoby said. “That’s what I have. I always knew I was good enough to make it, but when I got to the UFC at an early age, I just wasn’t mentally ready for it.”
That initial washout began Jacoby’s roundabout journey back to the UFC.
He won a couple of MMA fights on the regional scene before emerging as a force in Glory Kickboxing from 2013 to ’19. Along the way, he shattered his left forearm twice and stepped away from MMA for about a year, nearly retiring.
But Montoya and Factory X lured him back, and since Jacoby re-earned a spot in the UFC after winning on the Contender Series, he’s racked up seven wins and will be on the card with Royval on Dec. 16. Jacoby’s likely a couple of knockouts away from getting a shot at the belt against reigning champion Alex Pereira, whom he lost to in a kickboxing match in 2014.
“My journey is coming full circle,” Jacoby said. “It’s definitely a young man’s sport, but experience and mental toughness are everything, too. I’ve been through it to get to it, and I just feel like I’m destined for this. My struggle has been my strength. I’ve taken my losses, I’ve taken my lumps like a man, but I kept going, kept fighting.”
The perseverance of veterans like Royval and Jacoby is infectious at Factory X, which boasts several prospects who have been grinding for their promotion to the UFC.
For lightweight Marquel Mederos, that opportunity arrives Feb. 3 in his UFC debut. The 27-year-old is 8-1 as a pro and earned his call-up with an upset victory over Issa Isakov in a Contender Series fight in October. The first-round knockout shocked UFC boss Dana White, who stood up in disbelief after Mederos kneed Isakov in the face to end the fight.
“The moment I met that kid, I knew he had something different,” Royval said. “He was a basic student in the open class, but I knew he was going to be in the UFC one day. … (His last win) was surprising to Dana, surprising to the world and to bettors, but it was not surprising to any of us at Factory X.”
Nine years ago, Mederos experienced homelessness for a time in Texas after his mom kicked him out for selling marijuana. He came back to Colorado to live with his dad, who also gave him the boot.
Eventually, he found himself in one of Factory X’s adult classes, consistently begging Montoya to give him a chance.
“I would be in Marc’s ear every day and wouldn’t let him live it down, like, ‘Hey I want to be on the fight team,'” Mederos said. “He was probably like, ‘Man, this (expletive) kid, get out of my ear.’ So eventually, I came in one Saturday and he beat the breaks off me. Afterward, he invited me to join the fight team, and about three months after that I had my first (amateur) fight.”
Now a dad to a 1-year-old daughter with another child due a week before his UFC debut, Mederos has grown up. He works as a server at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen at night and trains during the day.
“Going through that experience taught me a lot about life — the perseverance, the work ethic you have to have, the fact you have to rely on yourself because most of the time, people aren’t going to be there for you, even people who are close,” he said. “When I was on the street, nobody was helping me. So it taught me those things and helped me translate it to here.
“A lot of guys, they get to the UFC and they feel like they’ve made it. But this is just the beginning of the job. … If I were to go back and talk to my 18-year-old self, I would say, ‘Don’t stop pushing.’ From here, it only gets harder.”
Another Factory X fighter is also working in the restaurant industry to help bridge the gap between paying the bills and chasing his UFC dreams.
Luis Gurule is one of the top prospects in MMA, with a sparkling 8-0 record and five knockouts. Three years ago, the former Sheridan High School wrestling star who won the 2012 Class 3A state title at 113 pounds quit his career as a geologist to pursue fighting full-time.
Now, the 30-year-old flyweight is a server at My Neighbor Felix in the Denver Tech Center, right across I-25 from where Mederos works. Gurule’s next fight is Jan. 21, and if he wins again, a promotion to the UFC is imminent.
“I definitely feel like I’m knocking on the door,” Gurule said. “(The Factory X fighters on the cusp of UFC) all talk about that possibility, but Factory X has done such a good job of forming a brotherhood amongst all the fighters. There’s no jealousy if someone gets called up to the UFC before you. It’s something that gets you excited and motivated.”
Gurule called his decision to go from geologist to fighter “one of the scariest decisions I’ve ever made.”
“My parents were … not very happy about that,” Gurule recalled with a laugh. “You’re going from a very sure thing to trying to win the lottery by getting into the UFC. I had never learned how to strike before that. Never boxed, never did Muay Thai or taekwondo before. Saying it out loud now, it sounds crazy.
“But I bet on myself. I didn’t want to go through my life saying, ‘What if?’ I wanted to give it 100% commitment and I would be proud of myself if I failed, or if I succeed.”
Gurule initially gave himself a four-year window to get to the UFC. He’s almost at his goal, and looks to one of his drill partners for inspiration for the final push.
“I look at Royval, and I see what’s possible,” Gurule said. “If I get into the UFC, me and Brandon can run that division for a while. Hopefully, within the next five years, I can be the one challenging for that spot as a title contender.”
Factory X’s Future
While Royval plans on bringing his “controlled chaos” fighting style into the battle against Pantoja, he’s got his sights set on more than just a belt.
“I want to make my dreams come true on Dec. 16, but as far as what I want to do long-term, I want to open my own Dream Center type of place — a gym that is a safe haven for at-risk kids in the Denver area,” Royval said. “I want to have free programs to teach kids martial arts, self-defense, any outlet that I think is important to give kids direction and purpose. That’s my long-term goal.”
Meanwhile, Montoya is focused on developing the next Royval.
He’s already got a list of potential future UFC stars on the roster. But he’s always looking for that next 15-year-old, willing to ride his bike to the gym in heat or snow, to keep Factory X as one of the premier facilities for the state’s UFC fighters.
“I think the true measure of a great coach (and a great MMA gym) is, Can you build new high-level fighters? It’s one thing to take a UFC fighter who’s already made it, and coach him,” Montoya said. “It’s another thing to mold a fighter consistently, year after year after year, and to constantly grow a new crop while you have an existing crop that’s killing it. I take pride in that, and our guys do, too. That’s what we’re about at Factory X.”