Fighting to the Top

Originally published in the Alexandria Echo Press

“What you are born into does not determine who you will grow into.”

Soldier, nurse, fighter — Thomas Herrera, 29, of Alexandria, won his seventh title belt for the light-heavyweight division on Sept. 11 at the 3 River Throwdown in Onalaska, Wisconsin, with a second-round technical knockout.

Herrera’s win comes after a “heartbreaking” loss during his last fight in May of this year.

“I focused on the loss to encourage younger athletes to learn from losses. Losing is part of the process — how can you be a better athlete or person if you don’t know how to overcome losing,” said Herrera.

After his loss, Herrera said he was back in the gym right away, not taking any days off. He said he received many offers to fight, but the one that caught his attention was from Eric Anderson, who owns the promotion for 3RT. Anderson wanted Herrera to fight on Sept.11 because of his connection to 22Kill, and his motivation to spread awareness about veteran suicide.

22Kill is a social media movement now called One Tribe Foundation that — according to its website — “raises awareness and combats suicide by empowering veterans, first responders, medical frontline workers and their families through traditional and non-traditional therapies.” The 22 comes from the average daily amount of veteran suicides, and Herrera helps promote the foundation with the motto “fight for 22” on the shirts he sells to raise money.

“I wanted to come back with one purpose and one purpose only — to raise awareness for veterans’ suicide,” affirmed Herrera, “there was no way I would leave that building without a belt.”

Herrera was able to pick his opponent for the fight, “I didn’t want to fight just anybody. I wanted to fight the best, so I can be the best. I want to earn my titles,” remarked Herrera. And the best he chose was Dylan Clucas from Stevens Point, Wisconsin. A top-three contender in the Midwest at the time who defeated all his previous opponents in the first round.

Herrera knew that if he was going to fight the best, he needed to increase his competitive and mental edge as high as he could. In the months leading up to the fight, Herrera trained every day. Four times a day on days off and twice a day on the ones he worked and competed in and won four Brazillian jiu-jitsu tournaments, three 5K and two 10K races.

“It is my recipe to win championships — putting myself into as many competitive scenarios as possible. By the time I got to fight week, I knew I was not only physically and mentally prepared but also had the competitive edge over my opponent.”

Herrera beat Clucas in the second round with a technical knockout.

“My game plan was to pressure the opponent to the edge using my stand-up and take him down and finish him with a ground and pound.”

When Herrera is fighting, he likes to think with the mentality of a shark in deep water: Let his opponent wear himself out and then drag him down.

“I like to envision my opponent as a surfer on his board, happy and comfortable. He may punch me in the head and stomach, but the more he does that, the more energy he expels and the deeper I can drag him down into open water,” said Herrera.

Herrera describes a few moments when Clucas was able to “rock” him and make him see stars for a moment but ultimately he was still able to execute his game plan and win the fight.

He dedicated the title belt to all service members who lost their lives, especially the 13 Marines who recently died in Afghanistan.

His current record is 13-5. He is ranked eighth out of 236 fighters in the US Midwest Amateur Light Heavyweights division and second out of 13 fighters in the Minnesota Amateur Light Heavyweights division.

Herrera has been an amateur fighter in the MMA on and off for the last 10 years. In that time, he has earned seven title belts, and according to him, has raised $119,562 in donations for charities and non-profits with a mission to spread awareness about veteran suicide rates.

“I have raised money for food shelves, Christmas presents, and school supplies," he said. "Now my focus is on the vets and service members.”

This year, so far, he has raised $26,562. Just over $3,000 away from his yearly goal of $30,000. He called it his most successful year of fundraising yet. He has donated to various veteran support groups like the Alexandria VFW, Warriors Next Adventure, and We Defy Foundation. A total of $19,000 of the raised money went to Tap Cancer Out.

His passion and dedication come from the people that helped him out during his childhood. He talked about growing up with a broken upbringing — “a poor and impoverished environment.” He said his brothers and sisters would sometimes go to bed hungry, and sometimes their electricity would be out for months. But even in the worse of times, there were always people and organizations to help him, such as the local food shelf and the Salvation Army. Because of them, he said, he is the person who he is today.

Herrera recalled a time during Christmas when he was 5 years old. He was part of a “shop-with-a-cop” program that allowed kids to go Christmas shopping with police officers.

“A police officer took me Christmas shopping, and I was thinking, ‘Why is this guy with a gun telling me to pick out anything I want.' That moment helped build my respect for those who serve our country,” Herrera said. “Military, firefighters, police, EMTs, and first responders are the unsung heroes of this today, and they are the true American heroes.”

Herrera was also inspired by the movie “Homeless to Harvard.” A true story about a homeless girl who worked hard to beat the odds and push herself until she could attend Harvard University.

Herrera decided to seize every opportunity presented to him to make more for himself.

“One thing led to another, and I was introduced to wrestling. I saw it as my way out of poverty, and I stuck with it. Next thing you know, I discovered fighting and fought my way to where I am today,” said Herrera. “A nurse, married, owning a home, living debt-free, with seven championship MMA titles.”

Herrera wanted to be like the people who helped him. So, he enrolled at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minnesota, to become a nurse. And now works as an LPN at Bethany on the Lake. “I wanted to help take care of people and save lives.”

After his first year of college, Herrera enlisted into the Minnesota National Guard and did a tour in Egypt.

“I wanted to be a hero and to serve my country. I love the United States, the flag, everything,” Herrera said.

“I had every opportunity to spiral down back into a world of nothing. But seeing others succeed made me want to do it for myself. Now that I am in a position where I can give back and help people, that is what I am going to do. I want to be that person that helped me when I was younger. You can come from poverty and a broken home, but that does not determine the person you will be.”

Next, Herrera plans on taking another leap and winning a professional MMA championship. And further, go back to school and become a registered nurse and possibly a nurse practitioner.

“I know people are going to forget me and my name, and they may even forget what I have accomplished, but I want to leave an impression for people always to remember to do things for others," Herrera said. "What you are born into does not determine who you will grow into."

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