VISALIA — Cody Gibson lined up his first fight five years ago as a way to make a little extra money while home from college on summer vacation.
Gibson hopes his next fight serves as a springboard to a much more lucrative career as a full-time professional mixed martial artist.
The 26-year-old Mt. Whitney High grad is set to become the first Visalian to fight for the world's leading MMA promotion when he steps into the octagon Saturday during Ultimate Fighting Championships 170 from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Gibson (11-3) was tapped as a replacement for a bantamweight bout against New York's Aljamain Sterling (8-0), who will also be making his UFC debut, on the undercard of a show headlined by women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann.
"I'm pumped up -- I've been working hard for this opportunity for almost five years," Gibson said. "For it to finally come to fruition and to get to compete on the world's biggest stage is a dream come true in the short term.
"But the long-term goal is to stay here, win fights and work my way into the top 10."
The 5-foot-10, 140-pound Gibson, whose bout will be televised on the preliminary undercard on Fox Sports 1, is taking the place of an injured Lucas Martins on less than two weeks notice.
An assistant coach with the Mt. Whitney wrestling team and a substitute teacher who recently completed work on his teaching credential, Gibson was actually about to launch a career in education.
Those plans are now on hold, however, after receiving a four-fight contract with the UFC.
"I set my goals high. I feel like I could be in the top 10 by the end of the year or early 2015. I'm not training to take second place," Gibson said. "I want to put 100% of myself into this. Then, when I'm done, I'll put 100% of myself into teaching."
It's been a long journey to the UFC for Gibson, who at one point was an 0-25 wrestler as a high school freshman. He eventually grew into a two-time state qualifier who finished in the top 12 of his weight class as a senior at Mt. Whitney before moving on to Bakersfield College, where he was a two-time California Community College All-American.
He closed his wrestling career at Menlo College, and although he didn't medal at the NAIA Championships in either of his two seasons with the Oaks he did meet his future wife, Jackie.
Gibson launched his MMA career on July 27, 2008, with a first-round TKO of Billy Terry but grinded his way to 4-3 record while working his way down from welterweight to bantamweight. He has won six straight fights in the weight class, the last a decision over Evan Esguerra in November.
Gibson trained initially with a friend at a small gym in Exeter and took his first couple of fights with very little training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai or boxing. He eventually settled in at Visalia's Elite MMA, where he trains with head coach Tom Knox, boxing coach Eloy Garza and strength and conditioning coach John Wheeler.
That group has helped Gibson earn the chance to put even more central San Joaquin Valley fighters on the MMA map, following in the footsteps of Hanford's Chad Mendes, the top-ranked featherweight in the UFC.
"I'm real excited for the opportunity to represent the Valley on this national stage, and I hope to represent it well," Gibson said. "Hopefully it will open the door for some other guys, not just at my gym but all over the Valley -- guys like Joe Soto and Cain Carrizosa. It's cool to be the first, but I definitely don't think I'll be the last. I'd expect three or four more fighters to get their opportunity as well."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6103, firstname.lastname@example.org or @NickG_FB on Twitter.