Roosevelt Roberts overcomes death, drugs and hardships en route to UFC

How Roosevelt Roberts overcame odds to make the UFC (3:51)

Roosevelt Roberts tells Brett Okamoto about the hardships he endured growing up in Hollywood, Florida and how fighting is now keeping his family together. (3:51)

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- Roosevelt Roberts is not afraid of a fight.

There was a time, very early in life, when he probably was afraid, but any fear Roberts had of physical violence was gone before he'd reached middle school. He might even remember the day it was lost for good. He would have been about 8 years old.

"Another kid was picking on me and my cousin, Anthony, he just looked at me," Roberts told ESPN. "Anthony always had my back, but I could see it in his eyes ... like, nah, today's the day you break out of your shell.

"He just sat back. He looked like he wanted to cry, but he was like, 'I can't help you this time.' And from there, I had to fight back. F--- it. And once I did, that's when I was like, 'OK, this is easy.' Fighting somebody that's trying to step up to you, that's easy work. You know what I'm saying?"

"Easy work" is a relative term. What can be easy for some isn't easy for others, but for Roberts, a promising 25-year-old lightweight who fights Thomas Gifford on Saturday's UFC Fight Night card in Sunrise, Florida, it makes sense why the idea of a fight would seem easy. Why it wouldn't scare him.

What scares Roberts is not being able to fight -- to see violence not just knock on your door, but enter your home and affect the ones you love, and know there's nothing you can do about it.

"I think the time I realized what was going on in my life wasn't normal, I was probably 11 or 12," Roberts said. "I was sleeping and I heard [my parents] fighting, and I jumped up and started running towards my dad, like, 'Hey, hey, what are you doing?'

"And he turned around and looked at me and said, 'Go back to sleep.' And I went and sat down on the couch and I remember feeling, damn, I can't do s---. I can't help. I can't go in there and protect my mom. I just remember feeling useless. Like, this is what I gotta live through. This is what my mom gotta live through."

Roberts was born in 1994 in Miami. He does not remember his father, Roosevelt Roberts Sr., working much when he was a child. But his mother, Margaret Molina, that's pretty much all she did. It was not unusual for Molina to work more than 10 hours a day at her job in mortgage banking.

The two parents weren't often home together. Molina would work late, and come home when Roberts Sr. was typically on his way out. When they were together, the relationship was volatile. At times, according to Roberts and his mother, it was a violent environment for Molina and her four children. Roberts Sr. denies any violence against his children.

"The view of a child is much different from reality," Roberts Sr. said. "They see things that might not be the reality of life. Hearing me and his mother argue, he might have seen that as a fight, when it was just a disagreement. I wouldn't say it was physical. He may have heard stories from whoever, his mom, but I don't remember [Roosevelt or his younger brother, Diamond] witnessing me and their mom physically going at each other."

Roberts says was 14 when he reached a point in his life where he felt he needed to stand up to his father. Some of the worst fights he says he's ever been in didn't take place on the streets, but in his house, or in the backyard with his father. He didn't win many of those early conflicts with his father, but says he wasn't standing idly by, either.

That was also the point in Roberts' life when his mother left.

"She usually took trips to California, and one day she was about to leave, she gave us each $100," Roberts said. "It was the most money she ever gave us, and she told us we'd be staying at my grandma's house. A week passed, and she still ain't come home.

"I remember sleeping and my cousin Anthony came running in and woke me up. He didn't even say nothing, he just gave me the phone. It was my mom. She was just like, 'I'm not coming back.' I just hung up. There was nothing more to say. What else can you say to me? You can't say nothing now that you ain't coming back.

"Once my mom left, I just turned my back on everybody. I was like, f--- this. If my mom could leave, I didn't care about nothing else."

Roberts' life between the ages of 14 and 20 is, in some ways, both challenging and easy to document. Challenging in that he was essentially homeless. He bounced around between the street and staying with family and friends; from Florida to California. Everywhere and nowhere.

Easy in that he left a paper trail of court documents behind him.

When Molina left for California, it didn't have just an emotional impact on Roberts. His mother was his financial lifeline.

His father would routinely kick him out of the house, and Roberts would do whatever he felt he had to do to make ends meet. He admits he sold drugs, and he was arrested as a juvenile for strong-armed robbery. His father claims he kicked his son out of his home because of the illegal activity, and he felt he'd run out of options to correct it.

On two occasions, Roberts and his father got into such ugly physical altercations that he left Florida to reunite with his mother in California. While in California, Roberts got in trouble for selling drugs and spent a year in a youth correctional facility in San Francisco.

While that lifestyle might have started out of some type of necessity for Roberts, he admits it transformed into a lifestyle of choice. There were times he was offered a way out, including an invitation to play football at a community college in San Francisco, and Roberts simply didn't take it. He learned to prefer the street.

"I was just so hateful," Roberts said. "I had so much anger inside of me. I used to fight and it wasn't even like a fight. I remember being so angry, you start fighting and it's like, everything comes out. There was a fight in an alleyway and my brothers were trying to break it up. They was telling me, 'Hey bro, it's done.' I was like, 'F--- that. It ain't done. We're gonna do this s--- until one of us is really done, you know what I'm saying? Til one of us can't open our eyes no more.'

"That's when I knew I was starting to lose it. I was starting to lose myself in that lifestyle."

Roberts was 19 when he found out his girlfriend was pregnant with a daughter, Amirah -- and he knew right away he had to be done with Florida.

For the entirety of his life to that point, Roberts' heart had clearly been in Florida. Even the times when California offered a more stable environment, Roberts would find his way back east. But when he knew his daughter was on the way, California was the only option.

And it was in California, following the birth of his daughter, that Roberts stopped being angry. He began training in martial arts and got talked into his first amateur bout in 2014, after just a few weeks in the gym. He lost via submission, but became convinced he could turn fighting into a career.

Since turning pro in 2016, Roberts is 7-0 with seven finishes. He earned his way into the UFC last July by submitting Garrett Gross on the Dana White Tuesday Night Contender Series. That fight occurred just months after Roberts' cousin Anthony, the same one who oversaw that first fight when they were kids, committed suicide.

"Losing him, man, it took a lot out of me," Roberts said. "I remember I was going to quit fighting. I didn't wanna do this s--- no more. I used to always promise my cousin, 'Hey bro, once I make it bro, you gonna come out here and we gonna live the good life.' To lose him, that s--- just broke me.

"And it's crazy -- I was about to quit, and then I got the call to be on the Contender Series. It was like a sign. A sign from my cousin. Like, 'Don't give up. I know we're gone, but you still got to live this life for us.'"

"I used to always promise my cousin, 'Hey bro, once I make it bro, you gonna come out here and we gonna live the good life.' To lose him, that s--- just broke me." Roosevelt Roberts

The Contender Series takes place in Las Vegas, and the only "crowd" in attendance is the athletes' friends and families. And when Roberts emerged that night with a UFC contract, both of his parents were there to witness it -- and he's remained in contact with both of them.

"My cousin said something to me one day, something from the Bible that says, 'If you don't forgive the person that hurt you the most, eventually you'll start to turn out like them,'" Roberts said. "I remember looking at myself in the mirror, and just seeing my dad's face. And it was like, I had to forgive him."

Roberts, who now has a son and daughter, is confident he's free of his past, even though he was arrested last month on a trespassing charge in Arizona. Roberts was accused of refusing police officers' commands to leave the scene as his cousin was placed under arrest following a bar fight.

It's too early to tell whether he'll reach his full potential as a martial artist. He faces a good test Saturday in Gifford, a 24-fight veteran. The UFC Fight Night event takes place just 30 miles north of Miami, so it's something of a homecoming story for Roberts.

Florida has occasionally represented the worst parts of Roberts' life, and the worst parts of himself -- but Saturday, he's prepared to show his best.

"It's not that he's chasing a dream. This is how he feeds his kids. This was the best option for his life," Roberts' coach Thomas Cronin said. "He's all-in. All-in or nothing."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Roosevelt Roberts Sr.'s perspective.