Jerome Green pleaded with his younger brother before getting whisked away to prison on a three-year hitch for robbing drug dealers in Rochester. Carve your own path in life, he said, and stop following mine. Pay attention in school, earn your degree and follow your passion, he said, unlike me.
"He made me promise," Desmond Green said this week while preparing for his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in KeyBank Center. "I wanted to be just like him. I literally wanted to be a street guy. I thought it was a cool thing to do. He actually made me promise to not do what he did."
Desmond and Jerome were inseparable while growing up two years apart in the tough 18th Ward on the West Side, geographically in the shadows of University of Rochester and culturally a world away. Their parents, honest and hard-working people who demanded the same, refused to accept inner-city plight as an excuse for mischief.
Chavela Green led her children to church twice a week, Sundays and Wednesdays. Jerome Sr. worked double shifts as a baggage handler at the airport. The Greens lied about their address so their kids could attend Rush-Henrietta High in the suburbs, steering them from gang-bangers and violence common in their neighborhood.
Jerome, upon reaching his late teens, still veered down the path that his parents begged him to avoid. He became caught up with the wrong crew, looking for quick scores without considering the consequences. He rationalized his rules of criminal engagement – robbing drug dealers only – included an element of nobility.
In 2007, the reality of prison closed behind him. It broke his mother's heart and left a lasting impression on his younger brother.
"It was his senior year in high school, and he really didn't want to go to college," Jerome Green said by telephone. "He wanted to hang out and chill with his boys and, you know, just have free time. I sat him down and said, 'Listen, I'm not saying you'll make the same mistakes I made, but free time is a recipe for trouble. I need you to go to school and make a better life for yourself.' It wasn't an option."
The best thing that came from Jerome's stint in the state pen, which included seven months in 23-hour lockdown for fighting, was Desmond keeping his promise. He stayed out of trouble. He earned a degree in Health and Human Services from the University at Buffalo, which gave him a wrestling scholarship.
Because he listened to his brother, because he stayed true to his family and continued in the right direction, he has an opportunity Saturday that was years in the making. The 27-year-old will make his first appearance on a UFC fight card when he climbs inside the octagon with Josh Emmett in a battle of lightweights.
"It means more than I can put into words," Desmond said. "I'm just so excited. This has been my dream. To be able to make it to UFC is amazing. And to be able to do it in front of my friends and family, at home basically, it's almost overwhelming in a good way. It has been such a long road.
"I've had so many bumps and bruises and setbacks," he said. "But not once was I deterred. Not once did I lose my faith. I always knew that this was where I was supposed to be. Michael Jordan always knew he was going to be a ballplayer. It's just something you know. I always knew I was going to be a fighter."
Green comes across as an optimistic and pleasant man with an abundance of energy and pride. He identified fighting in the UFC as his goal as a teenager, when he heard people made a living in mixed-martial arts. He started wrestling in high school after his modified football coach suggested the sport lined up with his aggressive nature.
It was hard to disagree. Like most involved in the sport, he was wired up a little differently than most people. He craved contact sports and embraced competition against older, tougher kids. It was his way of proving that he wasn't somebody's little brother, that he was capable of standing up on his own.
Green believed MMA was his calling, a license to combine his tenacity as a street fighter with his skill as a wrestler. He was a state champion at Rush-Henrietta before winning a Mid-American Conference title at UB. He won 100 matches faster than anyone in school history and qualified for the NCAAs three times before he was kicked off the team for smoking pot.
He stayed in school, graduated and started preparing for a career after college in the UFC. Now known as "The Predator," he has a 19-5 record on all levels. He won the featherweight title in the Titan Fighting Championship, a minor-league training ground for MMA competitors aspiring to fight in the UFC. He lost the title in his next bout, but he's won four straight bouts as he has moved up to lightweight.
"I got addicted to the adrenaline rush," Green said "There's no bigger adrenaline rush than stepping into that cage, the gate locking and you going one-on-one against somebody else before thousands of people. That's what really turned me on about it. I'm addicted to it. I love it. If were up to me, I'd be fighting every week."
Green's ascension to UFC, the top organization in mixed-martial arts, validated years of hard work. Numerous times after it nearly slipped away, friends and family suggested he quit, take advantage of his UB degree, make use of his effervescent personality and get on with his life. It made sense to everyone but him.
He easily could have abandoned wrestling and left UB after his girlfriend gave birth to his daughter, Tsajelia, now 7. Nobody would have blamed him if he walked away from MMA after struggling for four years, especially with two more kids (Desmond Jr., 3½, and Dahlia, 18 months) with another woman.
Sure, it would have made life simpler.
But deep down, he was a fighter.
Rather than listen to anyone else, he listened to his conscience. He trained harder. He once cut his dreadlocks, shedding more than a pound after growing them for seven years, to make weight for a lower-level title fight. The clippings remain in a plastic bag at his mother's home, a reminder of how much time he invested to achieve a goal.
"I wanted my kids to know that you don't have to settle for mediocrity," he said. "Nothing happens overnight. A real dream takes time to develop. You're going to go through hardships. You're going to have people telling you what you should and shouldn't do. If you believe in that dream, it has to pay off. I'm a firm believer."
Three years ago, he was stocking shelves on the graveyard shift at Wegmans in Ithaca and training during the day. He worked as a telemarketer, making hundreds of calls daily only to have people hang up on him. Last year, he made ends meet as an overnight custodian at Boca Raton Country Club.
It was all with one goal in mind.
It's no wonder why he could barely contain himself when the UFC offered him a contract for the event in Buffalo. Finally, his hard work and perseverance is about to pay off.
"He's so excited, and I'm so happy for him," said Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, who trained in the same Florida gym while preparing to fight Daniel Cormier in the main event Saturday. "He's a just a real guy. He's never negative, always positive. He's always out there having fun, training hard. He's a family man. What is there not to love about Dez? I love him to death. I don't know anything negative about him."
Green made $65,000 in 2014. He's guaranteed to pocket $20,000 on Saturday alone no matter what happens in the fight. If he wins and collects bonus money given to the top performer, he could make $70,000 in one night. He made less than $50,000 in his last two years combined.
"No more mopping floors, no more cleaning bathrooms, no more cold calling, no more odds-and-ends job," Green said with a laugh. "If I would have listened to who told me to stop, I would have stopped fighting three years ago, working a mediocre job that I didn't like, and I would have passed up on this opportunity right here."
Green flew into Western New York for the fight with Dahlia, the 18-month-old, while her mother stayed home. He has a good relationship with all three children and their mothers despite not being romantically involved with either woman. His own mother, who begged him to quit years ago, has become his biggest fan.
She will be at the fight Saturday. His brother wouldn't miss the event for the world. Jerome followed his own advice and cleaned up his life after completing his sentence in 2010. He and his fiancée bought a house four years ago and have two children. He's a licensed truck driver now working in sanitation.
The same guy who contributed to filth in the streets is now cleaning up streets, literally, and leading a productive life. He's a long way from staring at pictures of his little brother on the wall of his prison cell. Back then, he wrote dozens of letters home, confirming he learned from his mistakes.
And he made sure Desmond kept his promise.
"I would cry writing these letters back and take motivation from that into my wrestling matches, into school, into my life," Desmond said. "I was like, 'I have to get a better life so when my brother gets out of prison I can show him the right way.' And it ended up happening that way. It was one of my biggest motivations, just wanting to make him proud."