If you didn’t know Anthony Birchak, you might think he’s some 22-year-old hotshot ready to take on the world as he talks about staying ready to fight in the new normal, where multiple opportunities are often a phone call away.
“I think with the pandemic and the s**t going on with injuries and people getting sick and guys not having passports, as long as I stay ready and I stay sharp, I could get a phone call again four weeks after this,” said Birchak, who opens up UFC Fight Night on Saturday against Tony Gravely. “So as long as I stay healthy, as long as I stop my bulls**t outside of the gym and I don't celebrate my birthday and have too much fun (Laughs), I think I can keep the mind and body in a good spot and if the phone rings, I'm able to answer it and continue to stay active.”
Birchak turns 35 on May 16, young for a man in any other profession, but in the fight game, it’s about the time where questions about the future begin, even that person is in his physical prime. The questions loom even closer for Birchak, a fighter who feels that he needs a victory this weekend to not just pull his UFC record even, but to keep his hopes of staying in the big show alive.
“There's no choice and there's no other option but victory this time around,” said the bantamweight veteran. “I've taken this very seriously.”
There’s been little on his mind but this since earlier this year, when he was supposed to face Johnny Eduardo in March, only to see that fight get scrapped. Now he’s in with Gravely, and frankly, the opponent doesn’t matter, only the result.
“I'm again with my back against the wall, fighting for bread and milk for my wife and my kids, and I'm ready to go,” said Birchak, who made his return to the promotion after more than four years away last November, only to lose to Gustavo Lopez on three days’ notice. It was a disappointing outcome, but it did get Birchak back in the door after going 2-2 in his first Octagon stint in 2014-2016.
Following a UFC win over Dileno Lopes in the summer of 2016, Birchak fought three times in Japan before coming back to the States to win three straight and get the call back. Now 23 fights into his pro career, he’s got a lot to be proud of and a lot of experiences to share with his four kids, but he’s not interested in reminiscing, not yet.
“I will always be a student of the game,” Birchak said. “And if at any moment I think that I'm an established veteran, where I have my feet firmly set on the ground, I'd be lying to myself and I'd be doing me, my gym, and everybody that follows me a disservice. I always have to be ready, and I always have to lead by example.”
That means focusing on the present and future, with the only thing necessary to pull from the past is that youthful energy to propel him to want to continue trading blows with the best fighters in the world.
“I look at these young 22-year-olds and I gotta show them that even when you're old, and even when it seems like people know who you are, you're owed nothing,” said Birchak, who owns the 10th Planet Tucson / ToroTech Mixed Martial Arts gym in his home state of Arizona. “No matter who stands in front of you, you always have to approach the situation as that 20-year-old fighter that's filled with piss and vinegar. I think a lot of people lose that and they get complacent, and as soon as that comfort sets in, that's when s**t starts going awry.
“I just want to continue to put on shows for people and I want to continue to show that no matter what, I'm still here to show that I train my hardest, I work my hardest, I believe in myself, I believe in my coaches and the system that I'm learning and teaching myself, and although these are strange times, people that are ready will always be able to answer the door when opportunity knocks. There will be a day when I'm able to sit down, but not today.”
Not tomorrow either, when he faces Gravely in one of the most important fights of his career. But with motivation not an issue, Birchak expects to find the next gear he needs to get the win and move forward. As for the landscape as he moves forward, “El Toro” has big plans.
“As an athlete, I am now at the mercy of the universe, and whatever this whole thing is we are now a part of,” he said. “As a man and a business owner, I have things that are contingency plans for myself to continue to be successful, as far as starting new businesses, expanding businesses, progressing my athletes that I have in my gym, and continuing to foster the growth of my children in their athletic careers. So by the end of the year, I want to start another business outside of MMA and jiu-jitsu and start diversifying myself a little more. Ideally, I could get another two fights out and maybe surprise some people and be back in the Top 10, Top 15 with a big win or two over some names.”