There is a lot of emotion that goes into fighting, and keeping those emotions in check is something every fighter will tell you is a crucial element to success on fight night. Now, when you consider an athlete making their official UFC debut, everything that comes along with testing your mixed martial arts skills against another worthy adversary is amplified tenfold.
The first showing on the sport’s biggest stage is undoubtedly a milestone no fighter will ever forget, and whether they win or lose once the Octagon door closes, that initial launch into the highest level of the sport is a memory that will be kept for the rest of their days.
While thousands of fighters have come before him and can relate to the experience of making their official promotional debut, one would be hard pressed to find someone who went through what Anthony Birchak endured while attempting to make his first showing under the UFC banner.
The Arizona native put together an impressive five-fight winning streak on the regional scene that earned him a call to compete against seasoned veteran Joe Soto at UFC 177. In Birchak’s mind, facing an established opponent with a solid amount of recognition and credibility was the ideal scenario to make his all-important first impression, but things would end up playing out in a way that few - Birchak included - could have ever imagined.
The card for UFC 177 was supposed to be headlined by the high-profile rematch between former champion Renan Barao and T.J. Dillashaw - the man who derailed the Brazilian’s hype train and pulled off one of the year’s biggest upsets at UFC 173 back in May. Disaster struck when Barao failed to be medically cleared during his weight cut, which forced the organization to find an 11th hour replacement. As it would turn out, that fighter ended up being Soto, which left Birchak standing on the sidelines without a dance partner. Since it was too late for the UFC to find a fighter to step in and make his fight happen, the 28-year-old bantamweight became a casualty of fight night chaos.
“I was supposed to make my official debut at UFC 177 but that ended up being the whole Renan Barao/Joe Soto fiasco that took me out of that. I talked to Sean Shelby and Joe Silva that night and they both told me they didn’t want that to be my first experience with the UFC. They explained crazy things happen in this industry and I knew that, but it didn’t make the news any easier to handle. I told them if they wanted to make it up to me there were two cards coming up I would love to get on, either in Mexico City or Phoenix. The Mexico City card was filled up with all The Ultimate Fighter bouts so they got me on in Phoenix. They kept their word and I couldn’t be happier.”
And while crazy things can, and often do, happen in the hectic realm of MMA, there’s never much light cast on those affected. For Birchak, everything that happened at UFC 177 was beyond his control. He’d done the six weeks of a grueling training camp to prepare. He made the necessary sacrifices to make the 136-pound weight limit. He did everything a fighter needs to do except the one thing they long to do the most – fight - and the fallout from how things shook out in Sacramento overwhelmed him in every sense of the word.
“It was definitely an emotional experience. It was the first time in 28 years I cried because I could not fight and not because I got into a fight, if that makes any sense. It was kind of a weird experience, but I’m so happy my real debut is almost here.”
When Birchak does get to pull the proverbial trigger against his opponent Ian Entwistle it will come in front of his home state crowd on one of the most stacked cards of the year. To make sure he was going to hit the Octagon firing on all cylinders, the scrappy bantamweight took up camp at the world-renowned training camp run by Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The facility has produced scores of champions and contenders for more than a decade and Birchak was eager to test his skills against some of the world’s best.
The end result was Birchak closing up shop on his training camp more confident than he’d ever been before and he is amped up to put on a show for the Phoenix crowd at UFC Fight Night: Dos Santos vs. Miocic on December 13.
“That was the highest level of training I’ve ever had in my career,” Birchak recalled about his time in the ABQ. “I have trained with five-time Muay Thai champions and wrestling world champions, but these guys at Jackson’s, they really helped me take my game to the next level. They made me rise to the occasion every single day. There were no easy sessions and you had to fight for every inch and every position.
“It really showed me where I’m at in my game. I’m not a small bantamweight and I really was challenged by competing against those larger fighters. Sparring against Donald Cerrone was the worst ass whooping I ever took in my life, but after we were done I told him, ‘Hey Cowboy…I have one more round of ass whooping in me if you feel like giving it.’”
In the matchup with Entwistle, fans will see two notoriously aggressive fighters step in and battle for their place on the UFC roster. The current landscape in mixed martial arts is more competitive than it’s ever been, and that makes every showing a crucial opportunity for a fighter to prove they belong among the world’s best inside the Octagon.
Yet while Birchak is expecting the scrappy Englishman to come into their bout in Phoenix and bring the heat from the get go, that’s exactly the way he prefers it. Birchak isn’t looking to outpoint anyone on the judges’ scorecards…he’s looking to put them away. And do so in exciting fashion. Furthermore, this will be his first showing in Arizona in several years and he’s determined to prove he’s an entirely different breed of animal and one that is ready to unleash his talents on the ranks of the bantamweight division.
“I love fighting guys who come forward,” Birchak said, “I love fighting guys who will meet me in the center of the cage and trade some leather. That’s the kind of fights I want. When you get two aggressive people in there who really want to fight, those are the most exciting. I think [Entwistle] is tough and he’s a strong dude. He has a solid ankle lock game, but with the caliber of guys I’ve been training with and what they’ve shown me, I’m just going to be too much for him on December 13.
“This is such a long time coming. Even though UFC 177 was a false start, it was an experience. I got the nerves and the shock and awe out of the way, and now that those things are behind me, I’m ready to step on to the scene like a seasoned veteran and show people what I’m about.”