At UFC 185, Beneil Dariush shared the same fight card as his friend and training partner, Rafael dos Anjos, for the second time in his career.
The first time it happened was back in the summer of 2014, when the two pupils of Master Rafael Cordeiro touched down in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On that steamy August night in “The Sooner State,” Dariush rebounded from his first professional loss with a second-round submission win over Tony Martin, while his teammate turned in one of the bigger upsets of the year, dropping former lightweight champion Benson Henderson with a stiff left hand midway through the opening round of their main event encounter.
“When he fought Ben Henderson, I fought Tony Martin the same night and our training for that fight was great,” Dariush recalled prior to his UFC 185 encounter with Daron Cruickshank. “I felt like I was in the best shape of my life for that fight. I could push the pace for a long time and push it hard.
“I think what happened in my fight with him is he ran out of gas after the first round because we kept up such a high pace and I didn’t even notice. And that had to do with training with Rafa – he goes 100 percent all the time.”
Coming off joint victories in Tulsa and preparing to compete alongside one another for a second time, the lightweight predicted that he and dos Anjos would again celebrate victory together and that’s exactly what happened. Midway through the March 14 fight card at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Dariush secured a second-round submission win over Cruickshank and then dos Anjos closed out the night with a dominant effort against Anthony Pettis to claim the UFC lightweight title.
So was the victory celebration as sweet as expected?
“It was incredible,” Dariush says of seeing his teammate ascend to the top of the division and win championship gold. “My performance was one of the few times where I was really happy with my fight – I did a lot of good things – but then, after I watched Rafa’s fight, I realized, ‘Man, I gotta get back in the gym.’
“Monday I was back in the gym, which is really good because I got called to fight.”
Fresh off his win over Cruickshank, the Kings MMA product got the call to step in opposite Jim Miller on this weekend’s UFC on FOX fight card in Newark, New Jersey, replacing fellow emerging lightweight Paul Felder, who was forced to withdraw due to a knee injury.
Despite the quick turnaround time, the opportunity to get right back into the Octagon and face an established veteran like Miller is one that Dariush could not pass up. He fought four times in 2014 and wants to do the same this year, eager to keep gaining experience and making steady progress in the treacherous 155-pound ranks.
Cruickshank was a step up in competition from his previous two opponents and now Sparta, New Jersey native Miller represents a chance to move another notch higher in the divisional hierarchy for the steadily improving Dariush.
“Jim is ranked No. 13, he’s fought some of the best guys in the world – he’s fought titleholders,” Dariush begins, explaining why he jumped at the opportunity to step back into the cage with the feisty veteran. “For me to fight him is a step up in competition and I’m just really looking forward to that. My goal is just improvement and this is the best chance to do it.
“I have to build up one fight at a time. Last fight was great, but now I have to move up and I think this guy is really tough. Jim Miller has almost 20 fights in the UFC – he has so much experience and he’s so well rounded, I’m just so excited to get a chance to fight a guy like this.
“My goal is to reach Rafa – that’s the goal.”
Because they’re teammates and because dos Anjos is now in possession of the ultimate prize in the lightweight division, some people might interpret Dariush’s aspirations to ascend to his teammate’s level as a willingness to challenge him in the Octagon.
It’s a question the 25-year-old emerging talent has been asked repeatedly and will only be asked more as he continues to climb the ladder in the lightweight division, but the answer is always going to remain the same.
“I get that question all the time and I always say the same thing, ‘No, I won’t fight Rafa; we’re family,’” Dariush offers with a laugh when asked if he’s ready for the onslaught of “Will you fight your teammate?” inquiries headed his way. “I go to his house, I eat there, I hang out with his family, and I play with his kids.
“Imagine if we fought and I cut him or he cut me and it leaves a scar and then I see that scar every day – it would ruin the relationship and it would ruin the gym. It just doesn’t make sense. It would be selfish on my part.”
Instead of challenging the new champion in the Octagon, Dariush would rather keep learning from him in the gym and alongside him under Master Cordeiro’s watchful eye, making the steady gains that have yielded a three-fight winning streak and a place on the brink of breaking into the Top 15 in the most competitive division in the UFC.
“They say ‘iron sharpens iron’ and but to have Rafa as a partner helps a lot,” Dariush, who carries a 10-1 record into his showdown with Miller on Saturday, says. “And we’re lucky to have Master Rafael Cordeiro guiding us.
“I’m so happy with my training right now. Coming back into the camp so fast, I feel like I’ve hit another level. I feel way better than I did four weeks ago, which sounds crazy, but I can feel myself improving. So many things feel sharper. I’m going to show a new level – a new pace, new pressure.
“I think the most important thing for me is to have a steady pace (of fights) and keep moving up. Cruickshank was where the people started to notice me more, but I can’t be thinking about people noticing me. I can’t be worried about that. I have to keep focusing on improving because with wins, it’s going to happen.
“Doesn’t matter if it’s two wins or five wins or 10 wins – as long as I do my job right, people will notice me. The goal for this year is to keep a steady pace and keep improving and hopefully people will notice.”
They already are.