"I’m not the strongest, the fastest, but every day that I wake up, I aim to be. I’m working hard every day to be a better mixed martial artist." - Danny Castillo
You know those bands that just stay on the road, grinding out albums, garnering critical acclaim and registering the occasional chart hit while cultivating a loyal, hardcore following?
They may have a track or two that pops up on the radio from time-to-time, but they’re never the biggest band going at the time. Instead of selling out arenas, they’re playing clubs and theatres packed with diehard fans that know every word to every song, ready to sell you on their brilliance whenever they can and quick to dismiss you when you say your favorite band is the latest act to capture 15 minutes in the spotlight.
That’s who Danny Castillo is in the fight game.
A professional for nearly seven years, Castillo has never challenged for a championship or broken into the Top 15. This weekend will be his first appearance on the main card of a UFC event, despite the fact that this will be his 11th appearance inside the Octagon.
When talk turns to the fighters capable of making a run in the lightweight division, his name never gets brought up, even though he’s posted a 7-3 record over his first 10 fights with the company.
His career has been flecked with near misses and quality victories that have gotten lost in the shuffle, and though he doesn’t covet the spotlight or recognition some of his teammates receive, Castillo wants to make sure he gets the respect he deserves for the career he’s put together.
“I just did an interview (with another outlet) and he kind of pissed me off because he was like, `You and Tony Ferguson kind of have the same career,’” Castillo, who faces Ferguson in the co-main event of UFC 177 this weekend in Sacramento, explains. “And I was like, `Hold on, dude. No we don’t—not at all. I’ve got 18 fights with (Zuffa).’ Yeah we did start around the same time, but after eight months of training I was booked into the WEC.
“And the best lightweights in the world were in the WEC. At the time we didn’t know about it - everyone was kind of writing us off and out of all people, I was the one that was written off first - but we had Cerrone, Benson Henderson, Anthony Pettis and I fought Pettis and “Cowboy” early in my career, within the first 15 months of ever training or throwing a punch.”
While Castillo made his way to the UFC after grinding out a 5-3 record under the WEC banner, Ferguson arrived via The Ultimate Fighter. After being the third pick of Team Lesnar on Season 13 of the long-running reality TV competition, “El Cucuy” claimed the six-figure contract and entered the fraternity of Ultimate Fighter winners by knocking out Ramsey Nijem in June 2011, three months after Castillo earned his first UFC victory over another former TUF winner, Joe Stevenson.
“So for him to say that our careers are the same? No way! My level of experience and my growth far surpasses Tony Ferguson. Not saying that makes me a better fighter, not saying that makes him less of a fighter, but there are a lot of people out there that don’t know s**t about me. I’ve got a knockout over Ricardo Lamas. I beat Dustin Poirier. How could you even say (we’ve had the same career)? Are you kidding me?”
It’s in these moments and conversations that you come to understand Castillo’s reaction in the Octagon after his victory over Charlie Brenneman at UFC 172 in Baltimore.
Four months earlier, Castillo came out on the wrong end of a majority decision against Edson Barboza in a fight many felt could have been stopped in the first round when he battered the Brazilian from pillar to post. The loss stopped his two-fight winning streak and carried similarities to his second-round defeat at the hands of Michael Johnson the previous fall.
In both cases, “Last Call” appeared to be on the verge of a big win, a victory that would have propelled him to the next level in the loaded lightweight division, but each time, things didn’t break in his favor and the Team Alpha Male veteran took a step back instead of a step forward.
Against Brenneman, he lost a competitive opening round before uncorking a blistering right hand that sent “The Spaniard” crashing to the canvas, his mop of brown curls the only thing moving on the way down. Instead of diving in to deliver follow-up strikes, Castillo jogged away, fell to his knees and fought back tears.
“Those experiences and those situations that have happened in my career are what made the Brenneman knockout so sweet to me because I’ve been right there,” Castillo, who was promoted to the UFC 177 co-main event slot after a chain reaction of injuries and alterations shuffled Saturday’s lineup, said. “When I knocked out Ricardo Lamas, I was right there. I remember Sean Shelby talking about a possible title fight for me in the WEC had I won the next fight against Shane Roller. I’ve been close to breaking out and it hasn’t happened for me.
“I’m not bitter about it - it’s just the way it happens,” he adds. “I’m kind of used to it. If you ask the average fan if they can name five Team Alpha Male fighters, I probably won’t be on that list. I think Chris Holdsworth will come up before me. Andre Fili will come up before me, but that’s just the reality of this sport.”
Castillo laughs, clearly at ease with his place within the Sacramento-based team dubbed “The UFC Fab 5” in some of the marketing materials heading into UFC 177.
“It doesn’t bother me any more,” he continues. “In the beginning, I had a huge chip on my shoulder about it, but I get paid the same to fight whoever it is, so I don’t care.”
It’s also easier to be at comfortable with your station in life when you can see a clear path to greener pastures on the horizon and that is the case for the man who celebrated his 35th birthday on Monday.
“Age is always going to be a factor and that’s the clock that I’m racing against, but if you look at the Olympians that wrestle and compete, the average age of wrestlers is (somewhere in the 30s).
“In the beginning of my career, I think I was over-training a lot because I was playing catch-up,” he admits. “Now that my skill set is there and I have a foundation, I can pull back a little bit. I’m not training out of fear - now I’m training to peak and get better each day.
“I’m constantly trying to improve and there is so much more for me to do. I’m not a black belt in jiu-jitsu. I’m not the best striker in our room. I’m not the best boxer in our room. I’m not the strongest, the fastest, but every day that I wake up, I aim to be. I’m working hard every day to be a better mixed martial artist.
“That’s why I drive out to Lodi and train with Nate Diaz and the Cesar Gracie guys because I know that their jiu-jitsu is awesome,” Castillo continues. “I know that I’m benefitting from all my hard work. Right now, I feel like it’s my time. I’m ready to make a run at that championship and I’m just going to continue to work hard and enjoy the process.”
After a long and winding career marked by impressive finishes, hard earned victories and tough losses, Castillo knows he’s once again close to breaking through. Already knocking on the door of the Top 15, a win over Ferguson could be the result he needs to finally break into the rankings and start getting some more mainstream attention.
But if it doesn’t happen, don’t expect to see him hanging his head.
He knows where he stands and what he’s accomplished, even if the wider audience hasn’t caught on quite yet.
“(I’ve had) 19 fights with Zuffa and I’m right there in one of the deepest divisions in the world. That goes to show that I’ve worked hard every day of my life at being a professional fighter.”