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Danny Downes and His Road Less Traveled

"This has never come easy to me. I’ve won fights and I’ve won some easier
than others, but my whole MMA career has never been easy." - Dan Downes

If you’re not a fan of lightweight prospect Dan Downes, you’re not a fan of fighting.

There, I said it, and if you’re wondering why, all you need to do is look at his June match with Jeremy Stephens. 8-1 entering the bout, Downes was dwarfed in experience by the veteran from Iowa, yet he took the fight, on short notice no less, and stood in there with the “Lil’ Heathen” for three rounds.

Yes, he lost a unanimous decision. But there are losses and there is losing the way Downes did, with a defiance that said you can cut me, you can hurt me, you can hit me, but I’m going to keep moving forward. If you filmed the bout in black and white, buried it in a time capsule and said it was from 1956, no one who found it in the future would have blinked an eye. And that’s not even mentioning the kimura attempt that caused everyone except Downes to cringe.

“Part of it is that basic thing where you always think that no matter position you get in, you still think ‘I can win. I’ll get out of this, get up, and I’ll win,’” he recalls. “You never just want to quit. I don’t know if I have a high pain tolerance, but I just keep going. Do you ever see Chris Rock talking about how people who want congratulations or respect for things they’re supposed to do? (Laughs) That’s how I feel. When I step into that cage, I have a duty to myself, my coaches, my teammates, the fans and the UFC. I have an obligation to go out there and give everything I’ve got. I’m not going out there to half-ass it – ‘well, it’s close enough, I’ll just stop now and live to fight another day.’ I still knew I had more to give and I wasn’t willing to quit. He was gonna have to actually rip it off and take it with him, and even then I’d still probably try to do something, but I’d assume the ref would stop it by then.”

He chuckles.

“The whole time, I was going ‘I can do this, I can do this. There’s no problem.’ You’ve just got to focus on the task at hand and still try to win that fight.”

Downes didn’t win that night, and his record dropped to 8-2, with losses coming to Stephens and via submission to Chris Horodecki. But in the process, he gained a respect that sometimes goes even further than just another notch in the win column. He was a UFC fighter.

“The biggest thing I got from that fight is confidence,” said Downes. “I’m in the UFC, this is the pinnacle of mixed martial arts, and I’m thinking, seriously, have I just been fooling these people the last couple years? How did I get here? So there’s still that ‘do I belong? This is the UFC, and I’m still Dan Downes.’ (Laughs) But in that fight, I went toe-to-toe with Stephens and I never felt outclassed. Yeah he beat me and caught me in different things, and I made errors, but I was never in a position where I’m like, ‘I’m in totally over my head, this is scary.’ So realizing that I can do this and that I belong here, that’s done a lot for me.”

And about that no tapping to the kimura thing, “I don’t know what it is – it’s either being stubborn, or stupid, or being a sore loser, but I know that about myself. When I get in that position, I’m not gonna quit. They say stuff like ‘you just live so you could look yourself in the mirror the next morning,’ and I’d much rather wake up with a broken nose or something else than look there and be like ‘I quit.’ And it’s not some BS masculinity thing. I’m not doing it to say I’m a big tough guy; if you want to tap, then tapping is essentially quitting. It’s crying uncle, and maybe my threshold before saying uncle is a lot higher than a lot of other people’s.”

What’s crazy about that whole sequence is that it’s just one of a million different scenarios that can happen in any mixed martial arts bout, and fighters have to be prepared for the consequences of each. That takes endless training and drilling, but also the presence of mind to stay calm in the midst of a situation that would cause us civilians outside the cage to panic. The 25-year old Downes, who has been training in one way, shape, or form since 2004, is – like all MMA fighters - still learning, but with the help of renowned coach Duke Roufus and the Roufusport team, he’s also starting to get things down to the point where they’re becoming automatic.

“It’s almost like you’re in a time vortex,” he explains. “Everything takes forever, but it’s also going by really fast. So you let instinct take over – you get there, I know I gotta do this, that, move, and you just try to do it. I remember when he (Stephens) got me in that (kimura) lock, and I heard a couple pops, and once that happens, I’m like ‘screw it, that already happened, I might as well see how far I can ride this thing.’ It’s that muscle memory. I just read this book (Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain) by this neuroscientist (David Eagleman), talking about how our brain has these ‘zombie processes,’ basically stuff we do without really thinking about it. It’s kind of like you train yourself to react that way. That’s the ideal. You want to react in such a way that you don’t even have to think about it, it just becomes automatic, and that’s part of it.”

Around this time in the article, it’s almost customary to recount that Milwaukee’s Downes is a Marquette University grad with a double major in International Affairs and German who interned for the United States Secret Service and also worked for the Department of Commerce. It’s done to remind everyone that Downes is not your typical fighter, but in reality, he’s not your typical fighter because he could probably go on to do anything he chooses for a profession, but because he’s made it here on pure grit and determination.

“I’m not a natural athlete,” he said. “And a lot of times I see that the guys that are the best athletes - the strongest, the fastest, the best - they quit easier because most guys like that, everything came easy to them. This has never come easy to me. I’ve won fights and I’ve won some easier than others, but my whole MMA career has never been easy. I’ve kinda had to work twice as hard for half the results that some guys get. I’ve been tested ever since I started, and sometimes I might feel like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, but that’s why I do it. It’s being defiant. Why does man want to fly? Because we’re not supposed to.”

In the great scheme of things, Dan Downes was not the guy who was supposed to be a professional fighter. But when everything else came easy, fighting was that boulder he couldn’t resist trying to push up the mountain.

“School always came easy to me,” he admits. “It just did. I worked hard in school, but I kinda coasted through a lot of things and still did pretty well. That’s not to say I don’t value my education, but you don’t appreciate the things that come easy. I worked so hard and fought tooth and nail, literally and figuratively, to get here, so it feels like an accomplishment. Even when I played rugby in high school and in everything I did, I just wanted to go to that next level. It (fighting) is a sport and it takes skill and it’s not just about fighting in the sense that two cavemen are fighting, but it’s definitely a more personal sport. If you beat me in Horse or I lose a basketball game, yeah, it’s embarrassing, but it’s because he dribbled a rubber ball and got it in a basket better than you. This is fighting. This is someone beat you up and punched you in the face in front of your family. And that’s the part of it that makes it so much more of an accomplishment. It’s not that I take pride in beating someone up or hurting them; it’s this primal kind of gut instinct and you’re leaving everything out there. We’re not fighting for our lives, but we’re still fighting someone and putting our body on the line.”

And he’ll do it again this Saturday night in Las Vegas against The Ultimate Fighter season 13 finalist Ramsey Nijem. It’s a nice clash of styles, with Downes pitting his standup game against Nijem’s wrestling-based attack, but when you take away all the strategies and techniques, it’s a fight, and that’s all that really matters to the Wisconsin product these days and every day.

“I’m not the flashiest,” he said. “No one’s ever gonna look at me and be like ‘I bet he was prom king.’ (Laughs) But what I may lack in bodybuilder potential or the male model aspect, if someone called me and said ‘we need you to fight next week, but it’s gonna be a boxing fight,’ I’ll do it. I’m gonna go there and I might get beat up, but I’m gonna keep coming.”