One of the prelims will feature veterans Anthony Birchak and Johnny Eduardo in the bantamweight division. I had the pleasure of speaking with Birchak as he prepares to earn another win in the UFC on March 20th.
Anthony Birchak (16-7 overall, 2-3 in UFC) hopes to get back into the win column after he suffered a first-round defeat against Gustavo Lopez in November 2020. Birchak first broke into the UFC back in 2014, when he went 2-2, including a knockout against Joe Soto. After stints with Rizin, Combate Americas, and LFA, Birchak finally returned to the UFC in November. He has an 82% career finish rate, with five knockouts and eight submissions.
Johnny Eduardo (27-12 overall, 3-4 in UFC) has not fought in 33 months, but at age 42, he is looking to make a comeback in the UFC. His last win came in 2016, when he earned a TKO victory against Manvel Gamburyan. Most recently, Eduardo suffered a submission loss against Nathaniel Wood in June of 2018. Experience is definitely on Eduardo’s side as he made his MMA debut back in 1996, but cage rust may be an issue.
With both guys looking to get back in the win column, this should be an entertaining fight to watch.
Interview with Anthony Birchak
Danny Podolsky: How has life been for you amongst the madness of the pandemic and coming off of your loss at the end of the year and how has it affected your ability to train?
Anthony Birchak: It’s actually been very easy and I feel bad saying that because I know how difficult it’s been for some other people. I own my own gym so if I just want to walk in and train I can. I kept my gym open the whole time. I think we maybe closed the doors for a week and a half late in March and early April. I just couldn’t keep it closed because there are too many people that I’m responsible for as a leader and as a coach. I sponsor these young men and women, and even old men and women. Some of them are retired military veterans that have PTSD and this is their only thing so I was in the gym all the time.
Now I wasn’t necessarily grinding my hardest. I was training hard and going rounds, but I still wasn’t doing my road runs. The hardest thing that I’ve noticed is getting people to feel comfortable coming back. The people that weren’t afraid of this are going to train anyways. It’s coaching those people who were uncomfortable and getting them to come back in and train that’s hard. We’ve had less than ten people get sick with COVID and those people who got sick are all Tucson Police department members or security who see thousands of people daily. So nothing has really stemmed from the gym.
The one thing that happened that gave us the biggest scare was when one of my brown belts and I went out to the Jiu-Jitsu OT that was on UFC Fight Pass. I had a special match there in El Paso on a Sunday and got back home on Monday. I was fine and taught a class of 40 people, while my brown belt taught a class of 20 people. The next day I texted and asked how he felt and we both felt terrible. Turns out I had COVID symptoms for about four days including severe body aches and I lost my sense of smell and taste. Since then, it’s been smooth sailing for us since late July.
Danny Podolsky: You mentioned that you own your own gym and train out of Torotech MMA. When did you start that gym?
Anthony Birchak: I own Tenth Planet Tucson and Torotech MMA in Tucson Arizona. That gym was started immediately after my last win in the UFC where I beat Dileno Lopes. We went back to Tucson, and my coach Casey Halstead and I decided to expand the Tenth Planet by bringing it down to Tucson. It’s just been a massive takeover ever since we opened up.
Danny Podolsky: How did this fight come together and does just over four weeks give you enough time for close to a full camp?
Anthony Birchak: So I have been looking at the events on Sherdog. I hit up my manager and told him about certain cards that I thought looked good. By the time it was February I told him that the April 24th card looks awesome. Then it was later in February and I told him my birthday is May 16th and there’s a card on May 1st with Cub Swanson fighting on it, and then another card on May 15th. I asked him, can you please get me a fight on that Cub Swanson card because that would be perfect for me because Cub and I have been good friends since his fight with Frankie Edgar. He mentored me as an up-and-coming UFC fighter, so I just kept asking for dates to fight.
Then all of a sudden, the day that I asked for that May 15th card, they told me I could fight Johnny Eduardo on March 20th. I told my manager “let’s go,” because I’ve been wanting that fight since 2015. I like the way we match up stylistically and also the timing of this fight. Ideally, I would like to have more than four weeks, but it’s much better than 3 days, which is what I got for my last fight against Gustavo Lopez. So it was easier for me to just say yes because any time the door of opportunity knocks I answer.
Danny Podolsky: In your last fight you were called in on short notice to fight Gustavo Lopez. How much of a difference does it make to have closer to a full camp?
Anthony Birchak: So on three days notice here’s my mindset. I know how to fight, it’s just getting my weight under control that was tough. I was under the understanding that it was going to be at 145. So when [my manager] asked if I could make weight I told him of course I could make 145. Then he told me no, you’re going to have to make 135. So I told him I could do it, but it’s not going to look good. Then he told me this was my only opportunity and it’s against my teammate, so how badly do I want it. I came down from 163 to make 135 in three days. I had been walking around at 168; the only reason that I had started coming down was because I was booked on a Quintet Jiu-Jitsu match where I was going to be their 145-pounder for that same day. So it would have been a perfect amount of time to make 145, but that extra ten pounds to 135 was gnarly.
Danny Podolsky: After your first stint with the UFC, you originally did not receive a new contract. When they ask you to step in and fight Gustavo, you can’t turn down that opportunity, right?
Anthony Birchak: It was weird for me fighting Gustavo because he’s genuinely one of my closest friends here in Vegas. He’s my main training partner at XTreme Couture, like he’s my main guy. There are no other 135 pound guys who I spar with, it’s me and Gustavo all the time. So when this all came down, he called me and this is what he told me. He said I love you, I respect you, this is a win-win because you get to get back into the UFC, and I get to stay in the UFC, and we both get to make some extra money before Christmas. He said let’s go in there, swing it out, and afterward we’ll share a beer together. He ended up catching me with that little short hook that he has and then I was playing recovery for the rest of the fight until I got choked out.
Danny Podolsky: Was it weird for you the first time not receiving a new UFC contract despite being 2-2 in your first stint in the promotion and coming off a win?
Anthony Birchak: So a lot of people think that I was released, but I actually walked away on my own free will. I’m one of a few guys that will say that I can leave the UFC on a win and was not forcefully released. I ended up testing free agency. At first it was between Combate and ACA, until finally Rizin picked me up and that’s when I was able to raise my value and get some good money out of it and they paid me cash so it was a big help to me and my family.
I was sitting in that limbo zone where the UFC was telling me that they were going to bring me back, but my contract was over, and there wasn’t a fight set up except against Thomas Almeida, who I had already fought. That year in December, Aljimain Sterling and Raphael Assuncao had been booked, but Aljo got sick, so I immediately texted Sean Shelby, telling him that I would take that fight. He told me that was a tough fight, but I responded by saying that everybody would be a tough fight, it’s the UFC. I told him let’s bump up my pay, I’m on a win, and I had knocked out Joe Soto. I understand I’m 2-2, but let’s start making some rounds. But because our contracts were up and I didn’t have a deal in place, they could not get that deal done. I was trying to be a company man and take the fight and be like Cowboy Cerrone where I say yes to every fight.
Rizin ended up coming up at the end of the year for their Bantamweight Grand Prix which would have led into their New Year’s Eve show so I inked a deal with them.
Danny Podolsky: Have you gotten to watch any of Johnny Eduardo’s previous fights, and is watching film a big part of how you prepare for your fights?
Anthony Birchak: I’m a student of the game so watching film is huge for me. I like to study their mannerisms and their fakes, what they do after their fakes, and what their reaction is to certain things. Does he check the low leg kick? Does he fire a right hand off the low leg kick? When he kicks, what are his hands doing? How does he respond to level changes? These are the typical inventory of what somebody’s reactions are and what his go-to combinations are so I can look out for that. This next week, the third week out, is when I’m going to sit down with my coaches to watch tape and try to pick apart those windows of opportunity where we can capitilize.
Danny Podolsky: Does it change your preparation considering that Johnny Eduardo hasn’t fought in 33 months, he’s 42 years old, and he’s seen as a veteran of the sport?
Anthony Birchak: My back’s against the wall. I’m fighting for my contract and my future in the UFC. I know he hasn’t just been chilling on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, he’s been training with Jose Aldo who has been looking amazing himself. If those are his training partners, then either he’s been a punching bag, and he’s on his way out, and I’m here to open that door for him and usher him onto retirement, or he’s been training hard, and I don’t sleep on anybody, he has legit Muay Thai and good Jiu-Jitsu skills.
He’s tricky, but I need my youth, athleticism, dynamic movement, and wrestling to play a role. Once I get him on the ground, I’m a Tenth Planet black belt for a reason, so I’m going to lace him up and find a choke. Nathaniel Wood choked him with one of my favorite submissions, which is the D’Arce choke. Then Aljimain [Sterling] got him with a front choke that turned into a mounted front choke. Johnny exposes his neck, he has a long neck, and those are the things that I’m going to be looking to exploit. I’m looking to put him in positions where he gives me exactly what I want.
Danny Podolsky: You love to go for finishes and that’s shown in your 82% finish rate. With five knockouts and eight career submissions, what do you take more pride in, your ground game or stand up?
Anthony Birchak: I will always say that striking is my weak link. That’s why I try to consistently hone my weakest link so when you see that I’m almost even on my finish rate between submissions and knockouts, I can’t really say it’s my weakest link. However, because I’m a wrestler and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, I will always say that striking is my weakness. But, I have tremendous striking coaches, and I’m learning so much, raising me slightly until the whole thing has been built up. Going into this fight I think I can knock Johnny Eduardo out, I can take him down, I can submit him. However this goes, my Madden all-star bars are all the way up. It just comes down to on that night, what do I see in Johnny that I can take advantage of.
Danny Podolsky: If all goes well and you beat Johnyy Eduardo, how busy would you like to be in 2020?
Anthony Birchak: I’d like to at least get one more fight out. Typically the months that I do get booked are October, December, March, April, and May. Those are typically the times that I fight so I’d love to bang this one out, finish Johnny Eduardo, and try to get back in July. But I always love October, that’s Mom’s birthday, so I’ve always tried to bring her a win for her birthday.
Danny Podolsky: And finally, I’d like to ask, what should people know about you outside of the fact that you’re a UFC fighter?
Anthony Birchak: Honestly, just the fact that I absolutely love teaching. Right now, I’m in Grand Junction Colorado. I should be training in camp, focused on Johnny Eduardo, but there is no better way to get better than to teach the content. I’m a firm believer in the notion that if you want to get better at something, teach something. I’m out here with Andrew “The Golden Boy” Yates here at his gym, teaching a Tenth Planet Jiu-Jitsu seminar tomorrow in Grand Junction Colorado. I just absolutely love teaching, and helping people grow, and showing my unique little thing, and sharing my experiences. I love bringing a smile to someone’s face by showing a tricky technique and watching their eyes light up. I just love this sport, I love wrestling, I love Jiu-Jitsu, I love Muay Thai. Like I said, I’m a student of the game and will forever be a student of the game and this is one of the greatest sports that we have.
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