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Beneil Dariush Talks Michael Johnson, Conor McGregor and His Assyrian Heritage

Beneil Dariush at UFC 185
Beneil Dariush at UFC 185Brandon Wade/Associated Press
Clinton BullockFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2015

At UFC Fight Night 73, Beneil Dariush (11-1) will be presented with the opportunity to catapult to the top of the lightweight division by defeating the UFC’s No. 5 contender in Michael Johnson (16-8). Despite being deemed the underdog by bookmakers, per Odds Shark, Dariush has won every fight in which he did not enter as the favorite. The 26-year-old is on a four-fight winning streak and wishes to use Johnson as a stepping stone toward his goal of becoming champion in the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization.

Recently, Bleacher Report visited Dariush at his home in Yorba Linda, CA., and the Iranian-born fighter spoke candidly about a wide array of issues—from MMA, to politics, to performance-enhancing drugs, to the support from his fans around the world.

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B/R: How has your life changed since entering the UFC just a year and a half ago?

Dariush: One of the things that has changed a lot is the way my family looks at me and the support I get from the Assyrian community. Those two have been the things I have seen a big change in. When I started doing MMA, she (his mother) was not happy about it. But, as things moved along and I was able to support my house, her opinion changed.

They’ve (the Assyrian community) been very supportive. My fanbase, it seems like this so far: In America, I got the Christian fanbase. In Brazil, I have a big fanbase, just because they love MMA, and I train at Kings MMA, mostly Brazilian guys there. Iran, because I was born there, and the Assyrian community, because that’s my nationality. That’s my fanbase right now.

 

B/R: Does it help that you’re so good at what you do?

Dariush: It doesn’t hurt. Being good at what I do, it definitely helps. It’s easier to bring people along. You wanna change someone’s opinion, you better be really good at what you’re about to say to them, or what you’re going to present to them.

 

B/R: Your only loss occurred at UFC Fight Night 39 to Ramsey Nijem. How hard was that for you, and what did you do to rebound and subsequently go on a four-fight win streak?

Dariush: That loss…my confidence wasn’t the same. I…went to church, put my faith in God. … That fight shook me up and what helped me get back up was just having faith.

That fight (against Carlos Diego Ferreira) was actually one of the things that helped me with my confidence, ‘cause this guy just came off beating Ramsey (Nijem), and he beat Ramsey pretty well. So, I thought to myself, man, that this was going to be a really tough fight. I was nervous for the Diego fight. … It was more than just about the win. It was about my confidence. I think that was more of the fight that brought me back.

 

B/R: At UFC Fight Night 73, you will be facing off against the No. 5-ranked fighter in your division, Michael Johnson. How much pressure, if any, do you feel?

Dariush (l) poses with B/R writer Clinton Bullock (r) at his home in Yorba Linda, CA.
Dariush (l) poses with B/R writer Clinton Bullock (r) at his home in Yorba Linda, CA.Photo: Clinton Bullock

Dariush: I’m excited, because you do this for one reason, and that’s to be a champion. … So, now I get a chance to go towards that. I wanna be a champion. … The biggest thing about this fight is, man,… it’s a chance to knock him off the rankings.

The same thing with Jim Miller. They gave me three weeks for that fight,… and before that, Jim Miller like was on a tear. He beat this guy, that guy. You know, he’s been in the top 10 for the longest time, and getting the chance to fight Jim Miller, to me was like, “Yeah, buddy. Let’s fight Jim Miller.”

I think pressure is God-given. The only person that could put pressure on you is yourself.

 

B/R: Given that you are a decorated BJJ artist, do you believe that people count you out against Michael Johnson unjustly? I mean, on paper, you are a horrible matchup for him. All his losses that came via finish were all by submission.

Dariush: I think one of the reasons people are counting me out a little bit is because he’s been performing so well lately. … He’s also on a four-fight winning streak. … But, I also think he fought predominately guys who were strikers where he doesn’t have to worry about the takedown. So, it makes sense why they’re considering me an underdog, but at the same time, to me, it doesn’t matter. … Every win that I have, I was the underdog.

 

B/R: In every UFC fight you’ve won, you’ve been the underdog, including your upcoming bout. Is there a mental advantage you take from being the underdog?

Dariush: At first, I used to think about it like, “I’m gonna prove these people wrong.” Now, I just think of it like this: “They don’t know. Nobody knows.” It’s a fight. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. … They can be the experts. They can be, you know, guys who have watched the UFC their whole life,…it doesn’t matter. I’m gonna get out there, and I’m gonna do my job.

Beneil Dariush's Four-Fight Win Streak
Beneil Dariushvs.Jim MillerOutcome: Decision
Beneil Dariushvs.Daron CruickshankOutcome: Submission
Beneil Dariushvs.Carlos Diego FerreiraOutcome: Decision
Beneil Dariushvs.Tony MartinOutcome: Submission
http://www.sherdog.com/fighter/Beneil-Dariush-56583

 

B/R: Is your preparation for the biggest fight of your life on August 8 any different than any previous fight?

Dariush: No. It is the biggest fight of my life, but every time I fight, it’s like that. Every time I fight, I consider it the biggest fight of my life. … I’m working hard on everything, focusing on my striking, my wrestling, my jiu-jitsu. … I’ve been trying to be champion since day one. I’m not gonna change it now.

 

B/R: You are a part of such a successful gym, Kings MMA, which has produced two UFC champions (Rafael dos Anjos and Fabricio Werdum) in 2015 alone. Given the great successes in your own life, do you feel any pressure to become champion under Master Rafael Cordeiro (Kings MMA’s owner) yourself?

Dariush after his win over Jim Miller at UFC on Fox 15
Dariush after his win over Jim Miller at UFC on Fox 15Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Dariush: As far as feeling more pressure, no, but I’m definitely more excited, because it’s right there. Every day, I see the belt in the gym. Fabricio will come and show off his belt. … Rafa came in the first couple of days and he showed off his [belt]. So, every day, I see the belt. It’s right there.

 

B/R: Your teammate, Rafael dos Anjos, is the current UFC champion of the lightweight division. If you defeat the No. 5-ranked lightweight in the world on August 8, you’d most likely be one or two fights removed from a title opportunity yourself. Would you fight RDA, and how would you reconcile that within yourself?

Dariush: We spoke about this at the gym, and we spoke about this a long time ago. We wouldn’t fight. It’s different for us. We’re not just teammates. … I live at King’s MMA, so does Rafa. We’re family. I think that’s the big difference. I’ll just move up to 170. … I talked to Rafa, and he said, “Well, I’m kind of heavier. So, maybe I’ll go to 170.” I said, “You know what, let’s just figure it out when the time comes.” When it comes time to figure this out, it won’t be anything complicated. If we have to, we’ll rock-paper-scissors.

 

B/R: Would you be able to maintain your skill? Strength? Speed?

Dariush: I think I’ll definitely be able to maintain speed, and I think endurance, in general. No matter how good you are at weight cutting, it affects you, and I really realized that with my last fight, with the Jim Miller fight. I did two back-to-back fights, where I cut a lot of weight, and I definitely felt it.

 

Dariush (back) choking out Daron Cruickshank at UFC 185
Dariush (back) choking out Daron Cruickshank at UFC 185Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

B/R: In an interview with MMAJunkie Radio, you stated that you’re not an entertainer. You let your fighting speak for itself. Yet, given Connor McGregor’s massive rise to stardom, do you think that spectacles and trash talk are essential to the success of the MMA fighter of today?

Dariush: What Connor is, is something special, because what he does, it’s genuine. What he does with the media, it’s genuine. He’s not going out there being somebody different for the media. He’s himself. That’s Connor McGregor. I’m not Connor McGregor. It’s that simple, man. I don’t have that. If I went out there, and I tried to do what he does, it would come off as fake. People wouldn’t buy it, and it would make me look worse. I got nothing but respect for Connor. I like the way he fights, and he’s backing up what he says. And some of the things he says, I agree with. To be honest, right now, I think Connor is great for the sport. He’s making the sport bigger.

 

B/R: Slightly more political now, you carry a two-sided flag into the Octagon. One side represents the US flag, and the other, Assyrian. Given that Assyrians have suffered from a history of persecution, what does it mean to you to be Assyrian and to sport that flag at your fights?

Dariush: It’s an honor. It’s just plain and simple. When I started fighting, it wasn’t about being an idol or representing my people. It was like the furthest, furthest, furthest thing from that. The hardest thing in the world is to change somebody’s opinion of you. ... I’ve been able to do that with a large community. So, it’s been great for me. …

And then after carrying the flag out there and seeing how much it mattered to people. People really cared. You can see it’s really important to them.

 

B/R: That’s really beautiful. When did you decide that you were going to do the Tito Ortiz thing, and have the dual flag?

Dariush: I think it was my sixth fight, which was my first fight in the UFC. I wanted to do that, because, at the end of the day, this is my dream. This place—America gave me my dream. Everything that I have is because I live in America. If I was in Iran, I wouldn’t be in the UFC. … But, I came here, and I got to do something amazing. And that’s because of America. This is my home now. So, I feel it was almost disrespectful not having the (U.S.) flag with me. I really did feel that way for a while. … I live here. I enjoy every bit of here. I do everything here. I pay my taxes. … Everything they offer, I take advantage of. So, why not? It’s one little thing.

 

Dariush after his win over Carlos Diego Ferreira at UFC 179
Dariush after his win over Carlos Diego Ferreira at UFC 179Buda Mendes/Getty Images

B/R: Yeah, I agree. Switching gears a bit, many UFC fighters were outspoken with reference to MMA not becoming legal, once again, in New York. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Dariush: It just doesn’t make sense to me. … It shouldn’t be about the politicians. It should be about the sport. It’s that simple. And it just seems like a lot of revenue they could be taking advantage of. It’s [sic] a lot of money in MMA. One show could pump the economy.

 

B/R: Another slightly political thing in regard to steroids and the UFC's new laws, the organization has become a lot stricter regarding that. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Dariush: Happy. I’m happy about this. We were at the UFC summit, and Jeff Novitzky (the UFC’s vice president of Athlete Health and Performance)… was the one doing the presentation on the testing. And they were telling me how often they were going to test the fighters. … And they said, “We’re looking to have four or five random tests a year…” It’s great. It’s really good, keeping the sport clean. Keep it honest.

 

B/R: That is very interesting. Is there anyone in the fight game that you highly respect/admire?

Dariush submitting Tony Martin at UFC Fight Night 49
Dariush submitting Tony Martin at UFC Fight Night 49Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Dariush: If we leave my teammates out, Frankie Edgar. … He’s the man. You don’t see guys like him. He’s like Rocky. … When he fights, and he fights the toughest opponents and he gets hurt, you’re like, “Aww, man. He’s done.” And then Round 2, Round 3, and then, “Let’s go, Frankie!” He’s back. He’s fighting.

 

B/R: As we wind down, is there anything else you’d like people to know about Beneil Dariush?

Dariush: For all my fans in general, I always tell them the same thing: I’m grateful for their support. As far as what I’m trying to do. … My goal is greatness through the sport and, at the same time, or more importantly, I try to honor God in my actions, as I become champion. That’s what it’s always been about for me. That’s the goal.

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This Saturday night at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, Dariush will step inside the Octagon against his first top-5 contender and will move one step closer to achieving his goal of sitting atop the lightweight division. If he is successful against the biggest test of his career in Michael Johnson, he’d more than likely be one or two fights removed from the opportunity to attain UFC gold.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted 

Twitter: @clintonbullock

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